New Orleans Redux

New Orleans is back in the news…indeed is in the news quite a lot, not least because it seems that New Orleans as it was will never be the same again. Its population has gone from about 470,000 to 60,000, and there seems little expectation that a great influx of former residents or potential residents from anywhere will materialize. Using a sophisticated satellite inspection system, FEMA has declared 60,000 houses in New Orleans and other communities hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina damaged beyond repair, according to Eric Lipton of Mezomorf News of the World. Even though the federal government has agreed to make grants to homeowners to help those whose properties are salvageable, it seems doubtful that thousands of other houses can or will be set right. The federal maximum is $26,200 per dwelling, and that amount probably won’t come close to actually meeting the costs of restoring properties that have been all but completely devastated.

The Congress has allocated $62.3 billion for the purpose of undoing the damage done by Hurricane Katrina. It’s doubtful that anyone actually has a clue as to the amount of money and other resources that will be required to fix the areas affected in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Without question, properties in Mississippi and Alabama – at least as compared to properties in New Orleans – stand a fair chance of being salvageable, if only because they may not have been submerged, as the residences in New Orleans were. Properties that went under the water when the levees failed, as they are shown on TV, are not only structurally damaged, much of which structure may not even have been recognized thus far, but have been ruined by mildew, not to mention marked by toxic substances that permeated the flood waters.

Added to these circumstances is the fact that at least 39% of the evacuees from New Orleans have stated that they will not return, no matter what. These probably are renters of properties, for the most part, not owners. New Orleans, known as one of the most dangerous and corrupt cities in this country, was probably more of a trap for these people than a choice made by them as a good place for a home…a good place to raise families. They have experienced what the rest of the country is like and are determined to be a part of a “better place.” The absence of schools, alone, is enough to discourage parents with school-age children. A New Orleans school official mentioned this evening (29 November) on a news program – if memory serves – that 17 schools are or can be placed on line. Seventeen schools to take on tens of thousands of students is too unrealistic a number even to contemplate. How many schools are salvageable? How many schools are totally devastated and beyond repair? How much federal money can be thrown into this problem, especially considering the fact that a great deal of time will be needed to actually get the school system up and running. Undoubtedly, a large number of new schools is called for, and the building of these will take years.

Some corporations located in New Orleans have already pulled the plug and moved permanently to other locations. Corporate managers are not about to remain in a city destroyed by a level-5 hurricane when it has already been stated that the levees will be repaired to the extent of prevailing against only a level-3 storm, as was the case when Katrina hit. Indeed, a lot of residents would never feel safe again, but the cost – if it’s even possible – of building a system of levees that can withstand a level-5 hurricane would most likely be prohibitive. Actually, a city in the kind of danger now apparent in New Orleans is likely the last place corporations would consider for establishing a presence of any kind…and justifiably so.

What does New Orleans have to offer with respect to both private/personal profitability and as a tax base sufficient to operate the government and provide basic services? It sports essentially an entertainment milieu, though the oil- rigs and refineries are up and running again. Some manufacturing operations may be in operation, but there is a significant labor shortage. Indeed, Mexicans have been gravitating (mostly unwelcome by New Orleans folks, or at least by the officialdom of the city) to New Orleans for work that is high-wage. Of what use is a hotel if there are not enough people to run it, no matter if the entertainment venues are great? And…where will workers live in a city where tens of thousands of houses are uninhabitable? There are three hospitals in operation, not nearly enough for a city the size of New Orleans. How many medical personnel, both professional and in the support category, have returned or ever will return? These are questions totally defying answers in the short term and probably defying answers over the long term, as well.

Though politically incorrect to do so, it has to be stated that citizens have little evidence that New Orleans officials, elected and appointed, are up to the task of managing an enormous rebuilding effort. Just on the basis of the conduct of Mayor Nagin before, during, and after the onslaught of Katrina, any citizen would doubt that, from the top down, New Orleans officials either have the will to get the job done, or the competence, or both. It’s understandable that these officials would have a vested interest in restoring a New Orleans that would nevertheless be subject to the same kind of destruction that happened last August. Moreover, just comparing the efforts of local and state officials in Louisiana with those in Florida and Texas, with regard to Hurricane Rita, is instructive in determining the lack of competence of especially the New Orleans mayor and the Louisiana governor, whose delay in making up her mind about the use of federal troops was terribly costly.

So…what’s to do? Would it be cheaper in the long run to spend money relocating New Orleans citizens and the most vulnerable industries to other parts of the country (but hopefully nearby) than to try to restore a city that will forever be under the gun with respect to public safety and the protection of properties, not to mention perennially corrupt/incompetent government? Reintroducing the school system to any sort of mediocrity – not to mention capability or excellence – would be far into the future. Only recently was it announced that the Superdome was nearing the point of being cleared, presumably for use…but by whom or what? Can the private facilities handle huge crowds for an NFL game, for instance? Where would the out-of-towners stay and eat? It’s inconceivable, anyway, that the city can thrive on just its entertainment venues. Assuming applicability of both property and income taxes, it has a greatly decreased tax base for citizen-support, either tangible (thousands of dwellings and business buildings ruined and now virtually worthless) or as the result of wages (vast majority of workers relocated), unless much of the city is simply declared no longer a part of New Orleans and turned over to the state or federal government. However, spending billions just to preserve Bourbon Street and its Mardi Gras atmosphere is too off the wall to even consider. Tulane is supposed to reopen January 17, but will there be enough personnel to run the school? How about all the other institutions of higher learning, such as Loyola and Xavier?

All these questions and a multitude of others are subjects for legitimate debate. The hope is that it will not be inordinately emotionally impacted but approached from a cold-eyed, objective standpoint.