Determination or Foolishness?

There’s a fine line between determination in the face of adversity, and stubborn bloody-mindedness.

After September 11th, when terrorists knocked down the two tallest buildings in the USA, the prevailing view seemed to be “Let’s build another massive building! That’ll show those darn terrorists!” I have a feeling that a similar idea is forming over in America relating to the flooded city of New Orleans – “Let’s build it right back up again! That’ll show that darn storm!”

The site of New Orleans has been suffering from serious subsidence for decades, and it’s only going to get worse. OK, so the old version had to stay there for historical reasons. But now most of it is gone – any building flooded for more than a couple of weeks is going to have to be condemned – and America has a chance to get it right. You have two options: spend billions of dollars on flood defences like the Dutch (who don’t really have a choice about it), or do the sensible thing, treat the old, flooded city as the buffer zone you are otherwise going to have to artificially create, and build New2 Orleans further inland. Think about if – if you were picking a site to build a city, would land that is below sea level and subsiding rapidly, sandwiched between a lake, a river and the sea, in an area historically prone to flooding and hurricanes, be on your shortlist?

It would be great if, after mature reflection, it was decided to do the sensible thing. But I don’t hold out much hope. Political expediency will prevail, the current site will be cleared and reused at eye-watering expense, and the next generation will get flooded out of their homes again in forty years time, when the current crop of politicians are safely retired.

33 thoughts on “Determination or Foolishness?

  1. Wow, thank you.

    Finally a voice of reason. New Orleans makes little to no sense as a city, it will always be an ancident waiting to happen.

    The one element missing from the disgustingly opportunistic TV coverage is the phrase “personal responsibility.”

    Sadly, liberals have converted a “can-do” nation into a nation of “blame somebody, anybody, but never otherselves.”

  2. “blame somebody, anybody, but never otherselves.”
    excuse me?
    are you telling me that you support oh so awesomely conservative Dubya that never blames anyone?
    Mr. President whos fault was it that you thought there were WMDs in Iraq?
    Dubya: oh uh it was the CIAs fault.

    Mr. President why wasnt the army prepared for the Iraq war?
    Dubya: oh that was the Pentagons fault.

    Mr. President why werent you prepared for the NOLA debacle?
    Dubya: oh we were prepared we were only late by 5 days and it was the Mayors/Governors fault that the federal Gov was not able to help.

    etc.

  3. You’re correct about the overall sensibility of things.

    Politics are not the ONLY roadblock regarding “moving” New Orleans, however: land ownership is the big one.

    Many people own small pieces of land in New Orleans, whereas different people own the land you’d move the city to. Reconciling that problem is difficult.

    Also, much of the rebuilding will be done by various land owners, though the government will loan a lot of money towards the project. So really what you’re complaining about is that many people will be stupid enough to build back up on a parcel they own, even though it’s going to get wiped out again eventually. That is indeed stupid, but the target of the annoyance is individuals rather than government.

  4. There’s also another option. They could fill in the land so as to bring the city up to or above sea-level. Seattle did that about a hundred years ago for its downtown.

  5. Actually, the historical centre of New Orleans lies mostly above sea-level (the Fench and Spanish weren’t stupid). It’s the ‘modern’ part of the town that got hit the worst.

  6. well, i hoppe that at least one good thing comes out of this: bush must stop spreading the “no global warming” “we don’t reducen anything cause we are USA” messages …

  7. Peter’s right – the people who will make the decision about whether to rebuild or not are the land owners, not the government.

    And personally, if I was running a business which I was going to have to rebuild one way or the other, I would rather start rebuilding it now outside New Orleans, rather than have to wait 6 months before I could even get started.

    Likewise, if I lived in New Orleans I wouldn’t want to have to spend a year or more living with relatives or in hotel rooms – I’d find somewhere to live somewhere else.

    I think the problem is going to be how can the residents afford to move or rebuild when their property is now worth a fraction of what it was. Hopefully the majority of the poorest were renting, which would allow them to move more easily.

  8. Bush won’t stop the “no global warming” line – he will just say that America has always had hurricanes and this was just a bad one.

  9. Global Warming actually cools the water because of arctic melt off and this is the hurricane season and we’ve see worse ones, so blaming this on global warming is like blaming your not being able to get a date on Global Warming. They have nothing to do with one another. All the reputable scientists already told the ignorant reporters this. :-/

  10. Global Warming actually cools the water because of arctic melt off and this is the hurricane season and we’ve see worse ones, so blaming this on global warming is like blaming your not being able to get a date on Global Warming. They have nothing to do with one another. All the reputable scientists already told the ignorant reporters this. :-/

  11. Deacon Nikolai: sorry dude either you are misinformed or you are just dumb, Global warming does not cool tropical/sub-tropical waters, where most of these hurricanes are born/gather energy (i.e Gulf of Mexico). Your statement is true about subarctic waters. Infact the mean sea surface temperature has been rising.

