In 1997 I was a sergeant in the Minnesota National Guard, mobilized to serve in Moorhead for the floods. That was an incredible experience, not because of anything I was called upon to do (sadly, not much), but because it made me even more aware of the awesome force of nature.

Glaciers can tear down mountains and a river can carve a massive canyon. We can see those things and they are breathtaking. But seeing first hand the human habitat devastated in Fargo/Moorhead during that flood gave me a new appreciation. The sheer volume of water and the destruction it created is difficult to fathom. 

The anticipated flooding of Fargo now has me thinking about this experience, and about the related experience of hurricane Katrina. I recently came across an article written by Andres Duany regarding the rebuilding of New Orleans. Like much of what Duany writes, it was fascinating, with new ideas on how to deal with age-old problems. The premise of the article is that New Orleans needs to be looked at as a Carribbean city, not as an American city. This actually makes a lot of sense given the colonial influences of New Orleans has much more in common with Haiti than New York. From the Duany article:

When understood as Caribbean, New Orleans' culture seems ever more precious – and more vulnerable to the effects of Katrina. Anxiety about cultural loss is not new. There has been a great deal of anguish regarding the diminishment of the black population, and how without it New Orleans could not regain itself.

But I fear that the city’s situation is far more dire and less controllable. Even if the majority of the population does return to reinhabit its neighborhoods, it will not mean that New Orleans – or at least the culture of New Orleans – will be back. The reason is not political, but technical. You see, the lost housing of New Orleans is quite special. Entering the damaged and abandoned houses you can still see what they were like before the hurricane. These houses were exceedingly inexpensive to live in. They were houses that were hand built by people's parents and grandparents, or by small builders paid in cash or by barter.

Most of these simple, and surprisingly pleasant, houses were paid off. They had to be, because they do not meet any sort of code, and are therefore not mortgageable by current standards.

I think that it was possible to sustain the culture unique to New Orleans because housing costs were minimal. These houses liberated people from debt. One did not have to work a great deal to get by. There was the possibility of leisure.

There was time to create the fabulously complex Creole dishes that simmer forever; there was time to rehearse music, to play it live rather than from recordings, and time to listen to it. There was time to make costumes and to parade; there was time to party and to tell stories; there was time to spend all day marking the passing of friends. One way to leisure time lies in a light financial burden. With a little work, a little help from the government, and a little help from family and friends – life could be good! This is a typically Caribbean social contract: not one to be dismissed as laziness or poverty, but as a way of life.

Duany then proposes a fascinating idea that would make many planners cringe: suspend the building code for parts of New Orleans. He cuts right to the issue in typical Duany-fashion:

To start, I would recommend an experimental "opt-out zone." Create areas where one "contracts out" of the current American system, which consists of the nanny-state raising standards so expensive and complicated that only the nanny-state can provide affordable housing. The state thus creates a problem and then offers the only solution.

However it may sound, this proposal is not so odd. Until recently, this was the way that built America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. For three centuries Americans built for themselves. They built well enough – so long as it was theirs. Individual responsibility could be trusted.

We must return to this as an option.

Fargo/Moorhead is likely not going to need to be rebuilt again and, I'm sorry to say, even if it were destroyed there is no amazing Fargo-culture that could be lost to the world (no offense to Johnny Lang and Monster Trucks). Moorhead is a sprawling Minnesota city enjoying Jane Jacob's early stages of city development (that being growth, which is inevitibly followed by stagnation and decline, then hopefully rebirth).

Even though we are not facing that decision, I was reminded of an article I wrote years ago on the eve of Katrina. Do we rebuild these places or not? Do we allow development in these places or not? Do we insure them through the government or not?

Duany's insights are fascinating. Enjoy my thoughts from the evening of August 28, 2005.

It looks like within hours New Orleans is going to be pounded by hurricane Katrina.  My first thought when tropical storm Katrina was reported some time last week…”that is a cute name.”  Looks doubtful that it is going to be remembered quite that way.

