Thursday, December 20, 2007

Recklessly Rebuilding New Orleans...

...I've recently been involved in an email exchange regarding whether government funds should be used to rebuild the New Orleans area (and, for that matter, other areas affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita) back to the way these places existed before the storms.

My answer is an unequivocal, "No, government funds should not be used for such a purpose."

However, a complex issue like this lends itself to more than a short answer. So, allow me to explain why rebuilding New Orleans to its previous state would amount to a reckless endangerment of human life.

1. First, I believe almost everyone agrees that the pre-Katrina New Orleans--dysfunctional in many ways like public education and law enforcement--still represented some of this country's most interesting urban design and cultural activities. Indeed, the "Big Easy" was deservedly loved by many (including myself) for these reasons.

2. However, today's New Orleans is much different than how the city was first settled. For starters, it's a common misconception that all of the city is below sea level. Actually, there are parts--including much of the orignal settlement--that are located on higher ground. Unfortunately, as the city has grown, more and more of its development has expanded into flood zone areas below sea level.

3. Worse still, much of this area is populated by the poorer people of New Orleans. Indeed, a quick zip code or census search reveals that most of the higher ground in the area is inhabited by the city's wealthier citizens. Of course, this is hardly a surprise as the limited amount of high ground is more much valuable land and thus more prone to being owned by those who can afford more expensive land. Ultimately, the sad reality is that the most flood prone areas of New Orleans are also generally the poorest areas of the city (with a few exceptions).

Meaning that the least wealthy resident are located in the most dangerous harm's way.

4. That said, even the high ground of New Orleans is situated in a difficult place. Hurricanes from the Gulf of Mexico have historically struck this general area. Flooding, even after just an inland band of thunderstorms, is common-place. All in all, the forces of mother nature have posed, currently pose, and will always pose great challenges to a city located as low as New Orleans.

5. To guard against these challenges, various levels of government (and occasionally private interests) have designed an extensive series of levees, dams, water pumps, and other anti-flood measures. All of these, to one degree or another, are based on human mechanical efforts--whether it is the large tractors used to move massive amounts of dirt and rock for the levees, the steel and concrete used for various pumps and flood gates, or the complex systems used to manage them all.

6. Unfortunately, in all aspects--their design, construction, or operation-- essentially each of these attempted safeguards consume large amounts of nonrenewable energy. Indeed, moving the huge piles of dirt for the massive levees or operating the floodgates and pumps would not be possible on the current scale without using large amounts of nonrenewable fuel sources like oil and electricity. This poses a major problem though since most persons who research the issue agree that the scarcity of these nonrenewable resources is rapidly peaking and will only get worse.

Meaning that the cost to build and operate the flood defense systems of New Orleans will get exponentially higher--eventually reaching a point of succumbing to the realities of Peak Nonrenewable Energy.

7. So, here is the situation: we as humans have attempted to out-engineer the forces of mother nature to keep the expanses of New Orleans dry from floods. This act itself represents an arrogant folly as, no matter how hard we try, the forces of nature will ultimately prevail.

However, even if we can delay or mitigate these forces, our current plan for doing so is heavily dependent on a design, construction, maintenance, and operational network powered by nonrenewable fuel sources that are becoming more and more scarce--and soon cost-prohibitive.

8. Now, before going any further, allow me two quick side notes: a) this problem is not unique to New Orleans. Indeed, other U.S. cities like California's state capital in Sacramento--while not necessarily facing the same natural force challenges from a hurricane--are still located in areas that are regularly prone to anticipated natural disasters. To fight against this historical, they have developed a similar nonrenewable centered defense systems. As with N.O., government funds should also not be used to induce development/redevelopment in the unsustainable portions of these areas. In other words, this critique is not limited to New Orleans only but to all areas built within the path of known and predictable natural disasters.

And the second side note--b) forget about solar or wind power operating these anti-flood systems. Even cursory research reveals that neither of these renewable sources can even begin to generate the needed power to (re)construct, operate, and maintain these devices. Those who suggest that these anti-flood defense systems can still be built, maintained, and operated in the post-cheap oil/natural gas era are simply not dealing with the reality of the Long Emergency situation.

9. Okay, back to New Orleans specifically. The big question is obvioulsy: Why do efforts to rebuild in the flooded areas of New Orleans represent a reckless risk to human life?

The answer is quite simple.

We cannot out-engineer mother nature.

And, even if we can put up a decent fight, our efforts to mitigate these effects in N.O. are driven by a depleting power source. Meaning that, even if we really, really, really, really want to--its very unlikely we will be able to allocate the growing scarcity of nonrenewable resources needed to accomplish this effort. The pending scarcity of nonrenewable energy sources simply warrants against that possibility.

10. Unfortunately, by attempting to rebuild the flood prone areas of New Orleans--again, those areas most populated by the disenfranchised--we are essentially using government funds to induce people of lesser means to move back into harm's way. When you stop and think about this--it borders on the unconscionable. After all, there is no amount of great urban design or cultural activity worth trying to preserve or rebuild at the cost of giving people false hope and incentivizing their return to an inherently dangerous place to live in terms of the forces of mother nature.

This is why the government has a moral obligation not to fund such a reckless effort. Of course, if people want to expose themselves to known risks to their property and life, then that is their prerogative.

But, it is reckless and immoral for government funds to be used to induce this...and facilitate the false hope that we can ultimately out-engineer the forces of mother nature.

Again, this holds true to any part of this country where regularly and historically anticipated natural disasters are prone to causing massive and long-term destruction of life and property (yes, this means that if an earthquake destroys San Francisco, then the same analysis applies--we know it will happen and we know that no matter what we engineer, we cannot defeat a seismic fault line in the earth).

So, in closing, yes, New Orleans should certainly exist. But, not in such a deadly way. Rather, the just policy in this instance is to constrict the development of New Orleans to the high ground in order to enhance the life safety of its citizens.

Doing so would mean that we have the capacity learn our lessons from the wisdom of the city's original settlers.