Recovery 2.0: Reimagining New Orleans

We need to put our country’s best brains and experience to the question of what to do with New Orleans.

We should see a cooperative effort — or perhaps a competition — among the country’s best urban studies programs, architecture schools, economics departments, MBA programs, engineering and environmental programs and their counterparts in industry, with a few (the few) competent politicians thrown in (read: Rudy).

This is not as simple as pumping out, digging up, and moving back in, of course. There are complex engineering and enviromental issues: Can this city be made safe from the water and the pollutants that took it over and at what cost? There are blunt economic questions that must be asked: How many people can this place support when it had no industry aside from tourism before the storm and when residents will stay away in droves after the storm? There are social issues we’ve not begun to grapple with: How can we improve the prospects of minorities trapped in the poverty, crime, and injustice that took over this city? What is appropriate public spending and what is merely the product of cynical political ass-covering? How do we make sure that money reaches its goals? What is the appropriate and fair public policy for this and future disasters? What is a new vision for the city?

This could start at a grandiose level: a foundation brings together the best and brightest.

Or this could start at our level: someone starts a weblog or a wiki with an idea and a challenge to share better ideas. Big thinking can come from small starts, from anyone anywhere.

And we need big thinking that is unafraid to ask the hard questions and come up with imaginative answers. Perhaps New Orleans should be a new planned community. Or it should be all but abandoned and its residents helped with relocation elsewhere. Or it should finally go all the way and become the Vegas of the South with entertainment, food, gambling, and conventions at its core. Or turned into an economic development zone that creates opportunities where so few existed. Or what?

Recovering from Katrina needs more than water bottles and helicopters and buses. It needs strategy, imagination, the intelligent use of capital, real and political. We can’t leave this to the governments that made such a mess of the city — at every level, yes, every level. We need to need to help our fellow citizens in New Orleans find a better future. For tomorrow, it could be our town.

: This is about the positive: building the appropriate future. But it also about preventing the negative: corruption, patronage, pork. Glenn Reynolds spotted this scathing criticism of Louisiana’s pols in today’s Post:

The state’s representatives have come up with a request for $250 billion in federal reconstruction funds for Louisiana alone — more than $50,000 per person in the state. This money would come on top of payouts from businesses, national charities and insurers. And it would come on top of the $62.3 billion that Congress has already appropriated for emergency relief.

Like looters who seize six televisions when their homes have room for only two, the Louisiana legislators are out to grab more federal cash than they could possibly spend usefully. For example, their bill demands $7 billion for rebuilding evacuation and energy supply routes, but it also demands a separate $5 billion for road building and makes no mention of the $3.1 billion already awarded to the state in the recent transportation legislation. …

The Louisiana delegation has apparently devoted little thought to the root causes of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. New Orleans was flooded not because the Army Corps of Engineers had insufficient money to build flood protections, but because its money was allocated by a system of political patronage. The smart response would be to insist that, in the future, no Corps money be wasted on unworthy projects, but the Louisiana bill instead creates a mechanism by which cost-benefit analysis can be avoided….

…Congress should ignore the Louisiana bill and force itself to think seriously about the sort of reconstruction that makes sense. Katrina has exposed mistakes of policy: water-infrastructure programs that made flooding more likely, and levees and insurance schemes that encouraged human settlement in dangerous places. Now that Congress is getting ready to spend tens of billions on reconstruction, it must seize the opportunity to correct those past errors.

Do we trust Congress more than the legislators of Louisiana? Barely, perhaps. Mark Tapscott urged that the entire process of reconstruction be thick with FOIAs. He’s right. We have to watch these people.

: Note that I’m not saying I have any experience to contribute to reimagining New Orleans or accounting for the money; I’m just a gadfly journalist. But I know there are brilliant people in this country who can set the agenda that government does not have. I’m eager to see them help.

: Note also that I’ll be posting what I hope is a simple agenda for next month’s Recovery 2.0 meeting. I hadn’t intended to raise anything so grandiose as this but who knows what people will want to bring in.