The options for this thing hitting land in a low impact spot seems less and less likely, especially since there probably isn’t anything on land that would have low impact with a category five hurricane.  That said, a direct hit on New Orleans seems to be in the cards in a few short hours, and that is about the worst place possible.

When I was a kid I often wondered why people would live in California since it was only a matter of time since it broke off and fell into the ocean.  I remember being a little nervous that it might happen once when I visited.

I’m sure the inhabitants of Pompeii were rather flippant about Mount Vesuvius’s cute little eruptions until the day the top 3/4ths of the mountain blew off (imagine that bang – actually, if you ever see a picture of Vesuvius you can see by connecting the profile lines just how big it was – WOW!).  The people still living under Mt. St. Helens – yes those people who are too close to be evacuated within a safe period of time – could provide some insight.

Every year we see people who lived on the edge of the ocean, their homes destroyed, lamenting nature’s fury.  We see homes sliding down mud hills, being burned up in forest fire or shaken to the ground in an earthquake. 

And this is just in the United States.  Recent in our minds should be the Christmas 2004 tsunami and, in the months prior to that, the large earthquake in Iran that killed tens of thousands. 

It is with this backdrop, and with Katrina bearing down on New Orleans (a great and historic city) that I ponder two questions.

First, why do people live in these places?  I think that could be answered in part by the simple fact that I live here in Minnesota.  It is my home and I can’t leave.  And if the heat goes out and it is -50 F and the car won’t start, I still believe in my heart of hearts that I will be OK.  Others would call living here crazy, but I don’t.    

But living in a place of seasonally extreme cold is different than living in a hurricane-prone area which also happens to be 10 feet below sea level.  It has to be that people feel they can beat the odds – that it won’t happen to them.  Or their kids.  Or their grandkids.

Or perhaps they just don’t think about it.  With the evacuation of Gaza by the Israelis I read an article about living in a Jewish settlement.  The settlers all felt it was a safe, peaceful and beautiful place to live.  They loved their communities and the people around them.  They talked about not needing to lock their doors and letting their kids play freely in the streets – things they could not do in Israel proper.  This is bizarre to me, and to the reporter who noted that this “bliss” was carried on amid the regular hail of shoulder-launched rocket fire.  (One settler said the rockets were inaccurate and rarely hit anyone…oh, that would make me feel much better).

So humanity will overcome and live anywhere.  I guess that is admirable at its core.  So my second question, which gets more into government policy:

Why do we subsidize, support and rebuild these places? 

As soon as this hurricane is over, FEMA is going to rush in with aid.  Hopefully the death toll will be small and the human health issues minor.  Assume they are.  Aid will in this case mean working to “get people back on their feet” (aka, rebuild their home/business 10-feet below sea level in hurricane alley).  Is this productive?

Now New Orleans is a major shipping port.  It needs to be there – we can’t just shut it down.  Same goes for L.A. and the other major cities near fault lines.  But how should they be rebuilt?

Should we rebuild the ocean home of the multi-millionaire?  Should we make whole those living in the path of the next Mt. St. Helens eruption?  Where does our compassion end?  Is it compassion or simply us doing unto others as we would have done unto ourselves (or cynically: if this happens to me – I want mine).

I ask this as a person who was in Fargo during the last floods.  Nice city.  Not nearly as important to our national economy as L.A. or New Orleans though.  Despite this, we spent billions (and altered the natural environment dramatically in doing so) in rebuilding Fargo and creating systems so that this type of flooding would never happen again (an echo of the last time that was done).

If the country is going to truly do disaster planning, they need to plan not just the day after, but the decades after.  Do we want to subsidize/encourage/profligate growth and development in areas that are subject to frequent and/or intense disasters?  Would we not be better off in the long run, both in human and economic terms, by limiting our exposure to this type of an incident?

I am sure there is a great counter-argument to this.  I don’t know it, and right now it doesn’t matter.  Lots of people are going to be without shelter after tonight.  Scores could die.  It will likely be an historic tragedy.  I just wonder if it could have been prevented or lessened, or if those there would really have wanted it to.