Why?

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

Shortly
after Jean Baptiste Lemoyne founded New Orleans in 1718, a priest-chronicler
named Charlevoix described it “as a place of a hundred wretched
hovels in a malarious wet thicket of willows and dwarf palmettos,
infested by serpents and alligators.” From its origins in a hollow
at the angle of a deep three-sided bend in the Mississippi River,
New Orleans slowly spread out for miles on a narrow alluvial strip
between the River and Lake Pontchartrain. Today most of New Orleans
lies either below sea level or at least below the level of the River
and Lake. Only the levees, most of which were constructed beginning
in the early part of the twentieth century, have kept the city dry.

Until
Katrina!  Mother Nature has a unique, and sometimes deadly,
way of reminding us of the penalty for defying her will. New Orleans,
geographically, can best be described as an historical mistake.
It would be unthinkable to construct a city in such a location now.
Even if private developers wanted to do it, the political environmental
lobby existing in America today would never tolerate such a violation
or exploitation of the Mississippi River's wetlands. For decades
governments have restricted or outright forbidden any sort of habitable
development of America's wetlands. America's wetlands have become
“sacred ground” to be preserved in perpetuity by the force of government
edicts.

So
what's going on in the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans? 
Governments are about to spend billions of taxpayer dollars to reconstruct
a city in a geographical depression below sea level next to an ocean
subject to hurricanes. To describe the land area of New Orleans
as merely wetlands is the ultimate understatement. Much of the city
would be part of the ocean but for the levees!  In fact, the
whole of Louisiana from the existing site of New Orleans south is
slowly returning to the sea. Virtually everyone knows the entire
area is a high-risk area to both hurricanes and continual flooding
from the Mississippi River. If nothing habitable existed there today,
nothing ever would under existing governmental edicts protecting
wetlands. So, why is government about to expend tens of billions
of dollars to do something which they would forbid any private developers
to even consider doing now?

Nobody
is asking that question, let alone answering it. Even to ask the
question subjects one to criticism for not being compassionate toward
the refugees evacuated from the cesspool which once was New Orleans.
Guilt is imposed upon anyone who would selfishly suggest it's an
insane idea to rebuild another city in an ocean.  And yet it
is!  Why build a government-funded city where it can
only survive until another failed levee again returns it to the
sea?  Why build a government-funded city below sea level
when dry land exists all over America not exposed to flooding or
hurricanes?  And finally, why should Americans be taxed
billions of dollars to build an “American Venice” facing annual
hurricane risks?

Perhaps
the most serious question which must be asked is why anyone
would choose to live below sea level next to a high hurricane-risk
ocean?  The historical reality is New Orleans evolved through
inertia more because that's where it began three centuries ago than
because that is where it would be built today. The demographics
and economic circumstance of New Orleans in recent years has made
it into a modern day anachronism.  While the Crescent City
was quaint and colorful, it's hardly a geographical location toward
which people would gravitate today if it didn't already exist.

The
funding of a new government-built city on the old location of devastated
New Orleans can only be viewed as an act of historical restoration
underwritten by taxpayers and/or as a response to the perceived
compassion of the American people for the plight of the refugees.
Certainly it would never occur if dependent upon the marketplace
to voluntarily fund it. Sadly, what people would never do with their
own wealth, their government is about to do with wealth exacted from
them by taxation.

Can
governments save New Orleans?  Of course not!  That which
has been destroyed can never again be recovered, by a government
or anyone else. The question is why consume resources, either
public or private, to rebuild anything which will only be destroyed
again by the forces of nature and government neglect? While Katrina
got all the attention, it was the breeching of the government levees
that destroyed New Orleans.  Nature's wrath started the holocaust,
but it was the failure of government dikes that flooded and destroyed
the city.

For
those who argue the city must be rebuilt a final caution:  At
what cost, who pays, and what will be forgone from doing so? Already
estimates of $300 billion are anticipated just to recover from the
damage. That's over $1,000 for every man, woman, and child in America
today. Is a new government-funded New Orleans worth foregoing all
the potential benefits every man, woman, and child in America could
enjoy if that same $1,000 consumed by government for a below-sea-level
building project in Louisiana was left in their pockets?

One
tends to have a different perspective toward feelings of compassion
and guilt when the cost of building a below-sea-level city next
to a hurricane-prone ocean is coming out of the pockets of people
who have chosen to live out their lives on high ground out of the
path of an angry sea.

So,
why do it?

September
10, 2005

Robert
Anderson [send him mail]
taught economics at Hillsdale Collage and was executive secretary
of FEE.

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare
  • LRC Blog

  • LRC Podcasts