Sunday, August 27, 2006

Choosing to be vulnerable to disasters

I recently read an interesting comment in a syndicated column in the newspaper, a comment which keeps coming back to mind as I hear more about hurricane season and the effects of last year's devastating hurricanes. The column is one in which people write ethical questions and they are answered by an ethicist. The question in this particular column is:
We spent countless hours and thousands of dollars over the past two years preparing for hurricanes, even installing a generator. After Wilma, lots of folks came to our home to use percolators, charge cell phones, etc. Many have done nothing to prepare for this hurricane season. What do we do after a power outage when they knock at our door at 7 a.m., Mr. Coffee in hand? (Keep in mind, we plan to continue living in this neighborhood.)
The second paragraph of the ethicist's answer was surprising and a little haunting:
I sympathize. We 284 million non-Floridians ask similar questions every hurricane season when you put in for public money to rebuild. Year after year. After year. While we are responsive to people in dire straits, we think it significant that many of you choose to live in a place called Hurricane Alley.
I found myself recoiling and yet at the same time nodding. Okay, so the answer is a little pat. Clearly people can't just abandon all the hurricane-torn parts of the country en masse and leave them all abandoned. And if you asked them to, what about the places vulnerable to earthquakes, tornados, and other potentially devastating disasters?

But there's still something to what he says. There was, very briefly, some talk about whether New Orleans should be rebuilt at all, last year. I never thought that really had any chance of coming to anything. Too many people have too much invested in the city historically and personally and financially to really seriously reconsider whether it should be where it is. But it's hard to deny this conclusion: if there wasn't already a city there and someone proposed building one, even at a cost of a quarter of what the rebuilding efforts have cost, the proposal would be laughed down in a second. Build a major city below sea level, perched between a huge lake and the ocean, near a river, in a prime area for hurricanes? If New Orleans didn't exist and you saw a movie depicting a fictional city in that situation (presumably being threatened by underachieving villains) you would groan at the implausibility.

Even if we could start over in settling North America, with no history and no prior investment, it's impossible to imagine we could avoid putting millions of people and billions of dollars into the paths of tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, and other disasters. There's just too much land we'd have to waste, too many areas that have other benefits we'd have to give up. But maybe there's something in saying that a few of the most extreme examples of bad risk/benefit ratios can't be justified, and I think New Orleans is at or near the top of that list.

If I were Supreme Dictator, maybe I would have chosen to relocate New Orleans a little bit inland; build a new, well-designed, efficient city, relocate the most important historical monuments to it, and endure the groans and lambasts of people calling this "a surrender", "cold and calculating", "heartless", etc., in favor of those fifty years from now who will appreciate living in a city with a strong infrastructure, few traffic and parking problems, good support for commerce, minimal environmental impact, a fertile ground for cultural development and preservation, and a reasonable level of safety against disasters natural and man-made.

I don't know if that's really the right thing in this long-term view. Maybe if I knew New Orleans beter I'd know why it's a bad idea. But it bugs me that the question couldn't seriously be asked, because of emotional reactions -- people wanting to live where they used to live, people wanting to feel that they have triumphed over Katrina, etc. Valid emotional reactions, of course. I'm sure if I were in that situation I'd feel the same way. And the historical significance of a place, both personally and culturally, is not worth nothing. But a hundred years from now, will textbooks be praising the plucky spirit that insisted on rebuilding a major city on top of a disaster waiting to happen, or mocking the foolishness of just begging for the next disaster in our refusal to embrace change?

1 comment:

litlfrog said...

No matter how you cut it, it's just not practical to move the city inland. Most of the infrastructure of New Orleans--roads, bridges, rails, docks, building structures--was left intact. It can be made much, MUCH safer than it was before Katrina, although some of those changes (destroying some of the levees on the lower Mississippi, finding some way to slow the river's course) will take decades to show their full effect. And yeah, count me with those who say that it's silly to ask hundreds of thousands of people to move because stubborn bureaucrats, incompetent engineers, and crooked contractors spent the last seven decades doing all the wrong things.

At the risk of seeming obvious, the reason people live in less than optimal locations is the same reason that other creatures do so. Life expands to fill any available niche.