  12. Peter Kasting: ownership is indeed an issue – although I suspect that there are going to be a lot of legal tangles over the old land, as documents got washed away and as people find that they can’t actually prove they own the land they’ve occupied for 100+ years. But there are ways around that – either monetary compensation, or land swaps into the new area.

    jhermans: I heard the French Quarter was under 4-6 feet of water…?

    Grey Hodge: the Dutch spend $5 billion a year on water management. OK, so New Orleans isn’t quite as big, but does the US Government really want to find that sort of money? History says no.

  13. I think i have seen plenty of news reports about how the french quater is still above sea level. Its not the hole city thats been flooded, and normaly those who got their first go for the hoght ground.
    Now then, whos falt is it that the pepople who arrived later built on the flood plains. in the Uk, after any flood (with usial old off flood plains, safe / new built on flood plains, destroyed metrics) its a case of, whay didnt the planning department sop the developments… you dont raly get any ansers (only “it wont happen again”…)

  14. Ian Thomas: Here’s an article on MSNBC about this – http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/8046526/
    In a nutshell, the scientists who concentrate on hurricanes say this recent trend of stronger hurricane seasons is a natural cycle. Some climatologists disagree, but that view isn’t widely held.

  15. Dennis Hastert, the House Speaker (I think), said exactly this — rebuild New Orleans somewhere else. His spokescreature later had to “clarify” his statement after various New Orleans leaders screamed about “kicking us while we’re down”.

    So I agree that stupidity will probably prevail. But it’s nice that at least some people on both sides of this divided country can see sense.

  16. “the Dutch spend $5 billion a year on water management.”

    Do we? Heh, cool :).

    “OK, so New Orleans isn’t quite as big”

    Of course, not the entirity of Holland is below sea-level. Actually, I found a nice map:

    http://www.ahn.nl/demo/ahn0m.jpg

    The blue is below sea-level. I live on green, but not too far from the blue. Anyways, I do not at all feel unsafe living here. But, we don�t have hurricanes which cause huge waves and wreck our dykes.

    ~Grauw

  17. A point all the ‘move the city’ people are missing is that New Orleans is the 5th largest port in the *WORLD*. It’s there for a reason, it brings together the huge shipping lane that is the Mississippi River which is the most common transportation route from the central and southern states of the US and receives vast amounts of traffic from international shipping for when NY and LA are too far away from their final destination within the US. There is no other location to put this port. It can’t be moved to another minor river that dumps into the Gulf of Mexico. And you can’t move it further upriver because of space constraints. And you can’t have the workers live over 100 kilometers away which is what would be required if you leave the port where it is but make the housing ‘safe’.

  18. nobody: I’ve just done a quick search for “global warming” and hurricane, and the articles that I found (including one from a us government website) suggest the opposite – that experts think global warming is effecting hurricanes, just not by that much and its probably not causing extra ones, just making ones that would have happened worse.

    Either way, it all seems to be a case of “We don’t really know, but… [here's our guess]”

    http://www.gfdl.noaa.gov/~tk/glob_warm_hurr.html
    http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1099102,00.html
    http://news.bostonherald.com/national/view.bg?articleid=100612

  19. You could move the majority of the city and leave port and worker facilities in their own little town next to the restored-for-tourists French Quarter.

  20. I have to agree that the current geographical setting for New Orleans is pretty vulnerable, but there’s more going on than just “let’s rebuild this damaged city, regardless of the cost”. I just read an article at Stratfor (http://www.stratfor.com/news/archive/050903-geopolitics_katrina.php ) that points out the economical importantance of New Orleans, and why it’s pretty much necessary that something be there.

  21. Some years ago, the government actually moved a town in Kentucky (US) onto higher ground after a pretty bad flood, because the town was constantly being flooded. But that town had a population of, oh, a couple thousand. We’re talking about a big city here, and you’d be hard-pressed to get over a million people to do the same.

    It’s not just because of stubbornness or politics: many of my relatives live in New Orleans; some of them evacuated, and some didn’t. None of them wants to leave the city for good, though. Their lives are there; they only intend to stay in other states temporarily, because picking up and moving permanently is too much for them.

