[Paleopsych] Slate: Jack Shafer: Don't Refloat - The case against rebuilding the sunken city of New Orleans.
checker at panix.com
Sun Sep 18 01:24:45 UTC 2005
Jack Shafer: Don't Refloat - The case against rebuilding the sunken city of New
What's to rebuild?
Nobody can deny New Orleans' cultural primacy or its historical
importance. But before we refloat the sunken city, before we think of
spending billions of dollars rebuilding levees that may not hold back
the next storm, before we contemplate reconstructing the thousands of
homes now disintegrating in the toxic tang of the flood, let's
investigate what sort of place Katrina destroyed.
The city's romance is not the reality for most who live there. It's a
poor place, with about 27 percent of the population of 484,000
living under the poverty line, and it's a black place, where 67
percent are African-American. In 65 percent of families living in
poverty, no husband is present. When you overlap this New York
Times map, which illustrates how the hurricane's floodwaters inundated
80 percent of the city, with this demographic map from the Greater
New Orleans Community Data Center, which shows where the black
population lives, and this one that shows where the poverty cases
live, it's transparent whom Katrina hit the hardest.
New Orleans' public schools, which are 93 percent black, have
failed their citizens. The state of Louisiana rates 47 percent of New
Orleans schools as "Academically Unacceptable" and another 26 percent
are under "Academic Warning." About 25 percent of adults have no
The police inspire so little trust that witnesses often refuse to
testify in court. University researchers enlisted the police in an
experiment last year, having them fire 700 blank gun rounds in a
New Orleans neighborhood one afternoon. Nobody picked up the phone to
report the shootings. Little wonder the city's homicide rate stands at
10 times the national average.
This city counts 188,000 occupied dwellings, with about half occupied
by renters and half by owners. The housing stock is much older
than the national average, with 43 percent built in 1949 or earlier
(compared with 22 percent for the United States) and only 11 percent
of them built since 1980 (compared with 35 for the United States). As
we've observed, many of the flooded homes are modest to Spartan to
ramshackle and will have to be demolished if toxic mold or fire don't
take them first.
New Orleans puts the "D" into dysfunctional. Only a sadist would
insist on resurrecting this concentration of poverty, crime, and
deplorable schools. Yet that's what New Orleans' cheerleaders--both
natives and beignet-eating tourists--are advocating. They predict that
once they drain the water and scrub the city clean, they'll restore
New Orleans to its former "glory."
Only one politician, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, dared
question the wisdom of rebuilding New Orleans as it was, where it was.
On Wednesday, Aug. 31, while meeting with the editorial board of the
Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill., he cited the geographical
insanity of rebuilding New Orleans. "That doesn't make sense to me.
... And it's a question that certainly we should ask."
"It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed," Hastert added.
For his candor and wisdom, Hastert was shouted down. Sen. Mary L.
Landrieu, D-La., and others interpreted his remarks as evidence of the
Republican appetite for destruction when it comes to disaster victims.
But if you read the entire interview--reproduced here courtesy of
the Daily Herald--you might conclude that Hastert was speaking heresy,
but he wasn't saying anything ugly or even Swiftian. Klaus Jacob
seconded Hastert yesterday (Sept. 6) in a Washington Post op-ed. A
geophysicist by training, he noted that Katrina wasn't even a
worst-case scenario. Had the storm passed a little west of New Orleans
rather than a little east, the "city would have flooded faster, and
the loss of life would have been greater."
Nobody disputes the geographical and oceanographic odds against New
Orleans: that the Gulf of Mexico is a perfect breeding ground for
hurricanes; that re-engineering the Mississippi River to control
flooding has made New Orleans more vulnerable by denying it the
deposits of sediment it needs to keep its head above water; that the
aggressive extraction of oil and gas from the area has undermined the
stability of its land.
"New Orleans naturally wants to be a lake," St. Louis University
professor of earth and atmospheric sciences Timothy Kusky told
Time this week. "A city should never have been built there in the
first place," he said to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Why was it? Settlers built the original city on a curve of high flood
land that the Mississippi River had deposited over eons, hence the
nickname "Crescent City." But starting in the late 1800s and
continuing into the early 20^th century, developers began clearing and
draining swamps behind the crescent, even dumping landfill into Lake
Pontchartrain to extend the city.
