Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Without a New Deal, New Orleans Is Just Casinoville

The following article, which I highly recommend, appeared in this morning's print edition of the Houston Chronicle. The newspaper might like to explain why a shorter version posted on its website omits most of the paragraphs about racial politics and current hurricane readiness. It's at

New Orleans sits at critical juncture
Historian says redevelopment hurt by ineptitude and indifference

Two years after Hurricane Katrina blasted into the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts to create the costliest natural disaster in the nation's history, New Orleans stands at a crucial crossroads.

In one direction looms a future as a casino-driven adult entertainment mecca, said historian Douglas Brinkley. In the other, the promise of rebirth as a cultural capital and city of stable, close-knit neighborhoods.

Key to the city's fate, said Brinkley, is whether the American public is prepared to commit $50 billion or more to enhancing the city's levees and restoring eroded wetlands that shield the largely below-sea-level city from nature's fury.

"The next president will be the one to make the decision," Brinkley said. "By 2012 — one more administration after this — it will be apparent in which direction New Orleans will go."

Brinkley spoke Tuesday at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy. A tenured Rice history professor and institute fellow, Brinkley is the author of The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which this year won the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.

A former professor at New Orleans' Tulane University, Brinkley said redevelopment of the stricken city has faltered through political indifference or ineptitude. "Katrina," he said, "wiped out all the major players."

Mayor C. Ray Nagin, he charged, engaged in "raw buffoonery," indulging in racial politics that limited his ability to address the city's desperate problems. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco's efforts were hampered by her Democratic Party affiliation.

President Bush, he said, adopted a policy of deliberate inaction. "The situation was too volatile racially for him to handle," Brinkley said. Rather than advising residents of hard-hit, sub-sea-level African-American neighborhoods not to return, Brinkley said, the president tacitly welcomed them back.

"It's disingenuous," Brinkley added, noting neighborhoods like the Lower 9th Ward still lack schools and essential services. Banks, Brinkley said, are reluctant to grant loans for rebuilding in those areas, insurance companies disinclined to write policies.

Furthermore, Brinkley said, Bush has concentrated on fighting a war on terror rather than addressing New Orleans' significant social and ecological concerns. "It is," he said, "an ugly kind of scenario."

With 350 miles of levees needing attention and huge expanses of wetlands needing restoration — 1,900 square miles of wetlands have been lost since the 1930s — nothing less than a New Deal-magnitude public works project can save the Crescent City and coastal Louisiana, Brinkley said.

"I promise you," Brinkley told his audience, "New Orleans is not prepared for even a Category 1 hurricane."

Today, Brinkley said, New Orleans is a city divided not so much by race as by geography. The French Quarter, Garden District and other tourist destinations situated on the river's natural levee largely escaped damage. Neighborhoods in low-lying areas, though, were devastated.

Katrina, a Category 3 storm, struck the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts on August 29, 2005, causing more than $81 billion in damage. New Orleans escaped the storm's initial fury but experienced devastating flooding when canal levees failed.

Without wise restoration and development, Brinkley said, the city could become little more than a string of casinos--an adult tourist destination devoid of its vibrant, neighborhood-fueled culture.

If the Dutch can protect the low-lying cities and the Italians preserve Venice, "why can't we in the U.S. save New Orleans? It asks who we are as a generation," he said.

1 comment:

Gerald T Floyd said...

After my post, I sent an email to the Chronicle's reader representative. He said he also found it unusual that the on-line version left out parts of the print version, and he would look into it. The Chronicle website shows the full print was restored on the website at 4:19 p.m. CT 9/19. A final paragraph not in the print version was added. The link is the same as in my post.