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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Reflections on New Orleans: Decentralization is key”

In my December 6th, 2005, column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review – written just a few months after hurricane Katrina inflicted death and serious damage in my hometown of New Orleans – I reflect on that death and damage, and on the prospects for rebuilding.

You can read the column beneath the fold.

Reflections on New Orleans: Decentralization is key

On the day after Thanksgiving, my wife and I visited my hometown, New Orleans, for the first time since Hurricane Katrina struck. We drove for hours through streets whose pavement is ravaged and whose paths wind through empty neighborhood after empty neighborhood.

The devastation is appalling. The city is almost a ghost town, with only 60,000 of its former 600,000 citizens now residing there. No pedestrians walk the streets; countless traffic signals remain dark; mountains of debris line once-stately boulevards; refrigerators and mattresses sit atop roofs; cars are jammed in trees; the lawns are dead.

Most of the color of that colorful city was washed away by Katrina’s floodwaters.

But Katrina’s death toll — along the entire Gulf Coast — is only 1,300.

“Only 1,300” is a harsh thing to write. That’s 1,300 deaths too many. What strikes me, though, is that in at least one important way Katrina is the worst natural disaster to hit the United States: In a matter of days, it emptied a major city and rendered at least half of its homes and businesses uninhabitable. And yet amidst this incredible property damage, only 1,300 New Orleanians were killed.

As we drove through the Big Easy’s deserted neighborhoods, I asked myself: If a natural disaster would have so devastated an American city in 1850 or 1900 or 1950, would the death toll have been as low as the death toll suffered from Katrina — that is, a mere one-sixth of 1 percent of that city’s population?

It’s truly amazing that a city so soundly battered by a monster storm lost so few lives. The death toll from Katrina is disproportionately low compared to the property destruction.

An important reason is that most New Orleanians escaped Katrina with the too-easy-to-curse automobile. More generally, these people’s lives (if not their properties) were saved by countless capitalist wonders that we take for granted — everything from Band-Aids that keep bacteria from open wounds to rescue helicopters that pluck people from rooftops.

Still, as gratifying as it is to reflect on Katrina’s relatively low death toll, beholding the miles upon miles of destroyed homes and businesses is deeply depressing. “How will these people ever recover? How can this city possibly return to life?” are questions that you cannot help but ask yourself repeatedly.

Of course, these are questions that people around the country now ask about New Orleans. And everyone is frustrated because no good answers are apparent.

The main reason no good answers are apparent is that people assume that these answers must be in the form of a Big Plan – a single scheme for restoring New Orleans. As USA Today recently editorialized, “The city also lacks a singular vision of how to rebuild and a take-charge leader.”

Trouble is, no leader or committee can possibly know enough to rebuild New Orleans. The task is far too vast. It must be decentralized, divided into manageable slices. While it’s impossible to know where to begin on the Big Plan of rebuilding New Orleans, it is quite possible for each homeowner and each business person to know where to begin to rebuild his property and livelihood.

Let each person (aided, to be sure, by the philanthropy of others) salvage what he can from his own little parcel of the devastation, then let him plan and carry out his own rebuilding effort as he judges best. Don’t confound him with Big Plans from committees or czars. Only in this way will New Orleans be rebuilt sensibly.

If my proposal to radically decentralize the rebuilding effort sounds quixotic, recognize that New Orleans was originally built decentrally and incrementally.

The Crescent City’s founder, Bienville, didn’t plant his flag on the banks of Mississippi in 1699 with a detailed blueprint for what New Orleans would be 300, 100, or even five years later. He took modest steps to erect a trading settlement.

Through millions upon millions of small-scale decisions by dozens and then hundreds and then thousands of residents, that settlement grew into one of the most important cities in North America. The same process of spontaneous development, of course, built Pittsburgh, Chicago, Paris, and any other city you name.

Although it’s understandable to want a master plan for rebuilding New Orleans, any such plan would offer only false assurance that the city will be rebuilt wisely. As the disastrous communist experiments proved in the 20th century, central plans — far from creating order out of chaos — prevent real order and prosperity from emerging out of the efforts and initiative of the people.