After nearly eight months of misdirected spending and bureaucratic bungling, the federal government may be on the road to getting it right in the wake of Katrina. With its announcement of guidelines for rebuilding last week, it has sent a signal that rebuilding may not be too constrictively micromanaged from Washington but will rely on private and local initiative within federal guidelines that are not too onerous.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines stipulating that most rebuilt houses will have to be three feet off the ground to qualify for federal reconstruction money and flood insurance should pave the way for construction to start on tens of thousands of homes. Local residents had feared the feds would require a clearance of as much as 10 feet, which would have been much more expensive. They had also feared the feds would forbid any rebuilding in certain wards of the city.
The relative leniency of the federal guidelines should not serve as a signal for homeowners, mortgage companies and local officials to be lax about safety. Much of New Orleans is still below the level of the Mississippi River and could not exist in the absence of levees. Even if the federal government keeps its promise to rebuild those levees, the city will experience hurricanes and floods in the future.
Houses in such an environment need to be sturdier than those in less extreme climes. Homeowners, mortgage companies and insurance companies all have an interest in seeing that this happens.
The destruction wrought by Katrina has attracted a plague of planners eager to mandate a new model for one of America’s most fascinating cities. But real communities are built from the bottom up, arising from the independent and cooperative decisions of hundreds of thousands of people with personal stakes in the community rather than from a vision imposed from on high.
If restrictions on residents’ creativity are kept to a minimum, we can expect a New Orleans as charming as the older city to arise over the next few decades.
It would be even more helpful if a new attitude toward federal involvement in the city’s redevelopment were to develop. As the response to Katrina demonstrated, the federal government is not simply a benevolent source of manna from above, as many local officials would like to believe. Its “help” is often delivered in such a bureaucratic, stumbling-yet-bullying fashion as to interfere with constructive local and private initiatives.
Although it might be more expensive in the short term, relying on local and private funds rather than federal handouts would in the long run create a more viable and independent city. Having local government or private firms take over the levees might involve a local financial burden, but it would put people in charge who would have to live with the consequences of poor maintenance.
We look forward to watching New Orleans rise again.