The question now comes down to what we do next. It will take a while to get to all the people in New Orleans, the rest of Louisiana, Mississippi, and the rest of the Gulf Coast hit so hard by the Hurricane, but the process is underway. Food and water and clothing are getting to people, and the distribution lines, though still crude, are getting the job done. The next step is getting long-time medical needs addressed. Texas has done a great job of addressing the needs of students, opening public schools to all the people fleeing Louisiana, and many colleges and universities across the country are accepting transfers from students at Tulane, LaSalle, and all the other Louisiana colleges and universities. The immediate needs of more than a million people hit by the devastation are being met.
The process moves on to what happens in the next half-year or so. Most of Katrina’s victims have not been able to sit down and consider what they want to do next, but the planning has to be in place. Fortunately, a number of corporations, churches, and groups experienced in long-term disaster relief have made preparations. Essentially, the people dislocated by the destruction will need jobs, transportation, and the structure of a routine; for many people, there is great emotional comfort in having things they can count on, including responsibility and duties, which enforce the personal sense of worth and identity. You are what you do.
The states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana will rebuild. For all the destruction, the basic infrastructure of the states is in place and can be re-established. The greatest costs will be the roads, power grid, and coastal industries, like fishing and the ports. The city of New Orleans is another matter. It is well-understood that the city lies below sea level, and its position relative to Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf makes this a critical risk. Insurance companies have already expressed serious reservations about insuring any new construction or rebuilt homes and businesses in the city. Unless the federal government chooses to private special insurance, it is doubtful that businesses and homes can be rebuilt and operate in New Orleans to the scale of the city before. Even the construction of a seawall like the one protecting Galveston Texas would be insufficient for New Orleans, because of the elevation concerns.
There is also the risk of fraud. Disasters bring out the best and worst qualities in people, and this is also true in the matter of fraud. When a home is destroyed, it is sometimes difficult to confirm what personal property was lost. How much more difficult is it, to confirm the losses of an entire city? While most people would not try to manipulate the system to take money so badly needed by real victims, it’s historically true that fraud is a real element in disaster relief. Given the scale of this event, unique security measures will be necessary in addressing the needs of New Orleans’ citizens. There is, despite the best intentions of charities and generous donors, a limit to how much relief will be available.
I would not be surprised, personally, to see the victims of Katrina given two general options. Most will be encouraged to restart in the town where they have been relocated, meaning that the visitors to Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and many other Texas cities will be likely to become citizens there. The option of returning to Louisiana will be there, but I expect that New Orleans will be, while rebuilt, much smaller in scale and much less centralized. The Corps of Engineers will have to examine the ground in the area, but it would be logical for new construction to be undertaken on ground with higher elevation and known to be stable, rather than trying to demolish the rubble in New Orleans, test the ground, reset everything from foundations up, and hope that the new buildings last. This has happened before, after all. In 1900, the city of Galveston Texas was a thriving center of commerce and culture. A Hurricane (no names were used for Hurricanes in 1900) estimated to be Category 4 in force, effectively destroyed the city, killing anywhere between eight and twelve thousand people (Census rolls were unclear, and many bodies had to be buried in mass graves or burned, to control the risk of disease. Like the New Orleans disaster, Galveston was isolated from contact, and so sending assistance was made impossible by the storm’s damage for a long time. In the end, the small town to Galveston’s north, Houston, was made the focus for rebuilding and relocation, and eventually became the far greater city. I could actually see the city of New Orleans out and out relocated about forty miles to the north of its old location, in a plan which would take more than ten years to happen, but which could capture the imagination and emotion of the state of Louisiana and the nation, a symbol of rebirth and a mix of old and new. The key would be the Port of New Orleans, which largely survived Katrina, and which would be the lifeblood of the newly built city, whether on the original land or in a new location with better stability.
But that’s just speculation, and will be driven by the feasibility of options yet to be confirmed. The rebuilding begins, as always, with examining and meeting long-term needs of the families. The Red Cross has begun to rejoin families, and to provide information on what has happened for victims to find out. As I mentioned above, job opportunities have been made available, and career counselors are preparing resources and building networks to help people not only find some job, but one fitted to their skills. The social assistance of churches and schools also helps the process, helping people to find a place of identity and acceptance, from which the sense of community grows.