We’ve learned a few things over the years about rebuilding after a disaster, and let’s not forget them in our anguish over the catastrophe in New Orleans.
In 1993, the Mississippi river overflowed the levee protecting Valmeyer, Illinois, and destroyed the town. Community leaders looked hard at their choices—rebuild the town as it was, or move the town to safer land. They chose the latter, and rebuilt the town—businesses, homes, schools, city hall, senior centers—a mile and a half away and 400 feet higher.
Valmeyer was a small town, not a big city. But they realized that spending ridiculous amounts of money could not guarantee flood protection for structures built below the river level.
We should admire Valmeyer’s practicality. And we should think back over the years to how much we objected to federal bailouts allowing rich owners of beach houses to rebuild with taxpayer money each time a hurricane knocks their house down.
Now that many want federal spending to allow rebuilding in the parts of New Orleans below sea level, the lesson of Valmeyer and ritzy beach homes are crucial. There is a choice. The New Orleans that does not face unreasonable risk can be rebuilt. Other parts can be located elsewhere.
We have to ask ourselves – is it fair to make people living in Pennsylvania or Ohio pay billions for massive engineering projects so that some of the people of New Orleans can go back to the way things were and avoid the hard choices that nature presents them?
As long as the federal government is willing to bail out people who build homes or businesses in high-risk locations, they will keep building there. And you and I will keep paying for them to rebuild.
Federal policy should be to help the victims of the floods but not undertake the massive projects to reclaim areas of the city built below sea level. If the people of New Orleans want to rebuild there, more power to them. They can fund the levees with local taxes or fees. There are ways to make it work that don’t tap the limited resources of people who never chose to live below sea level.
Adrian Moore, Ph. D., is vice president of research at Reason Foundation.