Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Gilded Age

Federal City

As the Summer of @Katrina10 presses on, one important thing to keep in mind about the "recovery" we are celebrating is that it was more or less inevitable.
An unprecedented $71 billion in federal assistance has remade southeast Louisiana in ways large and small, from the temporary blue-tarp roofs that dotted the landscape in late 2005 to the higher, stronger levees that replaced the ones that failed so catastrophically on Aug. 29, spilling tragedy into the region.

The federal money spent on rebuilding south Louisiana in the decade since hurricanes Katrina and Rita is roughly equivalent to what officials in Baton Rouge would typically spend on capital projects statewide over 60 years. Taken together with the emergency aid it provided in the storms’ aftermath, the federal government has spent three times the annual state budget on Louisiana’s recovery.

We’ll never see this again in our lifetime,” said Cedric Grant, director of the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s point man on public works.

Though slow to launch, the spending made possible by the huge federal aid package also helped to sustain a population that had been scattered by the storms and sparked an economic boom that carried New Orleans through the worst of a national recession.
We really did "buck the trend."  How could we not have, given the circumstances? It's unfortunate that we spent the decade celebrating the start of a new "Entreprneur Week" every hour or so. "Entrepreneurs" didn't  come from all over to rebuild New Orleans.  They came from all over because this is where the money was.

Ugly political grandstanding aside, the money was always going to come and the city was always going to be rebuilt.  The main challenges for local "leaders" were, first, to work (and fight) with the feds to maximize total recovery spending. The second challenge was to ensure that the recovery happened equitably; that the billions of dollars were spent in a way that best benefited all of the victims of the flood.

But, by and large, our leaders failed in these missions.  Under Nagin, they failed at both. Under Mitch they were better at the first but that only made their failure at the second worse.  Not that anyone took the second part seriously anyway. Instead the money spigot was turned toward building a "New New Orleans" with less affordable housing but plenty of nice things for rich people.

Whenever anyone complains, we're always told to be patient; that this is the beginning and soon enough the housing market will balance out and the great education experiment will yield more equitable results.  But that sounds dubious. Especially now that the money is mostly gone.
Today, an entire region whose very future was uncertain a decade ago is preparing to draw down the last of the federal aid. More than 92 percent of the money allotted to response and recovery efforts has been spent.
This is the end of the recovery period.  The mayor even said so himself last month.  If the city as it is now, doesn't suit, well.. get used to it because this is what they've given us.

And it's likely to stay this way at least until the next flood which is probably inevitable as well.  After all, given what we know about climate change, coastal loss, and soil subsidence, it's only a matter of time before even our new and improved flood protection system becomes obsolete.   Louisiana's plan to deal with coastal loss alone is estimated to cost at least another $50 billion. Realistically speaking, though, it will probably cost much more than that; more than the $71 billion already spent on Katrina recovery, in fact.  How likely is that to happen? Cedric Grant thinks "never in our lifetime."

The city is going to keep celebrating this summer. But the "recovery" they're saluting is more accurately a little Gilded Age between disasters. Those who have the capacity to do so will squeeze whatever money they can out of what's left of the city before it's gone completely. Those who can't afford to play that game are gradually squeezed out.  Seems natural enough, unless you have any sense of propriety or justice neither of which is much in fashion now or ever.

Maybe there's still a way to get in on the racket before it's too late. (Update: Maybe try this one too.)

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