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Repeating Mistakes in the Big Easy

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The Washington Post has a story today by Peter Whoriskey on the resettlement efforts in New Orleans. It's a pretty good snapshot of the sheer confusion that governs the process at the moment, particularly regarding basic safety.

One of the article's themes is "there they go again" - the headline is "New Orleans Repeats Mistakes as It Rebuilds." That's a cheap shot. As the piece makes clear, people are making their resettlement decisions in an information vacuum. There is simply no reliable guide to how vulnerable various neighborhoods will be to flooding in the future. For most people, there's no choice but to gamble that, well, something will be done to protect them:

"There is overwhelming evidence that people want to come back to a safer area," [incoming recovery chief Ed] Blakely said. "But right now, no one is giving them that choice. They are only acting out of their own sense that they have to be housed."

It's just f-ing confusing. Take the Lakeview neighborhood. It's the lowest part of the entire urban area, a former cypress swamp. Many houses there were completely submerged by Katrina. But the Lakeview-area floodwalls failed because of design flaws - human errors, and those problems have since been addressed. But how safe is the area? Safer than it was before, obviously. But that's not saying much. If the upgraded levees fail, it's still the first spot to go under. How likely is that? We don't know. What about FEMA requirements to raise your house? Can't hurt, but if you raise your house a mandated three feet and you get eight feet of water, you're only slightly less wet.

What would you do?

After some delay, the Corps is supposed to clarify these issues at some point soon by offering a kind of risk profile for different areas. But even that will be of limited use for anyone doing long-term planning. We still don't know, for example, whether the levees will be raised higher, or if so, where.

So, don't blame "New Orleans" for "repeating mistakes." The mistakes were collective before, and they're collective now. Americans share responsibility for this mess - its our agencies that are stumbling all over themselves. Blame (and I know I'm a broken record on the topic) the leadership vacuum.

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