Here is a rather hastily written response to a Steve Chapman (Chicago Tribune) article critical of rebuilding New Orleans, which I thought leaned too far toward pessimistic abandonment, rather than optimistic and progressive-minded rebuilding:

As a New Orleanian, it's hard for me to swallow much of what Mr. Chapman wrote in the September 19 Chicago Tribune about abandoning New Orleans. Some of it is true, particularly the part about New Orleans having fought a war against nature for years and finally losing, but the optimistic side of any New Orleanian will latch on to what little room Chapman's otherwise pessimistic article leaves for the limited rebuilding of New Orleans. The question we are left asking is not whether to rebuild New Orleans but how and with what money. Before such questions can be addressed, however, its important to confront people like Chapman, who are shock-jockeying with recommendations for abandonment.

It is clear that the new New Orleans will have to harmonize with the evironment and be fit for survival in case of a category 5 hurricane. This means focusing the reconstruction on the above sea level areas of the city (which happen to be the oldest) and investing in better protection systems - in particular through wetland restoration. Chapman argues that the full cost of such rebuilding should be born by those who want to live and work there. The economic, historical, and cultural assets that New Orleans offers the United States merit greater generosity from the federal government, however, especially considering that the federal government is partially responsible for flawed public policy, neglect, and failed emergency response before and after this foreseeable disaster. I don't think that non-New Orleanian Americans would mind footing at least part of the bill for a city that many have come to love, despite its obvious problems. Afterall, it is Americans, not a deus ex machina federal government, who ultimately step forward to support fellow Americans in need - through their tax dollars, voluntary donations, and willingness to open their doors to total strangers. If the majority of Americans are willing to vote for an administration that wastes so many tax dollars for a war in Iraq, they will certainly not complain about a few dollars a year going to the reconstruction of one of their most unique cities. Besides, the majority of Americans would prefer to get New Orleanians back home, rather than have them competing for resources and upsetting political and economic balances in cities throughout America. This attitude was most evident in the long lines outside gun shops in Baton Rouge and Houston after the storm.

One should also keep in mind here that most large cities in America struggle with the widespread poverty, high unemployment, and rampant crime that Chapman cites as reasons to think twice about rebuilding New Orleans. Furthermore, if we should abandon New Orleans as non-viable in the face of Category 5 storms, we could argue the same for much of the Gulf and Atlantic coasts - from Houston to Miami to Norfolk, Virgina - as well as for cities that face the comparable risk of major earthquakes, nuclear disasters, and for that matter any number of natural or man-made catastrophes.

As for New Orleanians having a "whole continent where they can settle", Chapman reminds me of ignorant jokes that used to be made about Ethiopians "choosing" to live in a desert. It's just not that easy to go and settle somewhere else. Poor Americans don't have the resources to just up and leave everything they've ever had or known and head West for land and gold. America is not the land of milk and honey or opportunity that some would like to believe, and the compassion that many are now showing for displaced New Orleanians is unlikely to last long. Soon, these displaced persons will be treated like poor and minority Americans are treated most of the time in contemporary America, with the added disadvantage of being strangers in a strange land. Let me remind you again about the gun lines.

New Orleans needs to be rebuilt for those who want to return, and rebuilt in such a way that is environmentally, economically and socially viable. Abandoning New Orleans would mean admitting a lack of vision and missing an opportunity to build a city that, if done right, could be a model for a new, progressive and dignified urban environment that at the same time remains true to its most beloved legacy.

Michael Rolufs

ReconstructNO Home