Historians Should Help Design the Reconstruction of the Affected Communities

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Ms. Lerner was president of the Organization of American Historians in 1981-82.

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A small group of Madison folks met over the weekend to see if we could contribute some proposals for long-range solutions for the people caught in the New Orleans horror. The attached statement is the result of our thinking. We have made appointments to see our Congress people and would like to present them with as many signatures as possible to the statement, when we see them.

If you agree, please send me an email with your signature. Please feel free to copy this statement, modify it in any way you like, and send it out to others. The important thing is to get an expression of popular opinion that offers thinking that goes beyond meeting the most immediate needs.

The short-term relief offered to the victims of hurricane Katrina will not address the major problems of the more than one million victims of this disaster. The shattered lives must be rebuilt one by one, but displaced citizens must above all have a chance to return to rebuilt communities in New Orleans and the other affected areas, if they so chose. Long-range healing will be enhanced if disaster victims can participate in rebuilding their communities.

Our country has a long history of meeting such challenges: mass unemployment and dislocation of the Great Depression were successfully remedied by WPA, CCC and other federal reconstruction programs. A million GI veterans of World War II were helped by the GI Bill of Rights, which offered them housing relief in quonset huts and trailers, paid education and a chance to rebuild their lives.

We urge you to further the reconstruction of suffering communities and the rehabilitation of displaced citizens by working for the following measures:

1. Enact a federal works program for the reconstruction of the affected communities. Give displaced citizens priority in hiring for this program.

2. Enact laws to provide a check-off box on income tax returns for donations to a rehabilitation fund for hurricane victims.

3. Create a Citizens Committee to oversee the reconstruction and rehabilitation program. Such a committee must include a significant number of displaced citizens.

4. Provide all affected victims who do not have medical insurance, with life-long Medicare insurance, including psychological and psychiatric services, as needed.

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    More Comments:

    Andrew D. Todd - 9/15/2005

    Well, here is a picture of "Madame John's Legacy," dating from the early eighteenth century, generally agreed to be the classic New Orleans house. It seems to be pretty much what you are proposing. The windowless lower level would have been an above-ground cellar for food storage, and the living floor was about ten feet off the ground. In modern terms, I suppose one would use the basement for a garage. When a building has survived the misadventures of a couple of hundred years, one has to assume the builder knew what he was doing.

    I do know something about tropical native huts. In the tropical swamps, it is considered prudent to live ten feet above the normal ground or water level, because that gets you up and above the great mass of the mosquitoes and other biting insects. Only "mad dogs and Englishmen" choose to live at ground level. A mosquito which climbed to ten feet altitude would probably be easy prey for a bird or a bat.


    Here's an official website, apparently still above water and transmitting:


    John H. Lederer - 9/13/2005

    This article is quite troubling:

    It suggests that (1) we don't know why the floodwalls failed, (2) we don't know if the design limits of the walls were exceeded and (3)it is possible that the failure was the result of bad construction or bad design.

    Yet, we seem to be encouraging a return to New Orleans. The probability of a Cat 3/4, or 5 hurricane is the same now as it was before Katrina. Without knowing why New Orleans flooded we don't even know if a severe hurricane is necessary for failure.

    This is a wrong thing to do.

    John H. Lederer - 9/11/2005

    My apologies-- wrong comment for this thread.

    I meant to give a link to this column, suggesting that New Orlean's future might be similar to that of Galveston:


    John H. Lederer - 9/11/2005

    One should not rely on Reuters for fair reporting.

    It is true that the named firms have connections to the White House. So undoubtedly, in one way or another, do all large firms in the country.

    The Shaw Group, however, is well known as a strong supporter of Democrats, the Democratic Party, and Blanco and Landrieu. A few minutes on the Internet will show you that its CEO (and his wife, Dana) have contributed to most every democratic campaign in Louisiana.

    Oh, yes, Jim Bernhard, the CEO, is also Chairman of the Louisiana Democratic Party.


    Cronies of Bush?

    John H. Lederer - 9/9/2005

    We largely agree -- both are needed.

    My thought is that the appropiate principal role of government should be to supply a "foundation" on which private effort can build.

