White: Rebuild smart or watch an exodus from area
The largest diaspora in American history never had to happen. More than 3.5 million people in the heartland were permanently displaced because we were under the mistaken impression that technology could outsmart the laws of nature and that we could pilfer unlimited fortunes from the earth without concern for the climate.
Nearly 80 years after John Steinbeck published “The Grapes of Wrath,” we still refuse to learn the lessons of the Dust Bowl, and as a result, another entire region again is imperiled. If we continue to ignore the facts, if we treat every 500-year storm as a “natural” disaster and any criticism of the oil and gas industry as an assault on our “way of life,” the people of the Gulf Coast will have no option other than permanent evacuation.
“If the coast continues to regularly experience these massive storms and torrential rain events, there will likely be another great migration,” Caroline Fayard, a New Orleans lawyer and former Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, has warned. “And right now, it’s something our country’s infrastructure could not handle easily. Our infrastructure is broken, and as both a consequence and a symptom, we’re more interested in building new than in building smart.”
I was born in Louisiana, which I proudly call home. But like millions of others, I was actually raised as a citizen of the Gulf Coast. As a kid, every summer, my family would haul as much as we could fit into our minivan for a week at the beach in either Alabama or the Florida Panhandle. On Aug. 29, 2005, when Katrina made landfall, I was living in a one-bedroom apartment off of Allen Parkway in Houston, a city I grew to love as an undergraduate at Rice. I watched the news and wept for the people of New Orleans from Griffs in the Montrose, along with a classmate from Lake Charles and a professor from Shreveport. Twelve years later, I followed Harvey’s devastation from my home in New Orleans.
There are lessons that Houston must draw from New Orleans. You’d be hard-pressed to find a New Orleanian who would describe Katrina as a “natural” disaster, because more than anything else, Katrina was a failure of the federal government’s levee system. Houstonians must be similarly dogged in how they characterize Harvey. When the government allows developers to build subdivisions in the middle of man-made reservoirs, you can’t just blame Mother Nature when those subdivisions flood. We should have seen this coming.
We also should have anticipated the problems that could occur by allowing oil, gas, and chemical companies to construct plants in low-lying areas and communities so prone to flooding and isolated from robust regulation.
Russel Honore, the retired Army lieutenant general who commanded the federal government’s relief efforts after Katrina, is unsparing in his assessment.
“This is not a 21st century government they have over there,” Honore told me. “There’s an old saying about your greatest strength becoming your greatest weakness. Houston’s greatest strength was unrestricted growth, but now, it’s their greatest weakness because they put blacktop on almost every square inch of ground.”
But there’s plenty of other lessons to be learned from New Orleans after Katrina.
Houston is about to be the global epicenter of the urban planning market. Don’t squander your resources on those who substitute gloss for substance. Don’t overuse the word “resiliency.” Don’t allow the oil and gas industry or real estate developers to pay for your plans. Hire local. Don’t privatize your public school system. And enact zoning laws, for crying out loud.
Here’s the most important lesson: Don’t look to Louisiana as your primary template or your experienced guide. We got more wrong than we got right, and Katrina was a vastly different and far deadlier storm.
We need you to lead, Houston - like President John F. Kennedy once told your city - not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
Lamar White Jr. is the publisher of The Bayou Brief, a Louisiana-based online news outlet.