Wednesday, September 21, 2005
How Many Cities Can They Afford to Rebuild?
Despite all the brave rhetoric about building New Orleans bigger and better, the harsh reality is that the cost of rebuilding any modern city is, for all practical purposes, beyond human comprehension. In economic terms the rebuilding of New Orleans is now estimated to be at least 200 billion dollars. Even the US economy cannot absorb such a cost without some pain somewhere, whether it be increased taxes, postponed government spending or perhaps even a minor recession due to lower consumer confidence. (Undoubtedly, the Iraq campaign will be given extremely close scrutiny in the near future.)
In a previous post, I questioned the wisdom of rebuilding New Orleans because for all anyone knows, subsequent hurricanes might cause even worse damage in the future. In fact, some forecasters are predicting that this is only the beginning of a recurring 20-year cycle of increased hurricane activity.
Of course it only took a few days for political emotion to prevail so that every politician from the president on down (with the notable exception of Bill Frist) was mouthing the requisite promises to make everything right.
Well, it now appears quite possible that Hurricane Rita will pick up where Katrina left off. At this time, the most likely point of landfall will be near Galveston Texas, a city which, if you can believe it, is even less able to cope with a severe hurricane than New Orleans was. Not only that, but Galveston was destroyed once already by a Hurricane in 1900.
Galveston is built on Galveston ISLAND, averages about 10 feet above sea level and is connected to the mainland by ONE causeway, which is closed whenever winds exceed 39mph! It has a population of 65,000 people who require approximately 40 hours to evacuate to the mainland - before the causeway is closed by 40mph winds!. (Whoever is left in Galveston when a hurricane hits, is like a rat on a sinking ship - literally- or as the Galveston Director of Emergency Preparedness puts it: "We call those people (who haven't evacuated) statistics."
So at this point, Mr. Bush might be excused for wondering whether he will have a second billion dollar catastrophe on his hands within a month. If Rita should hit Galveston as a category 4 or 5 hurricane, there is no doubt that the city will be significantly damaged.
If that should happen, Mr. Bush will be facing the following tough dilemmas: Can his government afford to commit to rebuilding 2 cities (keep in mind that the hurricane season won't be over for another 10 weeks!), can he rebuild one city but not the second (in his own home state of all places), will he be accused of favouritism in allocation of disaster relief, will he be forced to leave Iraq (which would be the most wonderful propaganda gift that Allah could ever bestow on Islamic terrorism - not unlike leaving Saigon in the 70s), would isolationism take hold as a result, would all the troops coming home at once precipitate a recession and possible social unrest due to lack of job opportunities which are being permanently lost overseas, would the destruction of a second city in one month provoke serious discussion about the merits of establishing a 'no-build' zone along the Gulf of Mexico?
Link here to local news in Galveston, Texas.
Update: And speaking of complaints of favouritism (or more likely political opportunism), no sooner did I finish the original post, than I find this news item:
Democratic critics said the preparation for Rita seemed to exceed those for Katrina, and called anew for an independent panel to investigate why.
"It's nice to have the Bush administration recognize the importance of a federal response to Rita, but why weren't they proactively mobilizing and organizing like this for Katrina?" said Rebecca Kirszner, a spokeswoman for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
"These are the questions that need to be asked by an independent commission," Kirszner said.