Monday, September 19, 2005

Rebuilding: by whom, for whom?

Maggie says:
A lot of my recent anger and concern about Katrina falls into two basic themes, and they're very forward-looking: who is rebuilding the Gulf cities, and who they're being rebuilt for.

No-bid contracts or WPA approach?
We all know how badly Halliburton misspent public funds in Iraq and how dishonestly they were given the rebuilding contracts to begin with. So an optimist might assume that the government would steer clear of repeating the same mistakes with Katrina rebuilding, if only to avoid the messiness of having to explaining themselves to the public. But the administration's sheer arrogance and lack of concern about doing the right thing has once again beaten down any overly optimistic notions that suckers like me might still be carrying around.

The issue with these no-bid contracts really isn't that the companies are tied to the administration. It's not even that they were selected outside of a fair process where they would have had to compete for a contract in a public arena. The issue is that we see an extremely top-down administration handing out contracts to rebuild places without involving the people of those places in the decision-making process.

My questions are many, but include: why are the feds even involved in rebuilding efforts, beyond simply handing over the money to the appropriate local groups or local choices for contracts? Why aren't the people of New Orleans, Gulfport, and those tiny Mississippi towns being empowered to plan for themselves? What are the implications on the ground of federal rebuilding contracts that will be inevitably laden with federal priorities and conspicuously lacking local ones? What do federal rebuilders know about local character? About special places and intricacies of character that only locals know?

In Albuquerque to support the minimum wage increase last week, former Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards presented the single best idea I've heard regarding how the planning and rebuilding of devastated cities should take place: a federally-sponsored Works Progress Administration (WPA) type of program that would employ the thousands of people left unemployed to rebuild their own hometowns. A program like this would help families in the Gulf get back on their feet since their jobs have been destroyed and would charge the people of destroyed places with the rebuilding of those places, ensuring a direct connection between who lived there before Katrina and how places will look after Katrina. Importantly, a WPA-style program would also help ensure that the real needs of people are met by rebuilding, and not just the needs of vacationers. (And don't even say there's no money - the feds are spending tons of money on the no-bid contracts already, and no locals are getting employed by that choice. But wait - no connected corporations would profit from a WPA program, either. Oh well.) This brings up my next point:

Why plan to have more poor people?
This struck me really strongly listening to Morning Edition today, but as soon as I made the connection I realized how strong this theme has been playing out all throughout LA and MS the last few weeks. The mayor of Ocean Springs, Mississippi was taking a reporter on a tour of her town and pointing out the massive destruction from Katrina. Her refrain throughout the interview was, "We'll rebuild this town better than ever, stronger than ever before." And as she talked about imagined condos, golf courses, and destination spots, I wondered: how do poor people fit into her vision? I don't know a thing about Ocean Springs - maybe it was an affluent town to begin with - but the mayor's vision was most certainly an affluent one. I saw the same thing on Dateline a couple of weeks ago, as another mayor was pointing out the historic African-American sites around town that sustained major damage, then talked about new condos and golf courses (noticing a theme here?) in the next breath. In New Orleans, we see bravado from French Quarter restauranteurs and then hear rhetoric wondering if New Orleans' poor residents will come back. The connection isn't being made, though: if the town is built only by restauranteurs for restaurant patrons, will the poor be able to come back if they want to?

All of this is heavy planning material. Most people envision ideal places as ones of stability and a lack of poverty, so maybe it's natural for mayors to dream of a rebuilt town where everyone has enough to get by. But when rebuilding starts, that idealistic notion becomes draconian gentrification all too quickly. When funds start pouring in and priorities take shape, a dream of condos and golf courses will rapidly become a real place full of condos and golf courses and nothing else. What's to stop them from building yuppie playgrounds if the real people of these places aren't involved in the planning efforts? Again, a WPA program would be the answer here.

More questions: How does a city successfully - and humanely - transition from a place with too much poverty to a place where the poor have a better chance at stability and opportunity? How does that happen when it's easier to pretend the poor don't exist at all, or to forge ahead and assume the poor will struggle as before, because that's just the way it goes in America? How can a planning process honestly assess the needs of the poor when there is no honest planning process?

On a sidenote, my mom and the company she works for have helped give a new chance to a family from New Orleans. They are now starting over in Raleigh, NC and just moved into a fully-furnished, rent-free apartment in a community where they're being welcomed as part of the community. They were overwhelmed when they walked into their new home at the simple pleasures of being away from the shelter: the ability to sleep in as long as they want, take showers in privacy, cook meals, have guests over, just being a family in a home again. Right away, they told my mom that they had no plans on going back to New Orleans. To them, the hurricane was "a sign from God." Nothing had ever worked out for them in New Orleans, they said, and this was their big chance to start over in a place where life hopefully wouldn't be so hard.

Will the new New Orleans be happy that families like this one are staying away? Is it easier to rebuild a tourist destination if the only people in town are ones tourists would approve of? Or will they be urged back because they are New Orleans, whether or not Midwestern tourists recognize that? How prepared will the city be to give them a better shot at life? How prepared does it want to be?