Katrina plus 4: Move to Higher Ground

The news carries reports that some people are still living in FEMA trailers and many homes are not rebuilt four years after Hurricane Katrina.  

When a big tragedy hits, we feel the natural human desire to reach out and help the victims.   We certainly should.  But after the “first aid” and the flood waters have receded, it is time for everybody to get back to work as usual.  After four years, it is past time for the victims to be on the other side, i.e. willing and able to help others.  And it is not the government’s duty to offer indefinite help.  It starts to get abusive.   If my house burns down tonight, I don’t expect to be living in a FEMA trailer at all, much less still be there four years later. Beyond that, I learned that many of the victims were renters.  If you lose your rental home, you move and pay rent somewhere else.  The landlord takes the loss. 

I like to watch nature and science programs on TV. Going back many years, I have seen programs about the Mississippi River, New Orleans, global warming, sea level rises or all of the above.  They all said the same sorts of things.   Much of New Orleans is below sea level. Everybody knew that it was only a matter of time before a big hurricane would come and do what Katrina did.   And everybody knows it will happen again.  It is not “if” it is “when”.  And there is nothing we can do about it no matter how much we spend.  Those low-lying parts of the city should not be inhabited at all today or tomorrow and they should not have been occupied yesterday.  It was a mistake. The destruction of the wetlands to build these areas was a slow motion tragedy. The clock was set ticking a century ago.  We just didn’t see it until the big one hit.  Actually, we did see it, as all the nature show programs said; we just didn’t care, sort of like today. It gets worse. Global warming will cause sea levels to rise. Those lands currently below sea level will be even further below sea level.  Building/rebuilding is just a waste of time and a cruel hoax on anybody living there.

Let’s say it plainly. Start with the good news.  Those parts of New Orleans that are above sea level (including many of the historical areas) can and should be preserved. The port areas can be rebuilt and enhanced.    BUT New Orleans must become a smaller city. The parts of the city that are at or below sea level should not be rebuilt. 

The best use would be to make some of these erstwhile flooded neighborhoods, such as the 9th Ward, into wet forest or “walking” wet land used for agriculture. Letting these places return to a more natural state will serve to protect the salvageable and more valuable real estate.  There is really no other practical or ethical course. 

We should stop promising or implying that people will be returning to their homes on these once and future swamps, bayous and lakes.   It makes absolutely no sense from either the ecological or the economic point of view.   This goes beyond New Orleans, BTW.  

Decisions about where to build should be local decisions.   In most cases, I would not deny someone the right to build on his own property, even if I thought the choice was stupid.  But we should not help.  Much stupid development comes down to subsidized insurance.   If no private company will insure your new home, maybe there is a reason. The risk is too high. We certainly should not subsidize your bad decision.   W/o the unnatural public subsidy for  insurance to live on unstable places, most people would not build on barrier islands, flood plains, loose slopes … or below sea level in New Orleans.

We need to be realistic.   Some places are just not suited to some uses.   It is a tragedy if your house is destroyed by a flood … once.   If it starts to become a habit maybe you are just stupid.  Stupidity is not against the law and maybe you have a good reason to keep moving back, but stupidity shouldn’t receive government subsidies. 

The U.S has a lot of land.  We are not like Holland.  We don’t need to build billion dollar levees to protect hundred dollar real estate, nor should we sacrifice nature to our hubris.   We should help our fellow citizens in such situations, but we should help them move to higher ground.

There is an old joke about a preacher and a flood.   During a big flood, a preacher was trapped on the roof of his church.    A boat came by.   They said, “Reverend, get in.  It is still raining in the hills and the whole town will be covered.”  The preacher said, “I trust in the Lord.  He will save me.”  A second boat comes and it is the same.   Then comes a third boat.  The guy in the third boat tells the preacher, “Listen, this is the last boat.  Everybody else is out.  It is still raining.  Get in!”   The preacher just responds, “I trust the Lord.  He will save me.”    The last boat leaves.  Finally the preacher is up to his neck in water.   He looks toward heaven and says, “I trusted you to save me.  Why have you forsaken me?”   The Lord answers, “I sent three boats; why didn’t you get into one of them?”

Victims cannot always dictate the terms of their salvation.   Sometimes there are more important considerations.