To chart the aggressive reclamation, compare this map from 1798
with this one from 1908. Many of New Orleans' lower-lying
neighborhoods, such as Navarre, the Lower Ninth Ward, Lake Terrace,
and Pontchartrain Park, were rescued from the low-lying muck. The
Lower Ninth Ward, clobbered by Katrina, started out as a cypress
swamp, and by 1950 it was only half developed, according to the
Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. Even such "high" land as
City Park suffered from flooding before the engineers intervened.
By the historical standards of the 400-year-old city, many of the
heavily flooded neighborhoods are fresh off the boat.
The call to rebuild New Orleans' levee system may be mooted if its
evacuated residents decide not to return. The federal government,
which runs the flood-insurance business, sold only 85,000
residential and commercial policies--this in a city of 188,000
occupied dwellings. Coverage is limited to $250,000 for building
property and $100,000 for personal property. Because the insured can
use the money elsewhere, there is no guarantee they'll choose to
rebuild in New Orleans, which will remain extra-vulnerable until the
levees are rebuilt.
Few uninsured landlords and poor home owners have the wherewithal to
rebuild--or the desire. And how many of the city's well-off and
wealthy workers--the folks who provide the city's tax base--will
return? Will the doctors, lawyers, accountants, and professors have
jobs to return to? According to the Wall Street Journal, many
businesses are expected to relocate completely. Unless the federal
government adopts New Orleans as its ward and pays all its bills for
the next 20 years--an unlikely to absurd proposition--the place won't
Barbara Bush will be denounced as being insensitive and condescending
for saying yesterday that many of the evacuees she met in the
Astrodome would prefer to stay in Texas. But she probably got it
right. The destruction wrought by Katrina may turn out to be "creative
destruction," to crib from Joseph Schumpeter, for many of New Orleans'
displaced and dispossessed. Unless the government works mightily to
reverse migration, a positive side-effect of the uprooting of
thousands of lives will to be to deconcentrate one of the worst
pockets of ghetto poverty in the United States.
Page One of today's New York Times illustrates better than I can
how the economic calculations of individuals battered by Katrina may
contribute to the city's ultimate doom:
In her 19 years, all spent living in downtown New Orleans, Chavon
Allen had never ventured farther than her bus fare would allow, and
that was one trip last year to Baton Rouge. But now that she has
seen Houston, she is planning to stay.
"This is a whole new beginning, a whole new start. I mean, why pass
up a good opportunity, to go back to something that you know has
problems?" asked Ms. Allen, who had been earning $5.15 an hour
serving chicken in a Popeyes restaurant.
New Orleans won't disappear overnight, of course. The French Quarter,
the Garden District, West Riverside, Black Pearl, and other elevated
parts of the city will survive until the ultimate storm takes them
out--and maybe even thrive as tourist destinations and places to live
the good life. But it would be a mistake to raise the American
Atlantis. It's gone.
Apologies to Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Ernie K-Doe, Allen
Toussaint, Tipitina's, Dr. John, Clarence "Frogman" Henry, Jelly Roll
Morton, Jessie Hill, Lee Dorsey, the Meters, Robert Parker, Alvin
Robinson, Joe "King" Oliver, Kid Stormy Weather, Huey "Piano" Smith,
Aaron Neville and his brothers (falsetto is the highest expression of
male emotion), Frankie Ford, Chris Kenner, Professor Longhair, Wynton
Marsalis and family, Sidney Bechet, and Marshall Faulk. I await your
hate mail at . (E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates
Related in Slate
Click here for a full roster of Slate's Katrina coverage. Find out
how New Orleans ended up below sea level in the first place by reading
this Explainer. Earlier this year, Timothy Noah looked at the
history of Dennis Hastert's attempts to claim his independence.