    "Foundation" is meant both figuratively and literally. Literally in the sense of making a surface on which buildings can be erected, whether that surface is flood protected earth or pilings. I addition "foundation" includes the basic public infrastructure of roads, sewage, etc.

    The cost of doing that is a key element. If it is too expensive, then New Orleans will become a very small city, and growth in the area will move to better protected areas farther up the Misissippi.

    I don't know what a reasonable cost is, but assuming that 3 million people were significatly affected by Katrina, the 100 billion the feds are talking about would be about $33,000 a head. Add in say half that for state and other funding and we are already at 50,000 a head, or $200,000 for a family of 4. That starts to be a bit worrisome when median household wealth is about 65,000.

    As a tax load that is starting to reach something like $1,000 per taxpayer.

    My math, as it has been since the thrid grade is suspect, but I think that is the order of magnitude we are talking about.

    Most importantly, we have not yet even started to figure the cost of providing the flood proofing I allude to.

    I am not saying that we are there, but it could certainly reach the dimension where the appropiate response is "Here are the real estate listings for Cedar Rapids. Lots of nice houses under 200,000, and the schools are great!"

    Oscar Chamberlain - 9/9/2005

    I don't disagree with you. Such planning is essential. But I don't think this is a cart and horse situation.

    I think there will be a range of desired outcomes; a range of physical limitations (your concern), and the result will be a compromise of sorts between the two.

    I've been focusing on the desires; you on the physical limitations. I think we really need figure both out now in order to move toward a decent solution.

    John H. Lederer - 9/8/2005

    The horse is a reasonable plan to make New Orleans safe from flooding.

    The cart is rebuilding.

    The proposals are some ideas for the cart. What's the plan for the horse?

    I do not regard higher levees as a reasonable plan because it violates the fundamental engineering rubric of redundancy ("nail and glue") when human life is at risk. It also is a losing game. levees mean New Orleans subsides and higher levees are needed.

    The two serious flood proposals I have heard are (1) build surge stopping barriers between Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf ( apparently started in the 70's but stopped by a successful environmental suit) along with better levees and (2) rebuild New Orleans above sea level on pilings/cribs (save for the high land near the river - commercial district and the french quarter), let it flood, and add surge and flood mitigating structures so that a 10' or so elevation above the water level is safe.

    The second proposal has the great advantage that it will stop subsidence (because flooding will replenish silt). It also has the great advantage/disadvantage that New Orleans would become a different sort of place --a water city where boardwalks and water taxis would be main features.

    I am sure there might be other ideas for the horse.

    I do regard it as deeply wrong to proceed to rebuilding (and enticing people back) without first solving the flood problem.

    Oscar Chamberlain - 9/8/2005

    You are right that the WPA did not end the Depression. It did, however, help many localities in both job and infrastructure creation. The projects were also identified and to a considerable extent managed locally. Many also had some local funding.

    Any program to help Lousiana and Mississippi rebuild will be focusing on localities. As such, the WPA is a relevant example of a possible effective approach.

    By the way, the government contracting private companies is not always so pretty in our history. Consider the Civil War and the North as a large scale example.

    Frederick Thomas - 9/8/2005

    I do appreciate the old fashioned town meeting urge to help, which is clearly on display here, but must question the prescription.

    Historians leading the charge? What particular competence do they bring to fund-raising, planning, hiring, engineering, or construction?

    The plan recommended is about the same as for all large weather or other disasters. It's common sense.

    The one part which is foolish and will not work is the WPA type organization mentioned, which was a disaster and would be again.

    Mass unemployment was not addressed by the alphabet agencies. We had essentially no improvement in employment during the depression until FDRs little war, 1941, while the rest of Europe had recovered economically by 1934. Only FDR, who practically destroyed the free economy by foolish punitive measures, presided over a depression. It is a myth that he helped, and any historian should understand that (see "FDRs folly.")

    No, if you want a federal effort for reconstruction, contract it out to private enterprise under government supervision as it has been done successfully since the nation's founding, the 1930s notwithstanding.

    Oscar Chamberlain - 9/8/2005

    I think the right kind of large scale program could work well. A lot of people throughout the region aren't going to get help from insurance. Some sort of sweat equity program that organized people to help in reconstruction in return for a home might turn the rebuilding into something very positive.