Monday, August 03, 2015

What do you think of when you think about "public safety"?

Here is an essential op-ed by John Barry that ran in the New York Times over the weekend.  I say "essential" in that it lays out, for a national readership, the continuing challenge of protecting New Orleans, not only from flooding during the next inevitable major hurricane, but from sinking into the Gulf of Mexico altogether. For us locals, though, much of this is just review. Or so I thought, anyway.

Barry goes through the unique geology of South Louisiana, the problems of flood control and soil subsidence, and the special political challenges of holding the oil industry responsible for its sizeable contribution to the problem. His conclusion is dark.
Right now the city is safer than it was pre-Katrina, but it’s hardly secure, and it’s growing more dangerous every day. Even in the face of rising seas, however, it can be made much safer. The state has enough money to start its program, even if it doesn’t have nearly enough to continue, much less complete, the necessary work, once the BP settlement runs out. There is an unfortunate precedent. After Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the federal government began building the city’s hurricane protection. In 2005 when Katrina struck, that system remained unfinished.

On the 10th anniversary of Katrina, there will be much congratulating over how far the city has come. Mayor Landrieu has declared rebuilding over and is preparing to make New Orleans an international showpiece for its 300th anniversary in 2018. If the city and state focus on the one existential threat they face. New Orleans could have a sustainable future. But if focus dissipates, if politics blocks action, the 300th anniversary will most likely be the last centennial the city celebrates.
We've already seen politics block action. Barry experienced that first hand and writes about it in his article.  But that other part about "if the focus dissipates," that's worrisome. Barry pointedly places it aside the mayor's upcoming Tricentennial celebrations. Even this year, the official tone of the city's 10 year Katrina commemoration is one of great triumph. 

Meanwhile, the impending crisis has settled far to the back of our collective mind. I put the Barry article on Twitter the other day. Its title "Is New Orleans Safe?" generated immediate responses from many who assumed it was about crime.  We'll be arguing about whether or not we're safe from crime for as long as we're here. We haven't got much time left to decide how long that's going to be.

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