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Protecting Our Investments

I can’t help but shake my head at all those people who talk about abandoning the stupid people who live in disaster prone areas to their own devices. I guess this is, in some fashion, a way to rationalize the failure of disaster preparedness we saw last summer. Truth is, it’s rather ironic to hear this sort of thing from the GOP, since they are supposed to be the party that honors the individual risk-taker.

First and foremost, we must recognize that the strong understanding of science we now possess has not been there all along, so many cities were founded with problems present they didn't even know about. Second, we have to recognize that the cities that survive long enough to become large and established typically see decades pass between truly cataclysmic disasters. We humans are creatures that play the odds by our very nature. Life is imperfect, so left to themselves, most people go with what seems the least risky proposition according to their experience. This can get people into trouble, but it's human nature. Third, and most importantly, few cities are exempt of the risks of natural disasters, and the price to be paid for relative safety can often be isolation from the things that make cities great and prosperous.

A city does not start on some clean slate, nor does it develop entirely by intent. The forces that shape a city are often emergent in nature, operating in between the lines of what we intended to come to pass. Where people tended to live in New Orleans was often an accident of family history, with the love of home overcoming remote fears of a disaster that was rare and distant in the past. Why the places they were living were set as low as they were was an accident of the history of the place, a result of the unforseen consequences of levee building, and the subsidence of the delta due to the manipulation of the river's course.

Maybe on an individual level, asking people how they could be so stupid makes sense. Trouble is, people aren't acting on that level, and there are some serious flaws with the reasoning that leads us to smugly critique where people choose to live.

For one thing, cities in the real world must deal with real world locations. Many major cities are sited along rivers, coasts, fault lines, in the shadow of volcanoes, and in the company of other potential sources of disaster. The Pacific Northwest has any number of Volcanoes. and major faults. Alaska has these issues too. Hawaii of course is volcanic, and stuck in the middle of the actively seismic Pacific. That makes it the bullseye for Tsunamis from all over. California has its quakes and occasional torrential rains, not to mention one or two volcanoes in the north. Many northern states have to deal with winter storms and severe cold temperatures. Now with the Global Warming, they're dealing with Heat Waves and erratic weather, too. Cities on the Mississippi watershed have to deal with the flooding of that river, not to mention the potential disaster from the New Madrid Fault Zone. The Atlantic Seaboard faces threats from hurricanes and winter storms. New York and the Northeast face mild Earthquake threats and occasional threats and flooding from hurricane systems. The Applachians and Midwest, often get the leftovers from the storms that strike the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

There's no safe place to hide from mother nature. We will get struck again, and we will have the choice to timidly seek out safe shelter at great expense, or deal with the real world consequences of living in an imperfect world. San Fransisco and many of the other Californian cities are going nowhere anytime soon. Neither are we seeing a wholesale exodus from the coasts. Industries will continue to rely on ports and channels for their commerce, and people will continue to live in areas which are at risk.

So, what do we do? Well, where the risk is greatest and we obviously have a problem, we should zone off problem areas. That's just common sense. Elsewhere, we should require that the buildings be constructed to take certain stresses. What's more, we should seriously enforce these rules. Where public works infrastructure is at work, like the levees, we should not delude ourselves into thinking we should neglect to strengthen and shore up these barriers. The consequences of not taking these things seriously have been made amply clear, and it is both cowardly and foolish to repeat those mistakes on political grounds.

Ultimately, no words can bring bad those who are dead of preventable causes in a disaster, and no cute talking points can instantly repair the damage done by bureaucratically compromised prevention and relief systems. It is in no-one's interest to be permissive towards the kind of irresponsibility that sunk a city and disrupted our economy. It is in nobody's interest to be caught off guard again. We can only hope that our politicians haven't so sugarcoated themselves in spin that they can't see where their responsibilities begin.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at April 25, 2006 7:56 PM
Comments
Comment #143364

I don’t think anyone is suggesting that at all are they? I think most citizen regardless of political affilation agree with the basic premise. The devil as always is in the details, right?

Just where do we draw the lines so that people can’t live there anymore. To what extent are those of us in the midwest responsible for subsidizing those that live on the fault lines in California, hurricanes in Florida? The reality is that many of the places that are at greatest risk also have the allure of being some of the most beautiful and desirable places to live.

Should those of us that have to slog through gray days in May in the Midwest subsidize the hurricaine and earthquake repairs for those that choose to live in year-round sunshine? I get that not everyone gets to choose to live there, but the fact is that many do. It’s a great choice, but those that make the choice should be willing to pay for the insurance and protection of their personal assets on their own dimes, and should pay a higher proportionate share of the government funds that are required for clean-up after the inevitable disasters.

Posted by: Rob at April 26, 2006 8:12 PM
Comment #143374

Rob,

I to live in the midwest. I often wonder when the rest of the country is going to call for us to build our homes and businesses 4 ft below ground to stop the tornado damage and recovery costs associated.

Posted by: Ted at April 26, 2006 8:35 PM
Comment #143378

Here is what Conservatives think:

“Life is a mess; it is like Yeast, a ferment, a thing that moves and may move for a minute, an hour, a year, or a hundred years - but that in the end will cease to move. The Big eat the Little that they may continue to move: the Strong eat the Weak that they may retain their Strength. The Lucky eat the most and move the longest - that is all. Men move; so does the jellyfish move. They move in order to Eat in order that they may keep Moving. There you have it. They live for their belly’s sake, and the belly is for their sake. It’s a circle; you get nowhere. Neither do they. In the end they come to a standstill. They move no more. They are dead. If they Dream, they dream of Grub - and if they dream of More, it is only of More Grub. They dream of a larger Appetite, and more Luck in satisfying it. For look you, men dream only of being in a better position for preying on their fellows. It is piggishness, and it is Life.”

[paraphrased from “The Sea Wolf,” by Jack London]


And there you have it: Conservative Social Philosophy. Spencerian Social Darwinism at its most charming.

Posted by: Betty Burke at April 26, 2006 8:52 PM
Comment #143383

Excellent article, Stephen. It really is a perfect follow-up to the You Can’t Fix Stupid” thread in the red column.
And on a personal note, I must tell you that this article was so wonderfully written, too! IMO, if you don’t one day write for a living, you are truly squandering your talents, sir.

Rob, your sunshine and beautiful region jealousy is showing. The truth is, many of us in those states you’re referring to DO pay a higher proportionate share of insurance rates and more towards our government. Lord knows, my state of California is always pulling a lot more than her share of the weight in this country, and contributing plenty of good things for all Americans. So, do you think you could you please cut Cali a bit of slack?

Betty,
Wonderful quote. Spot on, too. I love the writings of Oakland, California’s wild and unruly son, Jack London.

Posted by: Adrienne at April 26, 2006 9:26 PM
Comment #143386

You are mistaking places for people. People live where they do because they think (or thought) it was a good place to live. If conditions change, so do our preferences. If you walk around in the countryside, you see the evidence of habitation, places where people used to live, but do not any longer. Those of you who have been to Europe or the ancient areas of the Mediterranean can see it even more graphically.

People might choose to live in places that are not logical. They have a right to do so, but they should not ask others to subsidize it. It is not only economic. There is a very strong component of environmental protection, since most places that require heroic protection are places where it is destructive to build.

Consider the case of barrier islands. They are beautiful places to live when the weather is fine. But they literally move. If you build a house, nature is likely to move your house into the ocean every couple of years. Your building the house will cause erosion and destroy the local environment. Most people cannot afford to do this w/o insurance and no private insurer will give you insurance at a reasonable price. Should we step in and subsidize this environmental destruction?

Some of the lower parts of New Orleans are like that. We destroyed nature to build them. We continue to destroy nature to maintain them. Should we use Federal money to subsidize the destruction of nature or should we just be smart and move up hill?

There will probably always be a city near some places. Natural locations for cities include places like New Orleans, New York, Seattle, St. Louis and San Francisco. Cities will naturally grow at places like this. BUT exactly where and how big is a question. The original site of New Orleans is above sea level. The city could and will remain there. But New Orleans grew bigger than the environment or the economy justifies.

How many of you live in the same house where you were born? If you don’t, why not? Would you have been better off staying in that house? If you didn’t feel it was absolutely necessary to stay in the house of your birth, why do you feel it absolutely necessary to rebuilt in places that no longer make any sense?

So there are reasons to live in some risky places and every place is risky to some extent. But we don’t need to compound mistakes we made in the past.

Let’s return to your home. You probably like your house. What if it burned down? Would you rebuild it exactly as it was before? Wouldn’t you make some changes? And would you necessarily rebuilt in the same place? Maybe you bought the place when you worked at one place and then got a different job. What if you found out that rebuilding on this location would cost a million dollars, while you could build an nicer house for half that a mile up the hill? Now you have New Orleans.

Posted by: Jack at April 26, 2006 9:47 PM
Comment #143396

It’s all a matter of how many nickels are being rubbed together. New Orleans simply does not provide enough revenue to qualify for the “full meal deal”.