For those looking for a new place to live, David Plotz weighed the
pros and cons of online city guides in 1997. And who can forget
when Hastert speculated that George Soros got his money from drug
dealers, as Jack Shafer wrote up in "Press Box."
Jack Shafer is Slate's editor at large.
What did you think of this article?
Join the Fray, our reader discussion forum
Remarks from the Fray:
Despite all arguments, however reasonable, for not rebuilding New
Orleans, it will be rebuilt.
Why? Because it is not an arrangement, an idea, a rational proposal
for housing its inhabitants. It is a three-hundred-year-old American
city, a place whose long, haunting, and instructive history is borne
into the future in the personal lives of the people who live there
currently, people for many of whom the deep associations of place
And besides, the renaissance of New Orleans will be not just a
boondoggle, but the Mother of All Boondoggles.
Despite visionary notions already being floated -- New Orleans as an
estuarine green space, a lovely green park at the mouth of the
Mississippi, a restored and imaginatively engineered coastal wetlands,
bulwark against the fury of Gulf storms -- nothing of the kind will
What will happen has already been rehearsed in lower Manhattan. If you
followed closely the intricate waltz of the players in the
reconstruction of the World Trade Center, the brutal back-room knife
fights, the posturing and politics and deal-making and, in the end,
the inevitable triumph of the dollar and its result -- the
preposterous mediocrity well on its way toward construction -- well,
now imagine the hustlers down south as the Really Big Dig gets under
And who will win? I'm just guessing -- the oil guys, the petrochemical
guys, the lumber guys, the developers and their protectors within the
political Big Top. For these folks it really is The Big Easy. Y'all
book early and come on down.
(To reply, click here)
Perhaps those who return to New Orleans, a smaller, sparser New
Orleans to be sure, can re-envision our city. Re-development should be
encouraged in the topographically highest points, rubble from the
destruction should be "greened" and then pulverized for landfill to
help raise lots. Neighborhoods should be re-platted to encourage mixed
use, mixed SES, pedestrian and streetcar friendly "old-fashioned"
neighborhoods anchored by green spaces and shiny new public schools.
Builders should be encouraged to incorporate salvaged architectural
elements and traditional "Creole" design--like raised cottages with
dormer windows and functional window shutters--that will help the city
retain its unique visual charm, and withstand potential future
hurricanes better than more modern styles (like slab foundation ranch
homes) which are hopelessly ill suited to the climate.
Restoration of the coastal wetlands is an imperative project, the
continued neglect of which will have ongoing catastrophic
repercussions for the entire nation. The successful restoration of
this frail and gorgeous eco-system could make the city of New Orleans
and the entire Gulf region safer in the future, and fuel the
renaissance of tourism. Eco-tourism in Louisiana? Who'dve thunk it?
(To reply, click here)
...You point out that New Orleans is uniquely vulnerable to hurricane
damage. That is undisputed. But are not also any other cities on the
Gulf Coast? Biloxi is not situated in a bowl, but it has been
destroyed nonetheless. Do you advocate abandoning Biloxi? Would you
advocate against rebuilding any city within striking distance of the
hurricane breeding grounds? It is also undisputed that much of coastal
California is uniquely vulnerable to earthquake damage. Would you
advocate against rebuilding San Francisco when the next Big One hits?
I don't think you would. The inevitability of another large earthquake
in the San Francisco Bay Area is what spurs people to retrofit
existing structures to withstand earthquakes. Similarly, if another
big hurricane hit on New Orleans is inevitable, then this means not
that New Orleans should be abandoned but that serious attention ought
to be given to levee protection and coastal restoration - the issues
that local officials have screaming about for years.
(To reply, click here)
Why would anyone not want a newer home, with better infrastructure, in
an area with better schools, away from assumptions and expectations
that encourage failure? This is an opportunity for a great social
experiment--allow people to choose where they want to go, free of
cultural and economic restraints, and see how they make out.
It's also an opportunity to restore the Mississippi delta by letting
the river loose. The environmental benefits would be enormous.
Why would the Left find this an offensive idea? ...
(To reply, click here)
More information about the paleopsych