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On Point

Return to What?


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 difficult.

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 be wasted.

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.

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