Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Human folly

I actually have a lot to talk about today, but I can't get past the one compelling topic, and there is too much to say about that. I think that many people share my own fear about responding immediately because a day or a month later it might not feel appropriate, but what the heck, this is an ephemeral medium.

The political and civil authorities in Louisiana and Washington all knew that one day, if nothing was done, New Orleans would be under water. The experts on regional hydrology predicted precisely what is happening today, in all of its horror. We knew this. But while we have spent untold billions of dollars preparing for the possibility that somebody might set off a bomb in a subway or hijack and airplane, nobody spent a nickel to either prevent or prepare for a catastrophe that is beyond what a thousand terrorists could hope to achieve in decades.

On the contrary. The federal government subsidized flood insurance, making it possible to build in places that would have been completely undevelopable given a "free" market. The Army Corps of Engineers channeled the Mississippi and caused the destruction of the marshes that formerly protected the city. And oh yeah, we kept spewing CO2 into the atmosphere, increasing the risk of powerful storms.

There are innumerable observations one can make. How it is the poor and vulnerable who were left behind to suffer the immediate consequences. How the situation and behavior of the survivors is framed and interpreted in racist and elitist terms. How disgracefully self-centered and ineffectual has been the response of the "president" of the country. Here he is on August 30.

But I'm going to talk about denial. Yesterday, the Army Corps of Engineers confidently predicted that they would have the levees repaired within a few hours. The Governor continues to say that they'll have the city dry within a month, the electricity back on, and people going home. The American Public Health Association just sent me an e-mail saying that the downtown business district is not badly damaged and they're planning to go ahead with the annual meeting on November 5. The New York Times is editorializing that we all need to pitch in and help New Orleans rebuild.

Here's what I think. Let us suppose that eventually -- I do not believe it will be less than a month, or even close to it, but eventually -- they get the levees sealed up and the water pumped out. Then they start to cart away the bodies and debris, shovel out the toxic muck, demolish the structurally damaged buildings, somehow raise tens of billions of dollars from the taxpayers of Lousiana and/or the United States to replace the washed out streets, water mains, sewers, electrical system, communications systems, bridges. Then they start to build again.

Wait, let's stop right there. You're a developer. You're considering investing tens of millions of dollars to build or repair a high rise in downtown New Orleans, or rebuild a residential subdivision on the outskirts. It's still below sea level. There are still hurricanes. Nobody will sell you insurance in a million years. What do you decide?


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