Monday, January 16, 2006

That City Council

Now that the mayor's Bring New Orleans Back commission has released its urban planning report, and now that the City Council has responded by screaming "Over our dead bodies!!", everyone's wondering, now just what the hell are they up to?

Protecting their own interests of course. When we first started talking about rebuilding, their position was that every neighborhood, no matter how badly flooded, should be immediately opened to rebuilding. This is not a plan, it is an absense of a plan, and would just be setting us up for a repeat of the disaster.

The BNOB plan at least has some realism to it. Some areas are going to be just too dangerous to repopulate, unless the Feds come up with Cat 5 levee protection. Much of the population has been scattered across the country, and the estimate is that by two years from now only half will have come back. Neighborhoods have to have a certain population density to be viable, and if dangerous neighborhoods end up lightly populated, it makes sense to buy out the property owners and help several neighborhoods consolidate into a new, properly dense neighborhood in a safer location.

That's the gist of it anyway. We're all still studying the details. We have to make sure it's flexible, for one thing. They estimate 200,000 will come back within a few years, but if 300,000 want to we can hardly tell them no.

But I was talking about the City Council. Why they were previously saying "rebuild everywhere!", and why they are now so furious about the idea of buyouts or, in the worst cases, confiscation through eminent domain. I can see several reasons for their behavior, some admirable, others less so.

One is that hard decisions are easier to accept if you make them yourself. When I was an AIDS Hotline counselor back in the 80s, the first thing they taught us in training was never to give advice. This struck me as odd, but they explained. People called because they needed help in making decisions with literally life or death consequences. But their best chance of sticking with a decision was if they made it themselves, not just followed advice. The most you could do was talk them through all the consequences of various choices, until they saw which ones made sense.

The Lower 9th Ward is never going to be restored to what it was. If they haven't already done so, many owners will come back, see what's left, and realize it is economically impossible to try and rebuild. For them, a buyout based on pre-Katrina property values is probably the best they will get. If the council is trying to get people to come back, make an assessment, and make those hard choices themselves, that's fine.

But.... Americans are not very good at meekly taking orders from authority. If it's hard enough to decide you can't rebuild, it's impossible to accept being TOLD you can't rebuild, and the very possibility of that produces the fury we've been seeing at public hearings. And as we humans have incredible powers of rationalization, anyone who is prevented from trying to recreate his destroyed home will believe to the day he dies that he could have put it all back together if the guv'mint had only given him a chance.

Property owners -- and voters -- who are in such an enraged state of mind are disinclined to re-elect. The council members know this, and know they will be the first to feel the voters' wrath if it comes to that. I fear that's why they are encouraging this fantasy that everything can be put back just the way it was if the mayor and the governor and so on would just give the go ahead. I think that they know perfectly well what is going to have to happen, that the physical and social architecture of the city is going to change. This is a more complex matter than just shrinking the boundaries, or "footprint", of the city. Much will change, and the City Council members are moving to make sure that the enraged displaced will see someone else as the bad guy, not them. That's fine up to a point, but when they go past that point they are trying to save their electoral skins at the risk of doing irreperable damage to New Orleans's chances of recovery. That's not fine at all.

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