The Illusion of Safety

It is not very often that I find myself agreeing with a Republican. Yet it happened recently. Moreover, of all the unlikely people I agreed with, it was Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. Speaker Hastert suggested, at least initially, that the City of New Orleans should not be rebuilt.

Asked whether it made sense to spend billions of federal tax dollars reconstructing a city that sits below sea level and remains vulnerable, Hastert said: “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Hastert since backed off his remarks. How he says:

“My comments about rebuilding the city were intended to reflect my sincere concern with how the city is rebuilt to ensure the future protection of its citizens and not to suggest that this great and historic city should not be rebuilt,” Hastert said in a statement sent to news organizations Thursday.

Clearly, he soon realized that his remarks were politically incorrect. Naturally, he was pounced on for his remarks. My favorite liberal blog had numerous diaries and stories pummeling him for the remark. The common thread was that Hastert was being an insensitive and uncaring jerk. Hastert may be that way in real life for all I know. I have never met him. In this case, Hastert may have been blunt, but I also think he was right.

It may be that the kindest act the government can do for New Orleans is to bury it. The city had a great run but Hurricane Katrina should have sobered up everyone. New Orleans is no longer viable as a city in its current location. Perhaps that is why its population has been declining. It will likely decline a lot more after this disaster.

Nearby Bay St. Louis, Mississippi was destroyed by Hurricane Camille in 1969 and subsequently rebuilt. Now Hurricane Katrina has destroyed it again. Bay St. Louis though is comparatively small compared with New Orleans. In addition, it is above sea level. Arguably, after Hurricane Camille, Bay St. Louis should have been rebuilt further inland. However, given its size, it makes no economic sense to rebuild New Orleans. It will suffer the same fate again. No levee can be built high enough to keep the city from its ultimate fate. The higher the levees go the more force the river can apply to the levees, which makes them more likely it is to be breeched. When that happens, more people will die needlessly and it will probably happen much more quickly.

What is needed is some tough love. Yes, we need to help the residents of New Orleans and affected parishes rebuild their lives. We should certainly continue to provide temporary shelter and emergency aid. However, when it comes to rebuilding these residents’ lives, we need to help them do it elsewhere. The government should provide incentives for these dislocated citizens to rebuild their lives inland. It should offer disincentives for rebuilding their lives in New Orleans.

Of course, I know how difficult this will be for the affected families. Many likely have roots in New Orleans that go back generations. While I have never been to New Orleans, I know it has a unique culture, wonderful people and many fine historic buildings. Perhaps these institutions should be preserved. Perhaps the city could become a tourist destination only. Nevertheless, I do not think people should actually live in the city again. The risk for its inhabitants is unacceptable. Those who choose to do so should be required to sign a statement disclaiming the government from all financial liabilities for their decision.

New Orleans is really part of a natural coastal flood plain. Just as development is strictly limited on the Outer Banks of North Carolina (homeowners who choose to build houses there generally cannot afford homeowner or flood insurance) those who choose to live in New Orleans or anywhere along our hurricane coasts have to bear the enormous risks to themselves and their property for their decision. We do not bail out gamblers who lose their fortunes in Las Vegas. Similarly, we should not reward New Orleans residents with low cost loans or grants to rebuild their houses.

The response to Hurricane Katrina was clearly bungled at all levels of government. However, the situation was exacerbated by the folly of having so many people living in such a dangerous area. Clearly more should have been done to evacuate people who did not have the means to leave the city. Clearly the local, state and the federal governments should have done a much better job preparing for huge disasters like Hurricane Katrina. While more lives could have been saved, it is folly to think this disaster could have been prevented.

Since 9/11, in particular we have expected our government to keep us safe. Certainly, the government should do a lot to keep us safe from known threats. However, even a premier superpower like the United States has its limits. When a Category 4 or 5 hurricane hits a coastal area with 140 mile an hour or plus winds, and sends storm surges of twenty feet or more above sea level then all the government can do is wait out the event and pick up the pieces as best it can. If you live along a Gulf Coast and you expect the government to keep you and your property safe from hurricanes, you are deluded. Unless everyone lives in hurricane-reinforced structures like the USGS Hydrological Instrumentation Facility (which I happen to know about through my job) homes are going to be destroyed. (The HIF, by the way, sheltered hundreds of people during the storm and emerged reasonably intact.) Even if you are fortunate enough to live in such a facility, there are still no guarantees. Mother Nature can undo any work of man. If it does not succeed through a calamity, it occurs through the slow but steady march of time.

So here is the sad reality: the government cannot protect its citizens from lots of threats. Even the threats that we want it to protect us from are largely out of its control. After 9/11, we want assurances that similar incidents will not recur in the United States. The government can do a lot to deter such events, but it cannot necessarily prevent all of them. We can do obvious things like screen passengers and baggage entering the country. Nevertheless, with thousands of miles of borders that we have never succeeded in securing, someone with the will and the means can get into our country. Considering our success rate at capturing illegal aliens, a determined terrorist will find a way to get into our country.

We must wake up and acknowledge government’s limits. We cry out to government to protect us from terrorism, natural disasters, crime, unsafe medicines and foods, gun violence, disease and from millions of other things. Fear is our greatest motivator. Politicians have played on our fears to keep them in office. It may be that because politicians could not protect us adequately from Hurricane Katrina that voters will throw the bums out, and put Democrats back in charge. As a partisan Democrat, I certainly hope so. While no government can make life completely safe for everyone, the Democrats have a much better record of these accomplishments than Republicans do.

Nevertheless, if Democrats get back into office by persuading voters that they will keep America safe they too will be guilty of wholesale pandering. It is foolish to promise that the government can keep its citizens completely safe on any issue. All government can do is improve the odds. Arguably, it should have been a lot better in deterring 9/11 and preparing for Hurricane Katrina. Yet life is uncertain. No government, no matter how competent and well funded can make it certain.

However, government act progressively. It can do a lot to minimize future calamities. In the case of hurricanes, it can penalize those who choose to live near the coast and reward those who live away from our coasts. The chances of this happening in our democracy though are slim. We voters insist that our politicians tell us what they want to hear. So we voters need to sober up too. We need to realize that any government has natural limitations. We need to use our forebrains and vote logically. We should not be pulling the levers for politicians who tell us what we want to hear. Instead, we should be supporting those who have realistic plans for those areas that the government can competently manage.

Life is uncertain. We can be alive at one moment and dead the next. We will all die in time. We will all suffer our share of disasters, heartache and misery. Suffering, as the Buddhists (and others) have pointed out, is an unpleasant fact. We cannot wish it away. We can certainly minimize it, and government can do a lot to reduce unnecessary suffering. Nevertheless, we must all suffer. Despite our best-laid plans, some shit is going to happen. We must come to terms the uncertainty of our lives. It is sensible for many of us to take steps to minimize life’s risks. Nevertheless, our lives are like rolling a pair of die. It is foolish to think we will get snake eyes every time.

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