Who needs damms and levees when you’re busy conquering “oil states”? What troubles me is the indecision. Either rebuild or say “hell no”! How hard is that? It’s called honesty!

Truth is a wonderful thing.

KansasDem

Posted by: KansasDem at April 26, 2006 10:56 PM
Comment #143445

Rob-
Large scale disasters are often their own encouragement to move away. Other cities might take precedence over the city that got wrecked. Such happened with Galveston, which became a beach town of Houston, and San Fransisco, which became second banana to Los Angeles.

That said, Zoning and building codes are the most effective means of dealing with such things. Insurance rates are like that, too.

You asked, how does one zone for a disaster? you can zone or create building codes for floodplains, for sea level elevation, for other things as it suits our purposes.

The important part, though, is what happens when one gets hit. No matter whose most at fault for the errors, it is the plain truth that stronger levees, built up to spec, could have saved New Orleans. Then all this argument about the fitness of New Orleans would have remained academic. That is one part: you prevent the damage in the first place. Building codes help in this, making sure structures survive with little or no damage. It may not always be cheap for the builder or cheap for the consumer in the short term, but in the long term it’s cheaper for everybody. At the very least, you’re reducing the swath of damage, the number of people you have to rescue, etc.

The second part is where the Bush administration’s failure really shone, and where the Republican philosophies have been most active in delivering excuses. Dealing with the aftermath, namely.

Jack-
I don’t think I’m mistaking places for people. I’m simply saying that where people build and where they don’t is an interaction.

I’m not seeing a great deal of active plans at work here to do what you’re suggesting. I’ve seen no grand agenda on the reconstruction of New Orleans. You’re content, it seems, to let market forces and personal will decide things. I haven’t even heard of any plans to strengthen the levees for that matter.

You have the majority right now, so I’m interested in learning what plans you know of for the way we get this City back in order. Are the Republicans strong-willed enough to tell people they can’t go back to the lowest areas? Do they have the organizational efficiency to go in and get the stronger levees in place to protect those who stay?

What exactly is the Republican plan for dealing with this disaster?

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at April 27, 2006 7:24 AM
Comment #143449

Upgrading codes and more importantly, enforcing them isn’t a national political issue it is a given. The locals should insist on it and make sure their authorities get the job done. Levee upgrades are a hard thing because it causes the entire area to sink.
One of the advantages to our federal system is that we can relocate to other areas easily. History is filled with climate, political changes and blights causing people to relocate. They make the best of things and it can work into something better. Just do an ancestor trace and you will find numeous location changes got us to where we are.

Posted by: Kruser at April 27, 2006 8:08 AM
Comment #143455

Why do liberals look to the fed for help in everything? Do we expect the fed to have a diaster plan for every city, town, villiage, etc. in the entire country? And after a plan (for everywhere) has been determined, the fed should be able implement it at a moments notice.

This is a good use of tax dollars. It seems to me that the diaster plans should be maintained by the people who have the most interest in the plan’s success - let me think, oh yeah - people who actually live there.

Since local governments have proximity to their constituency, they have more incentive than the fed.

Posted by: walkswithwheels at April 27, 2006 10:05 AM
Comment #143462

New Orleans is an important port for the US. There will always be port facilities in New Orleans and therefore, there will always be a population base which serves the needs of the port. Furthermore, there will by necessity be a a commercial and industrial base to serve that population.

Whoops, we’ve developed a city again.

Posted by: goodkingned at April 27, 2006 10:26 AM
Comment #143480

New Orleans is a bowl. We learn a valuable lesson from Katrina, a Category 4 Hurricane filled and broke the bowl.

Even if the levees hold, a Category 5 Hurricane will fill the bowl and there will be issues on how to empty it.

If the businesses and people of New Orleans want rebuild it, fine. The risk should be theirs, not mine. They should, or more appropriately, should have subsudized their own risk.

Federal diaster releif is an insurance policy payed for by the entire country. I have an idea, let’s have a National Auto Insurance Policy. I’m sure the people in the gulf state won’t mind paying my auto repairs in the event of an accident.

Posted by: walkswithwheels at April 27, 2006 11:11 AM
Comment #143481

Adrienne,

I meant for my jealousy to show. I am truly jealous of the sunshine and streets paved with gold. The reality is that I can’t afford to make the move without a serious hit to my family’s standard of living.

I have no problem with Cali if they are truly paying the proportionate share of the money to cover emergency help in line with the greater risk for natural disasters that come from living on a coast and a fault line.

