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Reconstruction after hurricane must be guided by wise planning

Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review

Pity New Orleans.

Back of its famed French Quarter and Garden District lies a city of poverty submerged in a foul stew that pumping, when it begins, will take weeks to remove. Tens of thousands of residents did not have the means to flee as Katrina approached the city, and nowhere to go if they could. Civic officials directed survivors to the Superdome without making adequate provision for their care. And the mayor has the nerve to scold federal officials for their delay in responding to the crisis?

The long-anticipated Big One finally hit the Big Easy, and the Big Blame game has begun.

But the challenge for the nation is to respond with the compassion shown the victims to the tsunamis that struck Southeast Asia in January, and the sense of purpose that followed the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks four years ago.

President Bush has acknowledged the destruction done by Katrina in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama far exceeds that done by the 9/11 attackers. Federal assistance — water, food, medical supplies — is already on the way. An initial $10 billion congressional appropriation will sustain the relief effort for the next few weeks. But the real work and expense will be repairing infrastructure. The bills for that effort will end up in Washington, D.C.

Mississippi is the poorest of the United States. Louisiana is only slightly better off. Individual poverty rates are roughly double those for the nation as a whole. Together, the two states generate just 2 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. So how does Katrina help?

Whatever claims Mississippi can make to an economic resurgence in recent years are based on the rise of the Gulf Coast casinos that lie beached, sunk, ruined. Gone for months ahead are many of the 20,000 casino jobs and $500,000 a day poured into state coffers. Take away the oil and gas industry — and Katrina tried — and Louisiana loses a huge chunk of its economy. Ditto tourism.

In short, these are states without the resources a California has to rebuild after an earthquake, or a Florida after its annual hurricane slugfest. And Katrina’s destruction dwarfs anything those two states, or any other state, have endured at the hands of man or nature. Most damage estimates are put in terms of insured losses. Are they even the half of it? Katrina’s victims are going to need lots of help.

Some corporations are responding admirably — Exxon Mobil and Wal-Mart with pledges of $2 million each, for example — but the private sector can best respond by putting its own facilities back in order and rehiring people as quickly as possible.

Other nations have offered assistance. Among them is Venezuela, whose leader Rev. Pat Robertson last week said we should assassinate.

Our own charitable organizations will be pushed to their limits, assisted by concerts and telethons that were so effective in raising money for tsunami victims.

Meanwhile, the nation can gear up to repair shattered highways, bridges, levees and housing. But perhaps officials should take the time while the pumps do their work and the bulldozers push aside the stickworks that were homes in Biloxi to consider how and where to rebuild. After repeated flooding along the upper Mississippi River in the 1980s and 1990s, for example, the federal government finally had the sense to relocate communities out of the flood plain to higher ground. New Orleans squats below the Mississippi’s surface all the time, not just during floods.

In Mississippi, people have lived for decades on what are basically sand bars, defenseless against the kind of storm surge Katrina hurled through miles of waterfront.

We need to decide what is defensible ground in these areas, and what is not. Mississippi is already discussing legislation that will allow casinos to come ashore instead of having them float — or not — on barges. If that makes sense for businesses, it ought to make sense for homes that are equally vulnerable.

As for New Orleans, well, New Orleans is going to remain in New Orleans. Billions have been spent over the years to keep it there. It was not enough. Sadly, many officials knew this and did not or could not do anything about it.

The job can be done. If the Dutch can hold off the North Sea, New Orleans can be protected against the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain. But maybe not all of it. The reconstruction effort should not start off with a vision of what was, but what will be, so that when the next Big One comes spinning out of the Gulf of Mexico, future generations do not see a replay of the chaos that has overtaken a city better prepared for Mardi Gras.

Pity New Orleans, but let’s not set it up for another fall.

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