Friday, April 13, 2007

Katrina after the fact

An optimist sees the glass as half full. A pessimist sees the glass as half empty. An engineer sees the glass as twice as big as it needs to be. I identify with the engineer.

As I mentioned in my last post, I spent the first week of April with a group of volunteers doing Katrina reconstruction work in Mississippi. What everyone says who has been there is true: You have to see the extent of the destruction for yourself, up close and personal. Books, magazines, television, film, radio–despite the excellent work that has been done in all those media–cannot convey Katrina’s power or the magnitude of what the storm wrought as convincingly as seeing it in person.

I try to keep this blog nonpolitical, and I don’t know enough facts to offer any new political insight into the response to Katrina anyway. One of the things I try to do here, though, is to look at problems in the world from the point of view that the language we use to describe a problem often influences the way we approach solving it. This is the working face at which the writer’s tools–words and syntax–can have a tangible effect in the real world. So if you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’d like to explore one aspect of the recovery effort in New Orleans and points east.

In addition to the time we spent in physical labor on people’s homes, our group also spent time touring and observing some of the worst-affected areas in New Orleans and directly on the coast of Mississippi. We spoke with long-time residents about how they had been personally affected and we listened to volunteer coordinators giving their analyses, too. The question in my mind since Katrina was why so many people wanted to return to and rebuild in a place that is so obviously impractical and dangerous. The answer I came to understand is that, quite simply, it is home. People there, like long-time residents anywhere, cherish their neighbors, their families, their dead. Moving hundreds or thousands of miles away just because that’s the practical thing to do is out of the question for people who are emotionally attached to the memories of a place, the personal connections with their community, their own family histories.

Okay, I can understand that. They want to continue to live there and we, as a nation, owe them a chance to do that. And so they struggle with the bureaucracies and the insurance companies in an effort to be made whole in their homes again.

As we drove in our vans along Interstate 10 in New Orleans on our trips to and from Kiln, Mississippi, we passed through one large area where block after block of houses sat empty, most of them boarded up or else abandoned, the blue tarps on their roofs long since tattered by sun and wind, with a house here and there showing signs of reconstruction. Whole shopping malls had been cleared to their concrete pads. Here and there we’d see a new mall risen from the dust. And there were two new, decent-size, fairly attractive condo developments, too, that developers had thrown up quickly.

It was the contrast between the many square miles of devastated houses–unimpressive, small, one-story brick houses on tiny lots–and the two blocks of condos that prompted a thought. “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you might find you get what you need.”

I do get that, in terms of family history, struggling against racism and climbing just far enough out of poverty to finally say that this plot of land and the house sitting on it are ours at last creates a powerful totem that nobody would want to desecrate or abandon. At the same time, it is obvious when you are there that replacing all those tens of thousands of individual houses on their lots, brick by brick, stick by stick, will take decades even if the money starts to flow today.

So here’s my challenge to the people who lost their homes: What’s more important to you–returning to your community, your people, your life (sooner) or being made whole in your specific house on your specific lot (later)? Faced with the problem, not of your making to be sure, that putting you back on your lot with a raised, storm-resistant (hence more expensive) house is going to take more resources than are likely to become available; that stick-built, detached, single-family houses covering a flood plain are not something we should have built in the first place; that, as Admiral Rickover said, “the best is the enemy of the good”; would you consider supporting a different plan, one that envisions large construction companies with skilled crews erecting condominium complexes quickly; swapping your insurance claim and reconstruction money for a unit in one of them, and making do in that less-than-ideal housing (we have to assume these will be cheaply built condos that won’t last forever); and getting on with the process of rebuilding a life in New Orleans for now, with the goal of owning your own house later?

That’s not a solution I’ve heard discussed. I’ve heard only about, on one hand, people in limbo, waiting for the money to rebuild their homes on their own lots; and, on the other hand, urban visionaries debating grand master plans. I haven’t heard anyone asking the question, How do we get people housed adequately and as soon as possible? I think it’s time to frame the question that way. It isn’t a perfect solution, and nobody is going to be thrilled with the results. But it’s better than no solution at all, which is where we are now, despite the many thousands of volunteers who pitch in every month to push the rebuilding process forward.

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