Why should we bother rebuilding New Orleans?

From former State Rep. Chris Beck (D-Portland) in today's Oregonian:

Friends often ask me why we should even consider rebuilding New Orleans, a city that's below sea level, prone to hurricanes and susceptible to all that global warming might bring.

My response:

First, New Orleans is our Venice. Should the world abandon Venice?

Second, New Orleans is our man-made Grand Canyon, our Yellowstone and Yosemite. It is where jazz and the blues -- our music -- found their roots after slavery's descendants developed a voice away from the plantation. Today, it is home to the largest collection of historic buildings in the country.

Finally, New Orleans is where we are reminded of the great social struggle -- racial and class conflict -- that has plagued our nation since its inception. More slaves passed through New Orleans than any other American port. The lavish fortunes built in the 19th century off the backs of cheap labor are on proud exhibit in Uptown.

New Orleans is where African Americans of European descent (aka Creoles) had rights, received educations, owned businesses and where people of color even owned slaves, a legacy that plays out in complicated ways today.

New Orleans was the home of Homer Plessy, a light-skinned black man who was denied a seat on a train car in 1892. He appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided against him, cementing the "separate but equal" doctrine for more than 60 years and fostering discrimination to this day.

And now it is the place where Katrina landed to display America's enduring struggle for all on television.

If we can't, or don't want to, save New Orleans, then we are essentially abdicating our national responsibility to get it right when it comes to the most troubling parts of our history: slavery and its troublesome aftermath. Yes, of course, plenty of other cities have racial problems that can and should be dealt with. But New Orleans is where the best and worst of it has found voice, and it behooves us to save this cherished chunk of our past and present, to understand our past so we can be reminded we still have a lot of work to do.

Read the accompanying piece here.

  • Al E. Gateur (unverified)

    To not Re-build in some fashion would be against human nature...being a life long resident of New Orleans, I can promise that it will be "unique" and unfortunately for the time being is being driven by the worst of human nature... a lot of greed. Still many individuals have given selflessly in the face on an obviously inept government so even with all the BS it could be worse... like north korea.

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    Friends often ask me why we should even consider rebuilding New Orleans, a city that's below sea level, prone to hurricanes and susceptible to all that global warming might bring.

    The same can be said for many cities in this country. In my home county in Texas (Galveston County), very little of the area is above sea level. Average elevation is around 7'. The part of the town I lived in was originally called "Alta Loma," which means high hill. That was a translation of the words used by the Native Americans who sold the land to the "white man." While it was probably one of the few times they had the upper hand, the area does indeed have the highest point in the county. It's something like 30'. Most of the town, though, is at or below sea level - being more than a few feet above sea level is an abnormality around there - likely you brought in fill to get it that high. The entire area used to be marshy and swampy until fill was brought in and the area made more habitable. It's still filled with poisonous water snakes, mosquitos, and crocs, though.

    Even Houston is only 50' in elevation, which is why it is prone to flooding many times a year.

    Just because an area is prone to problems doesn't mean we shouldn't do something about it. Just about every city along the coast has this problem. Just about any city could be hit by a major disaster. It's not fun, nor easy, to clean up after a disaster. I remember it taking months to clean up after Hurricane Alisha hit our town in the early 1980s. But you rebuild, and you try to make things better so next time you can avoid the disaster you had before.

    Galveston Island was all but wiped out in 1900. Estimates put the number of dead between 6,000 to 12,000. There are some pretty heartbreaking stories, especially about the orphanage that was at the beach. Very few buildings survived - I've visited a few that did. Did they give up on Galveston? No. They built up the city more than 10', put up a concrete sea wall, and piled huge chunks of granite in front of the sea wall (breaks up storm surges and helps protect the wall). Shortly after the work was completed, a comparable storm hit and there was very little damage and few deaths.

    You have to look at what happened, where the failures were, and try to fix them as best you can. Unfortunately, we're stuck with a joke of an administration that couldn't protect a town at low tide, let alone a Cat 5 hurricane.

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    Thank you, Chris Beck, for this editorial. Great stuff.

    I tend to be pretty unsympathetic toward people who rebuild over and over in flood plains along the Mississippi (and elsewhere) and refuse to get flood insurance... but that behavior is a far cry from what happened in New Orleans.

    I believe that the Bush Administration lost the support of the American people when Katrina and its aftermath happened. The War continues to be a major anchor around their popularity, but Katrina gave otherwise pro-GOP Americans permission to re-examine their assumptions about the competence of this administration.

    If Democrats are to succeed in building a new and durable long-term majority, we must end this war and rebuild New Orleans.

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    I do not think the choice in New Orleans is either to rebuild or not to rebuild. The choices are more complex. First, like flood plains and coastal areas the general public should not be subsidizing insurance on properties that regularly get destroyed. People should buy their own insurance or not build there. Second, cannot many of the historic aspects of New Orleans be saved without the massive investments needed to have people live anywhere (below sea level) they want. So maybe only parts of the city are rebuilt. Third, many of the people who once lived in New Orleans have moved on in their lives. They are not going to move back. New Orleans will never be the same whatever public investments are made there. And fourth, especially as the Democrats take control of the national government, we should be squeaky clean (as in no corruption or waste) in any public works projects.

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    Good stuff, Chris.

    But the rhetorical logic can be extended: then we should rebuild Detroit? For it is the home to other musical traditions, a huge symbol about America's relationship of class and race, and is our, um, Rome?

    When does it end? How much will we spend? Who should pay for it?

    I tend to agree with the midpoint: it's reasonable to build back some places in New Orleans, but we should use the opportunity to rebuild smarter. The previous land pattern doesn't make much sense, just as various other land patterns across the U.S. don't make much sense.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Chris Beck lists many good reasons to rebuild the Big Easy. There is one good reason that not rebuilding may make sense:

    New Orleans is more endangered by the effects of Global Warming than any other major US city . Rising sea levels and intensified hurricanes are a double whammy. To secure what we rebuild, we must rebuild and raise the insufficient levees. We must reverse the destruction of coastal wetlands. We must reverse Global Warming.

    Does the resolve for all this exist, because we need to do it all to succeed? I do not see such resolve today. It would be better for the people of New Orleans to help them relocate successfully, than to set them up for repeated disaster. That is not satisfying for all the reasons Chris Beck enumerates, but it is preferable to pretending to care while not following through responsibly.

  • Dispalced Oregano (unverified)

    I've thought all along that they should build a new, tall levy all around New Orleans.
    Then divert the Mississippi INTO it for a few years to drop all that midwestern topsoil there until the place is at least a little above sea level. Then rebuild.

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    As was shown on Galveston island in the early 1900s, you don't have to divert the river to do the infill. You can do it yourselves. If they could build up a barrier island to make it a heck of a lot safer in the early 1900s, we should be able to do the same a hundred years later with the technology we have now.

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    Sorry, guys, but this was nauseating. Why rebuild New Orleans? As a friend said this weekend: "Because our government broke it, because it is culturally valuable, because we are Americans."

    There was no mention of the federal failure to rebuild the levees, and this amateur urban planner, Dick, appears to have missed New Orleans' Jackson Square, which is not only a hell of a lot more pleasant than Jamison Square, said my friend (less pedophiles hanging around, apparently), but also predates it by about 250 years.

    Jackson usually has a couple of pickup jazz bands jamming on the corners, plein-aire painters hanging their works on the fences, people strolling and eating local food, others flopped in the grass reading a book?

    Dick was "almost crying," sitting in Jamison square? Because his morning jogs on the Mississippi weren't as pleasant as the ones on the Willamette? Because his lazy, blaze effort at a serious subject is an insult to journalism? Why?

    To see the fawning over such bad writing here is sickening.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    Two points should be considered with regard to New Orleans. First is that The Netherlands (Holland) has had about one third of its land surface below sea level for centuries during which violent storms off the North Sea repeatedly attacked the dikes with little damage to the land. Second, the Dutch have long had a strong sense of civic responsibility towards their nation which stands in strong contrast the the reputation for corruption in New Orleans and Louisiana. Now the people of New Orleans are paying for their toleration of that corruption. We would do well to consider what will happen if the people continue to show a similar indifference to the corruption that exists here on a national level.

    On a lighter note, I once asked some Dutch people about the story of the little boy who stuck his finger in a leaking dike to plug the hole. They had never heard of it.

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    There's a political component to all of this too. Has anyone else noticed that Republicans in Louisiana are enjoying successes that they've never had before?

    Might there not be a direct causal relationship to the decisions to hire outside contractors (many employing illegal aliens) to rebuild N.O. at the expense of the displaced residents of the 9th ward and other low lying areas?

    In any event, there are thousands of people/voters who will probably never return due to the way this mess was handled.

  • andy (unverified)

    Hey, if the folks who live in NO want to rebuild the city and pay for it themselves then I don't really care. If they want me to pay for it then I guess I get to voice my opinion. And if asked I'll tell them that I'm not interested in funding a stupid idea like building a bunch of crappy shotgun houses in a flood zone. But like I said before, if they don't want any federal tax money to rebuild then they can do whatever they want.

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    I thought this was "Blue" Oregon? Doesn't that mean democrats?

    Forgive me, the colors are the wrong way round in my home country. Not that it probably matters, these days.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    But like I said before, if they don't want any federal tax money to rebuild then they can do whatever they want.

    You can bet federal money will be spent rebuilding New Orleans and that it will go to the well-connected just as it went to friends of Haley Barbour in Mississippi.

  • Israel Bayer (unverified)

    I believe Kevin Allman says it all.

  • Calling out Beck's bullshit
  • The editorial is garbage in twelve different ways.