    My relatives are relatively well-off; they have cars, and technically, they have the ability to move. But what about those who aren’t as well-to-do – for example, those who had to stay in the Superdome because they had no means of evacuation? What about those not in a good financial situation before the storm; how will they find the means to move? Most of my relatives still have a job to return to in New Orleans, once everything is sorted out. In Houston or in Dallas or in California, they’d have a hard time finding decent work; the job markets there are tight enough.

    New Orleans was hit pretty hard, but it’s not as if the slate has been wholly wiped clean. The flooding, in fact, only affected the east bank of the metropolitan area – many parts of the Westbank seemed to have received only minimal damage. The government might take some land near the waterways to make room for strengthened floodwalls or buffer zones. To declare a larger portion of the city “off-limits,” however, might be asking for too much. See, you’re not really asking to move New Orleans, just declare it uninhabitable. Because there really is nowhere else to put the city – there’s already someone everywhere else you go.

  22. Minh: it’s actually often easier for poor people to move – as they are renting (sometimes with Government money), they can just rent somewhere else. It’s harder for people whose body of capital is now under six feet of water… As for your last point, I refuse to believe the USA, or even Louisiana, is full to capacity.

  23. from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_Quarter :

    “When Hurricane Katrina had a large effect on New Orleans, the French Quarter was one of few places in the city not flooded, since it was built on dry land that predated New Orleans’ levee systems and sits 5 feet (1.5 metres) above sea level.”

    That’s what I meant with “the French and Spanish weren’t stupid”. They’ve build the city on the highest ground ofcourse. The problem is that sea level is the average between low tide and high tide :-)


  24. “But I don’t hold out much hope.”

    Hope for what Gerv? How could rebuilding or abandonding possible affect you in any way, shape or form? What could you possibly hold out hope for? That for once, the American people would stop being American and listing to your mighty advice as to how to run our lives?

    Why do you feel the constant need to berate us for the things we do, however INSIGNIFICANT it might be in your life? Is it just any chance to complain out our political process, our leaders, our government, our way of life, or whatever?

    I know this sound immature, but please, STFU… please, just STFU for once.

  25. Daniel: Just general hope that sense will prevail, as it very often doesn’t. And this certainly isn’t an American monopoly – I apologise if I have given the impression that I think that. Our government does dumb stuff too. Perhaps I should point it out more often.

  26. The poor may be able to move easily, but what about when they arrive at their new “home”? Will it be any easier for them to find work? They can’t live on charity forever.

  27. Daniel Beckham: I have a feeling the base opinion (it’s a bad idea) would be no different had the hurricane destroyed another sub-sealevel land area prone to further future disasters, and the plan of action was to rebuild it in the same area.

  28. Apparently, some of our friends in the UK think it’s OK to turn a blind eye. Are they saying it serves us right?

    Contrarty to what you write, there isn’t much feeling over here along the lines of “that’ll teach that storm!”, rather we are all pretty stunned. On the other hand, we do sense quite a bit of “That’ll teach those wily Americans!” from you Brits.

    Our BBC Friends

    It may not have been wise to build N.O. where it is, but it is where it is. The city is largely destroyed and the activities and time to bulldoze, rebuild, move, or otherwise deal with what’s left is beyond comprehension.

    Thanks.

  29. To Daniel, “Disappointed” and others:

    Yes, I think it is true to say that public opinion internationally has become more anti-USA during Bush Jr’s presidency. Of course it is not for anyone else to dictate to the Americans who to vote for, but when the people chose to re-elect a leader who was known at the time to be extremely unpopular outside the USA (see Guardian article) then that was saying that international opinion of the USA was not a high electoral priority for the American people. OK, their choice.

    But the Guardian article I linked to above also makes it clear that people “make a clear distinction between [hostility to the US] and expressing a dislike of American people. On average 68% of those polled say they have a favourable opinion of Americans.” For this reason, I think it’s quite wrong to draw links to reactions to the hurricane, to claim that people are in some way gloating or taking a “That’ll teach those Americans” approach.

    A disaster like this is a human tragedy, and British people I know have been shocked by what happened, and have every sympathy for the victims. The BBC article that “Disappointed” linked to says that the reason why people are reluctant to give financial support is that the USA has the financial resources to fund the relief effort itself, so we are not convinced that foreign aid is needed in the same way as for e.g. the Asian tsunami. I honestly think that it really is as simple as that. Of course there will be the occasional individual with extreme views, but by and large, you shouldn’t try to read into it any more than that; most people do not like to see their fellow human beings suffer.

  30. I’m not sure if it’s really foolishness to rebuild. However, rebuilding should be done wisely. Don’t rebuild in the lowest-lying areas, build in a way which allows hurricanes to hit and floods to happen without significant damage, etc. Perhaps the wisest thing is to rebuild as a port town, but move the majority of the city further inward.