If there's a future for New Orleans, it revolves primarily around the restoration of wetlands and barrier islands. Athenae wrote a fine post recently about the possibility of Katrina inaugurating a second New Deal, and I agree that this is necessary. The model here should be the Civilian Conservation Corps, which operated from 1934 to 1941. It put millions of economically distressed people to work maintaining and restoring America's wetlands, forests, beaches, and parks. Its educational program taught literacy and other skills, and these programs had a remarkably high utilization rate (up to 80%, in some cases).
The CCC was one of the most successful programs of the New Deal, and was popular even among Roosevelt-haters. That said, it wasn't perfect. For instance, the CCC destroyed an incredible amount of wetlands, an error for which we're still paying a considerable price today. However, the basic concept of the CCC is proven; it could be improved upon if we had intelligent leaders who were willing to listen to scientists, and who understood that the currently fashionable ideological objections to federal works projects are the product of empty-headed dogmatism.
This isn't the first time I've made this argument. But it's the first time I've seen it echoed across the country. Take, for instance, this editorial from the Dallas Morning News:
The Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps gave work and hope to thousands who had lost it. Those exact models may not work for Katrina's diaspora, but the imaginative thinking they embodied is urgently required.Very true. And if we heeded that cry, a good deal of the remediation and rebuilding in the wake of Katrina would be done by the hurricane victims themselves. Compensation would be flexible; the program would give participants such options as the ability to earn college tuition credits for themselves and their children, or to make payments towards a house or apartment in the rebuilt area. The wetlands would be restored and protected, and any objections from the oil and gas industry - whose predations are responsible for about one-third of their destruction - would be ignored as the prattling of myopic dead-enders.
Government has gotten a bad name through the years, but history shows that bold government action can galvanize a despairing people when it is designed to restore dignity as well as material sufficiency. We could do worse as we embark on this great social experiment than to let that lesson from our past cry out to us in the coming days.
Dealing with the aftermath of Katrina intelligently would also be of tremendous value to science, the economy, and other threatened cities, as Scientific American makes clear:
Fixing the delta would serve as a valuable test case for the country and the world. Coastal marshes are disappearing along the eastern seaboard, the other Gulf Coast states, San Francisco Bay and the Columbia River estuary for many of the same reasons besetting Louisiana. Parts of Houston are sinking faster than New Orleans. Major deltas around the globe--from the Orinoco in Venezuela, to the Nile in Egypt, to the Mekong in Vietnam--are in the same delicate state today that the Mississippi Delta was in 100 to 200 years ago. Lessons from New Orleans could help establish guidelines for safer development in these areas, and the state could export restoration technology worldwide. In Europe, the Rhine, Rhône and Po deltas are losing land. And if sea level rises substantially because of global warming in the next 100 years or so, numerous low-lying coastal cities such as New York would need to take protective measures similar to those proposed for Louisiana.Countries like the Netherlands have plenty of expertise to share with us, if we care to listen. Perhaps we could even improve on their ideas.
What about the cost? Scientific American has one estimate, in what I presume are 2001 dollars:
Late in 1998 the governor's office, the state's Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service and all 20 of the state's coastal parishes published Coast 2050--a blueprint for restoring coastal Louisiana. No group is bound by the plan, however, and if all the projects were pursued, the price tag would be $14 billion.In George W. Bush's America, where $9 billion can vanish into the aether without raising any eyebrows, $14 billion is chicken feed. Congress has earmarked $52 billion for Katrina. At least a third of that money should go towards restoring wetlands and rebuilding the barrier islands, and displaced New Orleans residents should get the first shot at the jobs.
Easier said than done, of course. But things can and do change. I've seen people who were trying desperately to die turn themselves around, and I think countries can do it too. These people - as often as not - believed themselves worthless, for whatever reason, and I have a feeling that beneath all our nationalistic bluster, that may be our real problem. As the editorialist above notes, we're a despairing people. And why not? We're lectured continually about rights and considerations we not only can't have, but don't deserve. We don't deserve healthcare, we don't deserve a living wage or safe working conditions, we don't deserve better schools or cleaner air or cleaner water.
In my view, this amounts to a not terribly subtle way of telling us that we're worthless. Many Americans have apparently internalized this abuse to the point that they believe it, and have learned to take pride in their own degradation, as people so often do. But it begins to look as though the modest hopes we're allowed, by the political and religious jackals who fancy themselves our tutors in the science of living, are perhaps not enough to live on comfortably, even for those who are most eager to try. The ceaseless anger that animates so many believers in American exceptionalism seems to me to be powered more by fear and despair than anything else. At any rate, it surely doesn't advertise contentment.
Robert M. Jeffers notes that Bangladesh - one of the poorest countries on earth - is sending us $1 million, and comments on how odd it is "to realize the world cares about us, even when we don't care about them, even when we don't, as a nation, care about our own."
Seeing ourselves through the lens of a poor nation's pity ought to be instructive. Perhaps our power and wealth and possessions don't impress people - or excite their envy - quite as much as we used to think. Perhaps they don't impress us much anymore, either, and it's time to look elsewhere for meaning. As Jeffers says:
[A]nother part of the American mythos may yet serve us well: that it's never too late to correct your mistakes, and make amends, and start over. And this time, get it right.Here's hoping.