Argument: People, not government, should naturally rebuild New Orleans

Issue Report: Rebuilding New Orleans


“Don’t rebuild the “old” New Orleans”. National Center for Policy Analysis. 14 Oct. 2005 – The federal government should give up the idea of rebuilding New Orleans into the city it once was, says columnist Virginia Postrel. Instead, it should allow people to rebuild their own lives wherever they choose.

Lessons can be learned from the 1995 earthquake that hit Kobe, Japan. The earthquake destroyed 100,000 buildings and severely damaged infrastructure. But one year later:

  • Kobe was exporting 83 percent of its previous level and handling as many imports as before the quake.
  • Within 18 months, manufacturing was at 98 percent of where it was prior to the quake.
  • However, the city’s physical and economic structure changed; for example, the plastic shoe industry was gone for good, and air freight expanded at the expense of the port.

The reason? Some buildings were outdated and would cost more to replace than their worth. Since economies are in constant flux, businesses adapted new technologies and new capital needs that would have eventually occurred anyway, says Postrel.

The lesson here is that the U.S. government wants to spend $100 billion to rebuild the “old” New Orleans, but according to Harvard University economist Edward L. Glaeser, the idea is foolish:

  • The Port of New Orleans employs 7,500 people but most of them are highly skilled; the oil and gas industries employ even fewer local residents.
  • New Orleans was built on the water-based advantages it had in the 19th century, not today’s century.

A better option would be to let individuals decide where to live and work. Indeed, $100 billion in the form of $75,000 for each man, woman and child in the New Orleans metro area could be spent more efficiently.

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. “Don’t bind New Orleans in red tape”. Heritage Foundation. 19 Sept. 2005 – Our federal government already has announced plans to spend $62 billion in relief for the damaged areas. No doubt the final bill will be much higher. But as lawmakers scramble to throw money at the problem, it’s worth remembering that no level of government has distinguished itself in the last several weeks. The city of New Orleans failed to evacuate its residents properly. The state of Louisiana prevented private aid agencies from going in to help victims. And onerous federal regulations delayed the building of critical levees that might have prevented the flooding in the first place.

Still, some argue that the solution is more government. Sen. Ted Kennedy. D-Mass., is proposing the creation of a Gulf Coast Regional Redevelopment Authority, to be led by a Cabinet-level official. Thus, even a public-private partnership becomes ensnared in red tape. This new layer of bureaucracy would hire thousands of construction workers, engineers and government planners, all at union wages and subject to federal labor regulations. However, we all ought to be able to agree that we shouldn’t respond to government failures by making the government larger and still more unwieldy. The best way to rebuild New Orleans will be for the government to get out of the way. Congress and state governments can do this by eliminating or reducing regulations and allowing communities to decide for themselves how best to rebuild.

Naomi Klein. “Let the People Rebuild New Orleans”. The Nation. 8 Sept 2005 – On September 4, six days after Katrina hit, I saw the first glimmer of hope. “The people of New Orleans will not go quietly into the night, scattering across this country to become homeless in countless other cities while federal relief funds are funneled into rebuilding casinos, hotels, chemical plants…. We will not stand idly by while this disaster is used as an opportunity to replace our homes with newly built mansions and condos in a gentrified New Orleans.”

The statement came from Community Labor United, a coalition of low-income groups in New Orleans. It went on to demand that a committee made up of evacuees “oversee FEMA, the Red Cross and other organizations collecting resources on behalf of our people…. We are calling for evacuees from our community to actively participate in the rebuilding of New Orleans.”

It’s a radical concept: The $10.5 billion released by Congress and the $500 million raised by private charities doesn’t actually belong to the relief agencies or the government; it belongs to the victims. The agencies entrusted with the money should be accountable to them. Put another way, the people Barbara Bush tactfully described as “underprivileged anyway” just got very rich.

Except relief and reconstruction never seem to work like that. When I was in Sri Lanka six months after the tsunami, many survivors told me that the reconstruction was victimizing them all over again. A council of the country’s most prominent businesspeople had been put in charge of the process, and they were handing the coast over to tourist developers at a frantic pace. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of poor fishing people were still stuck in sweltering inland camps, patrolled by soldiers with machine guns and entirely dependent on relief agencies for food and water. They called reconstruction “the second tsunami.”

There are already signs that New Orleans evacuees could face a similarly brutal second storm. Jimmy Reiss, chairman of the New Orleans Business Council, told Newsweek that he has been brainstorming about how “to use this catastrophe as a once-in-an-eon opportunity to change the dynamic.” The Business Council’s wish list is well-known: low wages, low taxes, more luxury condos and hotels. Before the flood, this highly profitable vision was already displacing thousands of poor African-Americans: While their music and culture was for sale in an increasingly corporatized French Quarter (where only 4.3 percent of residents are black), their housing developments were being torn down. “For white tourists and businesspeople, New Orleans’ reputation is ‘a great place to have a vacation but don’t leave the French Quarter or you’ll get shot,'” Jordan Flaherty, a New Orleans-based labor organizer told me the day after he left the city by boat. “Now the developers have their big chance to disperse the obstacle to gentrification–poor people.”

Here’s a better idea: New Orleans could be reconstructed by and for the very people most victimized by the flood. Schools and hospitals that were falling apart before could finally have adequate resources; the rebuilding could create thousands of local jobs and provide massive skills training in decent paying industries. Rather than handing over the reconstruction to the same corrupt elite that failed the city so spectacularly, the effort could be led by groups like Douglass Community Coalition. Before the hurricane this remarkable assembly of parents, teachers, students and artists was trying to reconstruct the city from the ravages of poverty by transforming Frederick Douglass Senior High School into a model of community learning. They have already done the painstaking work of building consensus around education reform. Now that the funds are flowing, shouldn’t they have the tools to rebuild every ailing public school in the city?