Ted,

While torado’s do their fair share of damage in the midwest, the liklihood of hitting the same place twice is much less than the liklihood of a hurracaine or an earthquake hitting the same place twice. They also require proportionately less dollars to recover than either of the other events. I don’t advocate Midwesterners paying nothing, their is the potential for damage from mother nature anywhere. However, the risk is lower and the recovery costs are lower so the natural disaster relief funds should be paid in lower.

Posted by: Rob at April 27, 2006 11:16 AM
Comment #143482

walkswithwheels-
It’s true that locals should have a big role in disaster management, because most disasters aren’t that disastrous. A truly catastrophic disaster like Katrina, though, can effectively demolish the capability of those local and even state governments to function in that capacity.

Should our response to a disaster wait for the recovery of the state and local authorities, or should the Federal government be there to step in, which plans already in place to take up the slack? I think the latter. Besides, with most places, you know what kind of disaster you’re likely to face, and the consequences of those disasters are mostly predictable.

Neither a liberal bias towards federal response or a conservative bias towards local responses should set the tone for what we do. Instead, we should judge by the facts and past experience what the best plan is. The alternative is the that blame game bullshit, which did nothing at all for the Katrina survivors.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at April 27, 2006 11:18 AM
Comment #143486

Walkswithwheels-
It wasn’t even Category Four that broke the levees. It was more like a three, what these things were supposed to stand up to. regardless, its foolish to invest so much money in rebuilding the place only to put in insufficient levee systems once again.

Hurricanes like Rita and Katrina are rare. One hopes we don’t face storms like that too often. It was a tragedy that Katrina inundated New Orleans at all. It would just be a farce to cheapshit it now and have a lesser disaster repeat that flooding. I can only hope we Americans have greater pride than that.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at April 27, 2006 11:27 AM
Comment #143490

Walkswithwheels:

Do you suggest that the US shut down the port of New Orleans?

Posted by: goodkingned at April 27, 2006 11:36 AM
Comment #143497

Stephen,

I’m not opposed to Federal Subsidies for truly castrophic events. What hacks me off is the fact is blaming the president and the federal government. This is not blanket support for the president, because I have issues with some of the administrations policies. I have yet to see anybody on this blog blame the local and state governments lack luster response to the diaster.

Everything I’ve read says that its not a matter of if a Catergory 5 hurricane will hit, it’s when. The fed can’t pay for everything, the proud people of New Orleans should decide if the levees are worth rebuilding and how much safety is worth to them. If the fed bears the burden of the reconstruction, then the personal risk will never be realized.

Posted by: walkswithwheels at April 27, 2006 11:51 AM
Comment #143505

goodkingned,

I’m not suggesting the US shut down the port. I would like to see the region to stop blaming the fed and take responsibilty for their own prosperity.

Capitialism will work, if it’s worth it- then city will be rebuilt and procautions will taken to minimize risk. If the fed does it, then the true value of New Orleans will never be realized. Why would region do it if they have the fed to fall back on.

Posted by: walkswithwheels at April 27, 2006 12:05 PM
Comment #143563

Stephen:
“San Fransisco, which became second banana to Los Angeles.”

This is simply NOT at all true, Stephen! I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but LA and surrounding areas have had many, many more earthquakes than we’ve had since our Big One in 1906.

Rob:
“I meant for my jealousy to show. I am truly jealous of the sunshine and streets paved with gold. The reality is that I can’t afford to make the move without a serious hit to my family’s standard of living.”

If you really want to move to my area, housing prices will be the biggest problem you’ll confront. Yet, wages do tend to reflect the cost of living in this area, so it’s usually a matter of people renting apt’s or houses for several years before even thinking of investing in a house or condo. I’ll tell you what though, I love living in this beautiful area of the country so much, that I’d honestly rather be poor and reside here, than be rich but have to live somewhere else.

“I have no problem with Cali if they are truly paying the proportionate share of the money to cover emergency help in line with the greater risk for natural disasters that come from living on a coast and a fault line.”

Believe me, we do. As I was saying in the “Can’t Fix Stupid” thread the other day, most of our states current economic woes are direct fallout from what Enron did to us. Trying to recover from them stealing 9 billion dollars from us has caused this state so much pain and trouble. Nonetheless, we know we’ve got our own impending levee failures to contend with in Sacramento and we’re not waiting for Bush to give us the needed money. We have no desire to see Sac and the Central Valley end up like New Orleans did after Katrina. We’re scheduled to try to deal with it at our own expense if we have to — knowing full well that it’s going to squeeze this state even further than it already has been.

