(HOST) Commentator Bill Shutkin (SHUT-kin) has been thinking about the challenge – and opportunity – of rebuilding New Orleans.
(SHUTKIN) On a radio talk show the other night, a New Orleans journalist, commenting on the city’s resilience and pride in the face of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, sounded a defiant tone.
He said that within a matter of months the city would rebuild its broken levies and buildings and return to normal.
You might expect a survivor to say that, but what was really striking was what the journalist didn’t say. He failed to note that the Federal Emergency Management Agency warned in 2001 that a hurricane striking New Orleans was one of the three most likely disasters in the U.S, or that a year later, the New Orleans Times- Picayune published a five-part series predicting that the city would one day be flooded by even a relatively mild hurricane once its levees were breached. The series’ authors argued for an immediate shift in development and environmental policies so as to avoid the building patterns that left the area ever more vulnerable to disaster.
Equally troubling, the journalist made no mention of the fact that the overwhelming majority of Katrina’s victims so far have been the city’s blacks and low-income residents. Katrina, like so many other so-called “natural disasters”, is really a poor person’s catastrophe: those with the fewest resources suffer the most. In New Orleans, a city precariously situated below Lake Pontchar- train and the Mississippi River on unstable marshes, low-income residents live in the lowest of the bottomlands, putting them at greatest risk of flooding and related hazards.
The journalist’s omissions speak volumes about a problem not only in New Orleans but across the nation’s cities and towns: our collective unwillingness to plan for and invest in development that both sustains our essential natural systems and ensures our most vulnerable populations are not left behind. For three centuries, Americans have found a way to bulldoze, backfill and otherwise engineer our way around many of nature’s obstacles — from tidelands to fire zones to fault lines. Invariably, these fixes have proved temporary, if not outright foolhardy.
At the same time, through a combination of public policy and market decisions, we’ve made sure that people of color and low-income residents are left with the least desirable parts of our cities and towns — the flood-prone Mill Creek area of West Philadelphia, Oakland’s noisy highway corridors, the blighted industrial zones of East St. Louis, LA’s abandoned oil fields.
Frederich Engels warned that “In nature, nothing takes place in isolation. . . .” “Each conquest, ” he said “takes its revenge on us.” He was right. New Orleans’ failure to pursue a path of more sustainable and equitable development has affected all of us at the gas pump, in the halls of Congress and, perhaps most important- ly, in our hearts. We owe it to Katrina’s victims, to the city of New Orleans and to the nation as a whole to heed the lessons from this experience and begin to make better choices about how and where we live.
This is Bill Shutkin of Peru.
Bill Shutkin is president of the Orton Family Foundation and a Research Affiliate at M-I-T. He spoke from our studio at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester.