Waxing Wise From Far Away

The situation in New Orleans worsened yesterday, hard as that is to believe. “New Orleans Mayor Issues ‘Desperate SOS’” read a banner headline at the top of the Chicago Tribune’s Web site yesterday afternoon, with the AP providing this incredible start to the story:

Storm victims were raped and beaten, fights and fires broke out, corpses lay out in the open, and rescue helicopters and law enforcement officers were shot at as flooded-out New Orleans descended into anarchy Thursday.

But as thousands fight for survival in the city, some newspaper editorial boards — the Tribune included — have gotten ahead of themselves in the past few days, harrumphing as to whether and to what extent the Big Easy should be rebuilt.

The lead editorial on the Tribune’s home page yesterday declared:

Whether it was by Hurricane Katrina or some other storm, many engineers and geologists think the wholesale devastation of New Orleans was inevitable — as in, a non-negotiable certainty — given the city’s precarious location at the mouth of the mighty Mississippi and the technological limitations of protective levees.

With a full evacuation ordered, and the likelihood that much of its housing stock has been turned to a soggy, uninhabitable pulp, it is time to begin exploring some difficult questions about the future of one of the nation’s most historic and charming cities.

The cost of creating the “New New Orleans” will run into the tens of billions, the editorial continued, adding that many experts think rebuilding the city as it was would be shortsighted. It concluded: “The purpose of flood plains is to flood. New Orleans is exhibit A of that immutable rule of nature, and no amount of resources poured into rebuilding the city as it was will change that.”

Separately, Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, after donating to a Katrina relief fund, blithely asserted:

This is an appeal for us not to throw bad money after good. It’s a hope that officials don’t betray the generosity of millions of Americans by attempting to resurrect the unfortunate and tragically vulnerable city of New Orleans.

Patching those levees, pumping dry those streets and rebuilding those homes and businesses will only assure that caring citizens of the future will again be called upon to bail out — literally! — the Big Easy.

But the award for the most insensitive and unnecessary rumination on New Orleans’ far-off future goes to the Waterbury Republican-American for its Wednesday editorial, “Is New Orleans worth reclaiming?” Katrina not only highlighted the recklessness of Americans living along storm-prone coasts, the Republican-American wrote, it also “seems to have hastened the city’s day of reckoning.” It concluded:

Americans’ hearts go out to the people in Katrina’s path. But if the people of New Orleans and other low-lying areas insist upon living in harm’s way, they ought to accept responsibility for what happens to them and their property …

However, before the government commits to reclaiming New Orleans and its marshy environs, it should think long and hard about whether the investment of time and money would be worth it.

These pieces reveal not just the frequent journalistic tic for speculation, but, more importantly, a distant arrogance and a stark lack of compassion for the nearly half-million people whose city has been battered, erased and seized by barbaric chaos. If Chicago or Waterbury was flattened by nature’s wrath tomorrow, you can be sure citizens there would not really give a tinker’s damn if an editorial board in, say, Phoenix opined a mere few days later that the devastated city should not be rebuilt. (It should be noted that the Tribune did run a more appropriate editorial calling for Americans to “reach out and pull these poor people from the water” as well yesterday, though that compassionate message was effectively nullified by its lead piece.)

There will come a time for editorial boards and columnists to argue, from their high and dry perches far away, that it would be foolish to rebuild a once-great American city as it was. But now is not that time. It will come after order has been restored, after there are no longer corpses and oil slicks in the streets — and after tens of thousands of suffering Americans are finally evacuated from hell.

Edward B. Colby

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.