On Point: Return to What?

by Austin Bay
September 6, 2005

The worried faces of Katrina's victims -- crowding theSuperdome, fleeing drowned farms and suburbs -- convey the depth of personalloss and tragedy. The sheer numbers of evacuees describe the larger tragedy:Katrina has created an American refugee crisis. It will take a long-term,sustained relief and recovery effort to resolve it.

For recovery efforts to be effective, however, several crucial,painful questions must be asked and answered.

The haunted faces of evacuees remind me of the fear I've seen onthe faces of refugees elsewhere on the planet. I visited Uganda in 2002.Ethnic fighting had erupted in the eastern Congo, and small groups ofCongolese fled across the Ugandan border. I remember the exhaustion anddread in their eyes.

Of course, there is no one-to-one equivalency between Katrina'svictims and refugees escaping war. Still, Katrina left southern Louisianaand Mississippi as devastated as any combat zone. Instead of high explosive,high winds and high water have made major cities and towns uninhabitable,and forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate.

In many cases, their homes -- and possibly entire communities --are lost forever.

In so many mega-disasters around the planet (the Congo and SouthAsian tsunami, for example) the initial tragedy is compounded becauseneighboring regions or nations are either unable or unwilling to provide thesustained aid and long-term support the victims need. Like human waves, therefugees wash from one poor country to another.

America has infrastructure, abundant supplies and logisticalcapacity -- a plethora of means combined with the will to act. In Katrina'simmediate aftermat, we're seeing that will exercised. First, the city ofHouston opened its doors to the dispossessed, then other Texas andSouthwestern cities followed. Now, California is preparing to welcomeevacuees. Universities, public school systems and private schools throughoutthe country have made room for students who fled hurricane-ravaged areas.Last week, my daughter's high school enrolled a student from New Orleans --the first of many.

A de facto "mid-term" strategy has evolved -- we've begun"distributing" evacuees throughout the United States. "Distribution"maximizes resources. Katrina's Louisiana evacuees have erased Houston'sapartment glut. That will occur in other cities, as evacuees arrive and seekhousing. Distribution, of course, remains uneven. Baton Rouge has doubled inpopulation, and is a refugee camp.

Many evacuees may choose to make their temporary homespermanent, though the transition from evacuee to new citizen will surely bedifficult.

Most evacuees, I suspect, will want to return home. But returnto what? This is the crucial question effective long-term and sustainedrecovery efforts must ask and answer -- otherwise, much of the effort willbe wasted.

Biloxi, Miss., looks like a bombed-out Berlin or Hamburg.Katrina flattened Biloxi, and it will take years to rebuild. But rebuildingBiloxi makes sense. Biloxi is above sea level. Though severely damaged, keytransportation networks in and around the city are still usable.

By now, everyone knows most of the city of New Orleans liesbelow sea level. Agreed, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico areNew Orleans' raison d'etre. The Mississippi-Missouri-Ohio river system andbarge canals turn America's midlands -- from the Dakotas to Pittsburgh --into seaports. Geography means an industrial "New-New Orleans" must exist.

The Great 1900 Hurricane destroyed Galveston, Texas, and madeHouston Texas' premier seaport. "The New Port" of New-New Orleans may needto be relocated -- upriver. The National Park Service maintains HarpersFerry, W.V., as a living antique, so it's a good bet a "boutique" HistoricOld New Orleans will remain, centered around the French Quarter. Butrebuilding city neighborhoods on land below sea level in hurricane prone zones becomes a moral issue.Why expose another generation to disaster? "Super 'canes" will reoccur, andthey will destroy even the best-built levees. New-New Orleans must be builtupriver, on higher ground. Perhaps its name is Greater Baton Rouge.

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To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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