On #katrinanniversary, talk of a mass exodus

Today is a special day to me. Aside from holidays, birthdays and anniversaries, I don’t consider many dates “special.” Most of the country considers Sept. 11 a “special day,” solely because of the disaster of the same name. But this is different. Aug. 29 is the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and today we are eight years past the tragedy that shaped much of who I am today.

So during my climate change law course this morning, it seems only natural that Katrina would come up. And it did.

The great thing about law school is that no two students’ backgrounds are the same – there are business majors, political science and history majors, English majors and so on. Everyone comes at every issue from a unique perspective.

But we all have a close connection to New Orleans – all but one of the students (myself) were born in this area, and all of us grew up nearby. So New Orleans is a touchy issue, or so you’d think.

Everyone quickly conceded that New Orleans is not a sustainable habitat for people, and that a massive exodus, whether voluntary or forced, planned or triggered, is inevitable. New Orleans will not survive to year 2100. Probably not even until 2080. All of us understand this and reciprocate this with no less weight than Atlas held on his shoulders at the birth of the planet.

What I did not expect is that I would be the ONLY one in the room defending the delay in a designed evacuation.  As I said, moving half a million people is complicated, takes time and has multi-generational implications. Although I know my peers are right – the city needs to be abandoned and soon – I cannot grasp the reality of what we face. This is especially strange because I am the only student in the class with an earth science background and know better than any of them just how doomed New Orleans is.

Here are what I see as the major problems:

Current congressional climate will not concede that global warming is happening, much less abandon a city in fear of its name. Get the Tea Party out, and progress may be made (in more areas than just this). This will be the first American city to fall because of climate change. That is a tremendous landmark that cannot be understated.

Not everyone has a place to go, can go, or wants to go. Transportation would need to be arranged for a large portion of the population, and specialty vehicles would be needed for the elderly and disabled. Many people will not leave. This introduces the option of removal by force, possibly at gun point. Is that something the government is ready to do? Drag people out of their homes at gun point, throw them on a bus, and ship them away?

Assume you do – you’re also talking about shutting down every road between New Orleans and whichever cities they are going to, then dropping of a group of (more or less) hostages who have just been threatened by the government. Many will have been injured. Some may have even been killed.

For those who WANT to leave, moving is  an expensive process for individuals, and especially families. A deposit on a new place can range from $500-1200 for an average house in Baton Rouge or Houston, the two most likely evacuation points. For most of the people in New Orleans (a city with one of the highest poverty rates in the country), this is much more than most can afford. It’s more than they even have in their bank accounts. Then there’s gas expenses (if they have a car), hotel expenses, travel to find a home, etc. Most people in New Orleans simply cannot afford to pick up and move.  While most people rent their homes or apartment, many are home owners. What do we offer them for their houses? We are talking about a very large check from the government to pay for housing buyouts alone.

The period of unemployment between locations would starve many families who are already on the brink of intense poverty. Which brings us to our next point – jobs. What are these people going to do when they leave? Many people in New Orleans work in the tourism industry, which is not so big in the nearby cities where there *might* be housing available for them. This pushes more people into the welfare system and back into poverty. Those who are in the oil/petrol industry may have better luck in Houston or Baton Rouge, but is there enough housing available in both of those cities to take in all of New Orleans? Both of those cities are already struggling with poverty and crime and high unemployment.

Which brings us to the next point- what cities are prepared to absorb a large piece of a 500,000+ person pie? Houston and Baton Rouge took in the largest portion of refugees post-Katrina, and complain about it to this day. So does the government build an entirely new city somewhere north of the projected sea level rise? Do they split up the communities among several cities in the southeast, and perhaps even into more northern cities? Will extended families be able to stay near to each other? Will they have a choice at all in where they will go?

We’re talking about creating an entire generation of permanent refugees. These people will need long-term counseling and assistance, community support networks and assimilation programs if they are forced out of the south. Of the Cajuns – will their culture disappear altogether? Are we even including them in this plan?

What happens while the city is being emptied of its populous? Crime will skyrocket, looting will be rampant, infrastructure will burn down as first responders leave. Some people will hide to stay behind. So is the evacuation quick, or in pieces?

What happens when the city is finally empty of people. Do we blow the levees? Do we wait for a hurricane to destroy it? Or do we let the city’s walls crumble with the gradual rise in sea level? If it’s not destroyed quickly, it will become a hub for homeless citizens, who will almost certainly perish once the levees finally fall. Is the city sold to oil/gas/petrol companies? Are historic buildings excavated and lifted to another location, such as Baton Rouge? Or does it all sink into the ocean, lost forever?

There are a multitude of problems with the idea of abandoning New Orleans, many of which I’m not qualified to comment on. And we have to remember that these are people we are relocating, not animals. They will respond and react, and most often not in the government’s favor. We have to ask ourselves if the government is even allowed to do this in the first place.

Yes, it needs to happen. If the city is not emptied voluntarily, many people will die during the next hurricane, the next levee failure, the next flood… and each one after that until it is eventually claimed by the ocean regardless.

It’s complicated. Yet, this needs to be something officials are discussing and seriously considering. The city isn’t prepared for even a slow moving category 2 or 3 hurricane, much less another Katrina which – I must always remind people – barely scraped New Orleans. If it had hit 200 miles west of where it did, New Orleans would already be referred to in past tense.

Heavy shit on a special day.

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