Posted by: Adrienne at April 27, 2006 2:09 PM
Comment #143615

The only housing that should be built in New Orleans are houseboats. The Mississippi River does not even want to go there anymore, it wants to go into the Atchalafaya bayou coming out in the Gulf further west. If sea levels rise 20 feet, it will all be evne more problematic. We need a little more nature in the natural environment.

Posted by: ohrealy at April 27, 2006 4:12 PM
Comment #143676

Adrienne-
I suggest you read Simon Winchester’s lastest. The trouble with San Francisco, marvellous city that it is, is that it sits almost right on top of the San Andreas. Los Angeles’s offset from the fault is what gave it the chance to become the dominant city in California.

Still, it fared better than Galveston.

Ohrealy-
And I thought the Republicans were supposed to be the sunny optimists! Much of the Netherlands exists below sea level, and has for quite some time. What do you think all those nice little windmills were for?

New Orleans may one day be a lost cause, but it is positively lazy to declare it now, though that might be convenient to Republicans looking for a way out of rebuilding.

New Orleans, for now, is a strategically important city. We will have to deal with its imperfections as we try and save it. If you don’t like the fact that NOLA residents are returning to the bowl, then why don’t you guys come up with a plan for taking them elsewhere? Without such a plan, all the smug complaints about people returning to the once-flooded areas is simply bellyaching.

If you want a change in New Orleans, your folks have to do more than just flap gums.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at April 27, 2006 6:09 PM
Comment #143679
I love the writings of Oakland, California’s wild and unruly son, Jack London.

He was America’s first Socialist Mayor, y’know!

Posted by: Betty Burke at April 27, 2006 6:17 PM
Comment #143689

“Adrienne-
I suggest you read Simon Winchester’s lastest. The trouble with San Francisco, marvellous city that it is, is that it sits almost right on top of the San Andreas. Los Angeles’s offset from the fault is what gave it the chance to become the dominant city in California.”

I can’t help but take issue with the term “second banana” when I think of this area because the SF Bay Area is one of the wealthiest regions in the whole United States. Of the 100 highest income counties by per capita income in the United States, six of them are located right here (Marin, San Mateo, San Francisco, Santa Clara, Contra Costa, Alameda).
Guess where LA ranks? 119th.
Also, The California Supreme Court is here, so we’re the judicial capital of the state, and SF is considered the legal hub for all of the western US. We’re also the main banking and financial center for the U.S. West Coast. They call our financial district the “Wall Street of the West”. The Federal Reserve has their facilities here, as well as a major production facility for the US Mint. This area is home to the Silicon Valley, and now were set to become a hub for biotechnology and biomedical research. Last May, San Francisco was chosen as the headquarters of California’s stem cell research.
So, I guess I can’t think of us as a second banana. I think of both the SF and LA as being global destinations — ones that are virtually equal to each other in stature.

Posted by: Adrienne at April 27, 2006 7:08 PM
Comment #143849

S.D., or Baylor bible babble bubba, calling me a Rplcn!

New Orleans only continued to be commercialy viable because of a project in 1935 which forces the Mississippi to keep going there, instead of further west. The river naturally changes its course over time, and that should be allowed, just as in the Everglades project, where they let the Kissimmee river go back to its natural course.

This seems like the perfect opportunity to let that happen in Louisiana. We can build a new city at the mouth of the new course of the river instead of trying to keep La Nouvelle Orleans where it is.

Calling me a Rpblcn!

Posted by: ohrealy at April 28, 2006 1:42 PM
Comment #143889

ohrealy-
Sorry about that.

Yes, I’m aware of the Old River Project. Question is, would the Atchafalaya create problems for navigation? Would market and social forces reinforce or create resistance to the relocation of New Orleans. Would the shear cost of relocating all those facilities be prohibitive?

Moving a city is no simple thing. Nature may force our hands one of these days, but aside from that, we might just be better off with a modified restoration.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at April 28, 2006 3:25 PM
Comment #143986

S.D.,
We do not have to relocate La Nouvelle Orleans, just not rebuild most of it, especially the below grade areas. Houseboats still seem like the simplest method of dealing with the residential requirements. We should be creative. We can still build canals. LBJ had a canal project in Florida that was never completed for environmental concerns, which would have connected Jacksonville with the gulf.

O/T, The U of Chicago is sending me the text of Legends of Babylon and Egypt in Relation to the Hebrew Tradition next month, also available online at manybooks. You were apparently right about the entire b word book being based on cunieform texts of about 700 BCE. I have always been more interested in the Egyptians than the Sumerians. This is the url for my history book blog, if you are interested:

http://sevenesses.blogspot.com/

Posted by: ohrealy at April 28, 2006 7:34 PM
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