Watching the politics of New Orleans with interest |

Watching the politics of New Orleans with interest

Fred Kalhammer

In an atypically unguarded moment shortly after the full extent of Hurricane Katrina’s ravages became known, Illinois Republican and House Speaker Dennis Hastert was heard to wonder aloud why anyone would want to rebuild a city, i.e., New Orleans, below sea level. As he has not since been heard to repeat such musings, one can only assume that someone added more than a dash of political Tabasco sauce (a world-renowned Louisiana product) to his Ovaltine not long thereafter!

But the question does indeed need to be asked – and answered intelligently – especially now that President Bush has announced the federal government (that is, all of us taxpayers) will pick up the tab for reconstructing the Gulf Coast – at an estimated cost of some $200 billion (one wonders if that will turn out to be just an ante in this game)!

So, should New Orleans be rebuilt at all, or should the levees be torn down and the place turned into a Venice of the New World, as some have suggested? Just imagine the Mardi Gras parade taking place aboard a string of barges amidst flotillas of reveler-robust gondolas.

The next question: If New Orleans is to be rebuilt along traditional lines, will the federal government also undertake to restore the Louisiana coast and its barrier islands that have been disappearing at an alarming rate over recent decades? In light of the vast destruction caused by Katrina, the $14 billion price tag for this long-recommended, albeit never implemented, project seems like chump change. But if such coastal restoration is not undertaken, experts in the field have warned that there is no point in rebuilding New Orleans because it is those defenses, much more than the city’s levees, that will provide the greatest protection from future Katrinas.

In a similar vein, is it really a good idea to have such a large proportion of the nation’s energy production facilities concentrated along this vulnerable coast? We haven’t heard much said about this subject, despite being blessed with an administration that accords the energy sector (and energy prices) such a high priority!

Moreover, by whom and for whom should the city be reconstructed? Are we about to witness the letting of another series of multibillion-dollar, no-bid contracts in the same way the reconstruction of Iraq was approached (with somewhat less than admirable results to date), or will a concerted effort be made to employ firms and people from the affected areas in the rebuilding effort? And now that most of the population of New Orleans has been evacuated to other states, what assurance do we have that they will want to return if there are no jobs or affordable housing available for them there, or if they simply like it better where they now find themselves?

Clearly, recovery from this catastrophe will be no simple matter, and yet the opportunities it affords the nation are as breathtaking as the destruction that has been wrought. The critical question is: Will our political leaders take full advantage of them, or will they be squandered as has happened so often in the past? We’ll all be watching with great interest!

– Fred Kalhammer is a retired Foreign Service Officer and resident of Stateline.

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