Wednesday, August 31, 2005

New Orleans: Move it or Lose it (again)

Mark Kleiman prints a letter from reader Mike O'Hare:

Does it make sense to inhabit, for example, the New Orleans basin at all? Actually, it might; it would be interesting to see whether the net value created there since the 18th century outweighed the losses we've just witnessed. But even if it made sense to hang on until Katrina, it might not make sense to try again. Transhipment from ocean-going to river vessels is not nearly as important, in a world with railroads and highways, as it used to be, and the Gulf Coast has natural harbors much less liable to being drowned for months in a storm.

* Is it a national responsibility to maintain the levees and flood controls in Louisiana, or is that a cost-benefit decision that people who have chosen to live there should make with their own funds? Mark's post links to a story deploring federal government failure to fix the levees. But might that "failure" have been exactly the right federal decision?

* Does anyone who chooses to live anywhere have a claim on everyone else's purse to make his choice as safe as living in a less risky location, or is this a blatant case of moral hazard? [Full disclosure: I am writing this very near the northern California fault that is most likely to slip next. I live in a wood house with lots of hardware that will probably hold it together at that time, but may not, and I pay a fortune for earthquake insurance with a whopping deductible and copayment. When we have the Big One, anyone catching me expecting the government to buy me a new house is invited to humiliate me with this essay in any way possible, and I readily admit that the decision to live here at all may well be completely loony by the standards of reasonable people.]

* Does this flood management engineering make sense anyway? Confining the Mississippi is well known to increase flood risk in the long run, as is true for any large river flowing through flat land. In Louisiana, it has devastated the coastal wetlands that used to lie between the Gulf and New Orleans and that would reduce the intensity of a storm surge, never mind the other catastrophic though slow consequences of wetland destruction.

There needs to be extensive soul-searching and discussion about this before money is spent.

The last word goes to Marc Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans:

"We've lost our city," said Marc Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans, now serving as president of the National Urban League. "I fear it's potentially like Pompeii."

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