September 8, 2005
Rebuilding New Orleans
Now that those affected by Katrina are mostly either staying somewhere safe or dead, media attention is turning to long-term recovery. Should New Orleans be rebuilt? Will people ever want to live there again? And some people are asking what I think is the real question here: what the hell are hundreds of thousands of evacuated people with no home, no job, and no money going to do for the next 6 months to a year while everybody discusses the first two questions?
Clearly, the government can't support the entire populations of New Orleans, Gulfport, Biloxi, and all those other ruined cities, for months on end. The evacuees' self-preservation instincts and the desire not to live in a football stadium in Houston has kicked in, and as of yesterday only about 3,000 evacuees are still in the Astrodome. Other shelters also report greatly reduced populations. Those $2,000 debit cards being given to evacuees should help more people get to other cities to stay with family and friends.
But wherever the evacuees go, before too long they'll have to find more permanent places to live, and jobs. The instantaneous unemployment of hundreds of thousands of people in all sectors is a huge deal, unlike anything our country has faced in recent years. New Orleans was a city with a lot of serious social problems before the hurricane hit, but social problems can be fixed through careful policymaking, time, and money. In the late '70's, New York was going down the tubes; today it still has some big problems, but it's a totally changed city.
A history of poverty is no reason for not rebuilding a damaged city, like Jack Shafer suggests on Slate. It's a reason to rebuild it into a better city, as David Brooks writes in the NYT. There's also a fantastic piece in the New York Press, which is usually full of reactionary garbage, about how the rebuilding of New Orleans "is an unprecedented chance to create something new and vital, to sow equality where there has been segregation, democracy where there has been corruption, and beauty where there has been ugliness."
Also, New Orleans is one of our country's most important ports. You can't just move the place where the Mississippi River ends. We're still a country largely dependent on shipping, both for imports and exports, and that's not going to change.
Another silver lining: the new request that Bush sent Congress for $51 billion in relief money is the start of a larger reassessment of some of the administration's biggest goals in social and economic policy. The Washington Post reports, "The disaster has forced the Republicans to temporarily set aside a planned fall agenda of tax relief, spending cuts and retirement savings initiatives, as well as to react to public outrage over the government's slow response to the crisis." Some of those spending cuts were to be for Medicaid, which is now where many evacuees will probably get their healthcare coverage for awhile. Looks like the plan to gut our government's social programs has been derailed, maybe for the next three years.
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