Rebuilding a city - and a lot of political careers

Over the years I've been fortunate enough to vacation on some beautiful barrier islands including the Outer Banks of North Carolina and South Padre Island, Texas. But I wouldn't want to live there.

I feel that way because I simply don't think it's wise to build permanent residences on vulnerable sites that can be swallowed up by the ocean - think hurricanes Katrina and/or Rita - or destroyed by devastating forest fires like the one that erupted in Southern California last week, or the huge Carson City Waterfall Fire of 2004.

I'd like to be more sympathetic to people who decide to challenge Mother Nature, but it's difficult when governments at all levels freely spend our hard-earned tax money to bail these folks out of self-inflicted crises.

In other words, if you decide to build or purchase a home on a below-sea-level lot or one that's located in a tinder-dry pine forest, I think you should be on your own when natural disaster strikes unless you can afford enough private insurance to protect yourself and your home. Am I being cruel and heartless? No, I don't think so because I believe that protecting yourself and your loved ones from natural disasters is a personal rather than a governmental responsibility.

In the wake of killer hurricanes Katrina and Rita, federal, state and local governments are shelling-out billions of taxpayer dollars to rebuild New Orleans and other low-lying cities and towns along the U.S. Gulf Coast. President Bush, attempting to recover from low approval ratings following the feds' slow reaction to Katrina, has promised to spend whatever it takes to rebuild New Orleans. Congress has already approved more than $60 billion for Katrina relief projects and the final price tag could easily top $200 billion (that's billion with a "b") at a time when the federal budget deficit exceeds $330 billion. You do the math.

As to whether the spendthrift federal government should finance the reconstruction of New Orleans, I don't think we should entrust billions of taxpayer dollars to elected and appointed officials of the most corrupt city in the most corrupt state in the nation. Time addressed this painful issue last week in a story titled "How to Spend (Almost) $1 Billion a Day."

The magazine reported that the feds spent nearly $10 billion on Hurricane Katrina relief in the first two weeks after the Category 4 storm hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. "The man (President Bush) who said during his re-election campaign that 'government is limited in its capacity to heal and help' spoke in bold terms about 'one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen,'" Time noted. So much for fiscal responsibility and small government.

And what's worse, Time noted, "On Capitol Hill, both parties are trying their best to harness the massive Katrina rebuilding effort to propel their own ideological agendas." This is a sad commentary on business-as-usual politicians in Washington, D.C., who never hesitate to spend our tax dollars to keep themselves in office.

So even though Congress has allocated $15 million to the Homeland Security Department to monitor hurricane relief projects, and FEMA has sent 30 auditors to the Gulf to follow the money, those efforts are woefully inadequate to protect against waste, fraud and abuse.

That's because corruption is still a way of life in the home state of good old Huey Long. The Washington Post last week disclosed ongoing taxpayer ripoffs in a story saying that Congress appropriated a record $1.9 billion for Army Corps of Engineers flood control projects in Louisiana during the current fiscal year; much more populous California was a distant second with $1.4 billion.

But, the Post reported, "Hundreds of millions of dollars have gone to unrelated projects demanded by (Louisiana's) congressional delegation ...." Many of these projects had nothing to do with flood control, just another example of business as usual. So I prefer to send my contributions (as I've done) to private relief organizations like the Red Cross or the Salvation Army rather than to greedy bureaucrats in Washington or Baton Rouge.

Some disaster risk management specialists oppose plans to rebuild New Orleans on land 10 feet below sea level on grounds that global sea levels will continue to rise in the future. "Government officials and academic experts have long said that in about 100 years, New Orleans may no longer exist," warned Prof. Klaus Jacob, a noted geophysicist. He proposes "the carefully planned deconstruction of New Orleans" in favor of an "American Venice" that would preserve the French Quarter and other historic tourist attractions while guarding against politicians' "hollow promises for a future, safe New Orleans."

One alternative plan to save the Big Easy is based on the comprehensive World War II Hanford, Wash., project, which involved 540 buildings, 600 miles of roads, 158 miles of railroad tracks and 132,000 employees. Proponents of that plan want the "best brains in the country" to design a new city that combines cultural and historical awareness with sophisticated urban planning.

Yet another theoretical plan would replace high flood walls "with green space placed between houses and the river, and tiered flood defense systems that encourage the water to rise predictably, in steps." That sounds nice but seems scientifically impractical, if not impossible, on land that lies below sea level.

Well, back to my original premise: It's foolish and foolhardy to erect permanent structures on barrier islands or flood plains, or in fire-prone forests. Carson City supervisors should keep the disastrous 2004 Waterfall Fire in mind as they continue to issue building permits for new homes on questionable sites in upper King's Canyon, Lakeview and Clear Creek. In those precarious places, it isn't a question of whether another natural disaster will strike, but when.

n Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former federal bureaucrat, resides in Carson City.


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