by Austin Bay
September 6, 2005
The worried faces of Katrina's victims -- crowding the
Superdome, fleeing drowned farms and suburbs -- convey the depth of personal
loss 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 on
the faces of refugees elsewhere on the planet. I visited Uganda in 2002.
Ethnic fighting had erupted in the eastern Congo, and small groups of
Congolese fled across the Ugandan border. I remember the exhaustion and
dread in their eyes.
Of course, there is no one-to-one equivalency between Katrina's
victims and refugees escaping war. Still, Katrina left southern Louisiana
and 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 South
Asian tsunami, for example) the initial tragedy is compounded because
neighboring regions or nations are either unable or unwilling to provide the
sustained aid and long-term support the victims need. Like human waves, the
refugees wash from one poor country to another.
America has infrastructure, abundant supplies and logistical
capacity -- a plethora of means combined with the will to act. In Katrina's
immediate aftermat, we're seeing that will exercised. First, the city of
Houston opened its doors to the dispossessed, then other Texas and
Southwestern cities followed. Now, California is preparing to welcome
evacuees. Universities, public school systems and private schools throughout
the 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's
apartment glut. That will occur in other cities, as evacuees arrive and seek
housing. Distribution, of course, remains uneven. Baton Rouge has doubled in
population, and is a refugee camp.
Many evacuees may choose to make their temporary homes
permanent, though the transition from evacuee to new citizen will surely be
Most evacuees, I suspect, will want to return home. But return
to what? This is the crucial question effective long-term and sustained
recovery efforts must ask and answer -- otherwise, much of the effort will
Biloxi, Miss., looks like a bombed-out Berlin or Hamburg.
Katrina flattened Biloxi, and it will take years to rebuild. But rebuilding
Biloxi makes sense. Biloxi is above sea level. Though severely damaged, key
transportation networks in and around the city are still usable.
By now, everyone knows most of the city of New Orleans lies
below sea level. Agreed, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico are
New Orleans' raison d'etre. The Mississippi-Missouri-Ohio river system and
barge 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 made
Houston Texas' premier seaport. "The New Port" of New-New Orleans may need
to be relocated -- upriver. The National Park Service maintains Harpers
Ferry, W.V., as a living antique, so it's a good bet a "boutique" Historic
Old New Orleans will remain, centered around the French Quarter. But
rebuilding 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, and
they will destroy even the best-built levees. New-New Orleans must be built
upriver, on higher ground. Perhaps its name is Greater Baton Rouge.