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September 01, 2005

A New WPA?

Brad writes:

More practically, though, I wonder what will be left of the city once the devastation clears away. A variety of people are going to have to leave the city for months on end. What will they do? What happens to their jobs? If they can get by on their savings, and the kindness of family members, good for them. If not—if, say, you live paycheck to paycheck and need a job immediately, well, you're going to need to go to some other town, find work, get an apartment or place to live, and stay there for those intervening months. By the time New Orleans is inhabitable again, how many people will actually drift on back?

True enough. But what of those interim folks? The ones who can get by for a month or so, but then will need something? And what of all those who have businesses in New Orleans and don't want to leave the city?

Well, what about a modern-day
WPA?

New Orleans is going to need
a lot of rebuilding. And while I agree that it'd probably be smartest to pack up and move the city elsewhere, it's probably not going to happen. But couldn't we hire all those displaced residents to work on the rebuilding? Surely a large amount of what needs to be done is low-skill or easily learned labor. And the government could pay them a slight wage, provide housing and food, and generally give them a purpose and a hand in reconstruction while they wait for their homes to dry out. Otherwise you have an enormous mass of unemployed, bewildered refugees flooding into nearby economies that're totally unprepared for the influx. It'd be a disaster. This'd prove a much cleaner and more sustainable way to occupy them while New Orleans is resurrected.

September 1, 2005 | Permalink

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But couldn't we hire all those displaced residents to work on the rebuilding? Surely a large amount of what needs to be done is low-skill or easily learned labor. And the government could pay them a slight wage, provide housing and food, and generally give them a purpose and a hand in reconstruction while they wait for their homes to dry out.

My fondest wish is that this were possible, but I don't think it is. This is the mentality and culture of the original WPA and the people of that era. The culture has changed since then. People will not accept a slight wage, food, and housing. They will expect the government to house them and provide for them in the manner in which they've become accustomed. I came to this conclusion by tracking the expectations of the poor. Poor houses are no longer acceptable. Used clothing is no longer acceptable and now, WPA style jobs will longer be acceptable. Then there's the legal environment that allowed government labor of this kind, but is no longer feasible because of the litigation that would ensue.

No, New Orleans will not be built by a WPA style program. Instead, New Orleans will be rebuilt by large corporations that have the infrastructure, workers insurance and legal departments to handle the workers' rights issues, discrimination issues, and gender stuff.
I like the way you think, but it ain't gonna happen. It's a pipe dream.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Sep 1, 2005 5:58:44 PM

And while I agree that it'd probably be smartest to pack up and move the city elsewhere, it's probably not going to happen.

One reason it shouldn't happen is that New Orleans is a cultural and architectural treasure (thinking about the devastation to New Orleans, I was reminded of when the Serbs shelled Dubrovnik)...and this country doesn't have a whole lot of those. Abandoning New Orleans would leave us all a lot poorer.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Sep 1, 2005 6:16:08 PM

What! And take jobs away from needy Halliburton executives???!

Posted by: garbo | Sep 1, 2005 6:19:24 PM

The astonishing thing to me is that we don't know if this is what's going to happen. There simply has to be a national strategy for this sort of eventuality, doesn't there? It's just about the most predictable natural disaster outside of a Los Angeles earthquake. Why don't we know what it is?

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Sep 1, 2005 6:26:45 PM

And if there isn't a national strategy for this, there probably also isn't one for the LA earthquake.

Shouldn't we start pushing for one NOW rather than waiting until after teh fact?

Posted by: aphrael | Sep 1, 2005 6:29:54 PM

I'm not sure I buy Fred's logic - I think there are people willing to work for a decent wage on a rebuilding project. I suspect that it would be a boon to do that in a community of poor people heavily hit by disaster.

The larger question, though, to be difficult at a difficult time, is to ask whether New Orleans should be rebuilt. However we got to this point - that a city made sense there once, but the land has sunk since - the reality is that the land is twenty feet below sea level; New Orleans sits in a bowl that's all but an invitation for continued flooding and land erosion. We can spend billions and billions of dollars and wash it away in hours. I want to help, and I'd hate to lose a great deal of what made New Orleans a vibrant and beautiful city (one that has a special place in my heart). But the question, difficult as it is, needs to be asked - what, exactly are we rebuilding and why would we rebuild there?

Posted by: weboy | Sep 1, 2005 8:27:56 PM

...why would we rebuild there?

Couldn't you say exactly the same thing about further development along the San Andreas fault? Don't we rebuild time after time even though we *know* that there will be another disaster in the forseeable future?

How is this any different?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Sep 1, 2005 9:33:18 PM

a) I'm not particularly a fan of building on major earthquake faultlines either, and I would have issues moving to California, given the potential for disaster. I still might go, but I have to say, it is something I think about.

b) I do think the risk of earthquake in some place like CA, though, is substantially less than the notion that a major city located below sea level will face major flooding problems, particularly built in a region that is subject to major brutal storms on a fairly consistent basis, year-to-year. At the very least it is something I would hope - and expect - will be debated as we look at the costs of rebuilding. It's why I tend to agree that rebuilding New Orleans, to the extent that it happens, will have to be driven by private interests. It will be hard to justify government spending in the billions of dollars to recreate the big bowl surrounded by water that led us to where we are now.

Posted by: weboy | Sep 1, 2005 10:45:47 PM

How great would it be if either the Republicans or Democrats (or both) announced this weekend that their 2008 Convention would be held in New Orleans?

Posted by: BumperStickerist | Sep 2, 2005 9:55:55 AM

HALF of New Orleans is below sea level, and nowhere near 20ft, regardless of what nonsense you may have heard elsewhere. We did not flood because we are low-lying; we flooded because artificially created canals--shipping shortcuts--to the east of the city destroyed the buffer of wetlands through saltwater intrusion and funneled in the storm surge, and the outfall (drainage) canals in the north of the city were widened and thus weakened to accommodate increasing suburban sprawl. Public safety was sacrificed over a period of decades to make the shipping and real estate industries happy. If anyone rebuilds this city, it will be armies of volunteer students, Habitat for Humanity, the Global Green Project, etc. Read Ivor Van Heerden's _The Storm_ for more info.

Posted by: Riverbend | Jun 19, 2007 11:56:19 PM

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