Saturday, September 3, 2005

Who is planning for the long-term?

by Suw on September 3, 2005

What's happened in New Orleans this week has been a complete disgrace. The American government should be ashamed of itself for callously allowing the poorest, sickest and most vulnerable people to starve, dehydrate and die in the stricken city. Questions are now being asked in the blogosphere and the press about why a federal response has taken so long, but so far the stuff I've seen coming out of the American government and press about rebuilding remains deluded.
Anyone who's seen the results of even a small flood will know how long it takes to clean up afterwards. Houses that were sound before get torn down afterwards because they are uninhabitable. And that's only from a few feet of water.
With 80% of New Orleans underwater and much of the city structurally damaged, no one is going to be able to go back there to live for months and months. Much of it will have to be torn down. Houses that have been up to their eaves in water, and which may remain drowned for another three months yet, are simply not going to be habitable once the water's gone.
Mould will set in immediately, giving off toxic spores which will stay in the wood and start growing every time that wood gets damp. Bacteria will spread. The sewerage and chemicals will impregnate every bit of wood and give off toxic fumes. The wood itself will swell, breaking every joint. Plaster and plasterboard will disintegrate. Plywood will de-laminate and come apart. Wooden houses will have to be torn down.
Brick-built houses will have to be dried out and wooden floors, ceilings, windowframes, roofs replaced. Plaster will have to be stripped and replaced. The bricks and concrete will have to be dried using dehumidifiers – it takes one dehumidifier of average size to dry out one room of average size, and you'd have to seal the house because otherwise all you're doing is dehumidifying the atmosphere (and NO is not the driest place in the world at the best of times). There aren't going to be enough dehumidifiers in America to dry out all of the city.
All the electrics will have to be replaced, heating systems, gas fires and cookers, fridges, lighting. Everything will be ruined by the water. Obviously all furniture will have to be thrown out – the chemicals and sewerage will have penetrated and irreparably everything.
Houses which do survive will be shells, but the majority of the flooded buildings will not be saved. It really is not just a case of draining the city and then having a bit of a wash down and redecorate – it's a case of tearing down what's left and starting again from scratch. And that's going to take a very, very long time.
Yet no one seems so far to be talking about where you are going to house all the refugees whilst this happens. Who is going to feed them for the months and months that they will be displaced? Who's going to educate the children? Who's going to provide work for the adults? How are they going to keep people's spirits up?
Bush and the other officials have to stop talking in terms of weeks, and start being more honest about the impact that this disaster is really going to have. If it takes three months to fix the levees and drain the city, how long is it going to be after that before any place is habitable? How are the authorities going to deal with people coming back to the city before the city is ready? How will they stop people moving into dwelling that should be condemned and torn down? If people do move back into the city before the clean up has been finished, they will get sick – the public health threat is massive.
If the American government thinks that the situation is improving, and that it's all downhill from here, well, they just aren't thinking far enough ahead.
So what could be done? It's a massive humanitarian and economic disaster and it's going to take some considerable strength of character to get through it. A good place to start would be to find a location, immediately, for a temporary city – New New Orleans, if you like. Get in the contractors to build it, but make them train and employ the displaced inhabitants of Old New Orleans so that they have jobs and an income, as well as somewhere half-decent to live. (A tent city is not going to cut the mustard, not for the time people might be there.) Then when New Orleans is drained, employ those same people to work on fixing it up.
This is exactly the sort of tactic used after natural disasters in the developing world – get local people involved in rebuilding their own town, give them work, an income, and a feeling of doing something worthwhile and valuable. What America absolutely must not do is parachute in a bunch of contractors from other parts of the country who do all the work, earn all the money, and leave the people from NO to fester.
The government has to think about what's best for the individuals of New Orleans on a day-to-day and ongoing basis and what's best for the communities within which they now life, not what's best for the Government, the contractors or industry.

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