Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Critical Mass

I got the opportunity to listen to some truly ignorant opinions in the past week. Not on blogs, although I read more than I few I disagreed with, but rather from regular people, discussing the tragedy wrought upon the Gulf Coast. There's a sizeable number of people who simply think New Orleans should not be rebuilt. Period.

"It's under sea level."
"That's a stupid place to build a city."
"Only idiots would build a city that way."

So I asked them, did they think abandoning the city was truly the feasible response to Katrina? Surprisingly, this was a popular idea. It's money, of course. Nobody sees why rebuilding New Orleans is worth the money. There are, after all, other places to go party. There are other places full of historical relevance, right?

History. Ay, there's the rub.

You see, historically, New Orleans is a critical city. What is not being discussed is how, even in her battered state, this is still true.

Geographically, America is split by a biggie. It's the Mississippi River, and most of the major rivers in our country dump into it which gave us the ability to move goods from the interior to the coast. Successful farmers moved excess crops and sold them; this established the monetary base for the industrialization of this country.

The Battle of New Orleans, in 1815, was fought to ensure that New Orleans, so critical to the fledgling American economy, stayed under American control. The cherry in the Louisiana Purchase was New Orleans, the rivers, and the lands around it. If the British had kept New Orleans, and her incredible value, there would have been no Louisiana Purchase.

During WWII, the value of New Orleans, as the key to moving needed industrial minerals into America and move our agricultural wealth out was understood. It's no coincidence that there was a German U-boat campaign at the mouth of the Mississippi. New Orleans was seen as a critical target during the cold war, where destruction of the city could effectively grind the country to an economic standstill.

Today, the ports of New Orleans and South Louisiana, located north and south of the city, are just as critical. The Port of South Louisiana is the largest port America has, moving 52 million tons of exported goods, (more than half are agricultural), and bringing in 57 million tons, including crude oil, coal, concrete, chemicals, and fertilizers.

A simple way to think about the New Orleans port complex is that it is where the bulk commodities of agriculture go out to the world and the bulk commodities of industrialism come in. The commodity chain of the global food industry starts here, as does that of American industrialism. If these facilities are gone, more than the price of goods shifts: The very physical structure of the global economy would have to be reshaped. Consider the impact to the U.S. auto industry if steel doesn't come up the river, or the effect on global food supplies if U.S. corn and soybeans don't get to the markets. -- Stratfor

Shipping these commodities using other ways of conveyance isn't feasible. The goods shipped down the river system are heavy and inexpensive, which means they have a low value-to-weight ratio. Another reality is that the nation's businesses and transport systems were built and geared toward the developed systems of barges and ports in place on the Mississippi. What I mean is that we built the national network of railroads to complement the river system, not replace it. Attempting to move the tonnage of material via other transportation methods won't be possible. It's just way too much, it's too heavy, and doing so would add astronomically to the cost.

Aren't geopolitics fun? Rivers aren't subject to rhetoric, spin or deniability. They just flow, and that flow drives a significant portion of the American economy.

Another driver of the economy is the worker, and this is where we are about to get into trouble in New Orleans. Ports need lots of people with skills; so do oil fields and pipelines. We need the people in position to keep our economic flow going. They need homes, grocery stores, shops, auto parts, mechanics, dentists, lawyers, H&R block and McDonalds, to name a few.

We not only need to rebuild a safer New Orleans, but we need to do it quickly. If we abandon these people while we horse around over the reconstruction, they will leave to further their personal survival. You're on your own . Our government was pretty clear on that. They showed it the way they reacted to the city after the storm. It's evident in how they are talking about the survivors, blaming them for their suffering, implying time was not of the essence.

The displacement of population is the crisis that New Orleans faces. It is also a national crisis, because the largest port in the United States cannot function without a city around it. The physical and business processes of a port cannot occur in a ghost town, and right now, that is what New Orleans is. It is not about the facilities, and it is not about the oil. It is about the loss of a city's population and the paralysis of the
largest port in the United States. --

The rivers are a permanent reality in the American economic landscape. We built New Orleans for an essential purpose. Sure, it's not an optimal spot, but it is a necessary one. We would do well to heed the history, and make a serious effort to restore a livable city in support of the ports we depend on. Failure is not an option.

Cross posted at Bring It On and BlogCritics


At September 06, 2005 2:14 PM, Blogger Sally said...

I agree with you...New Orleans is a vital city. They need to rebuild it! But, they need to heed the warnings and restore the Louisana wetlands and build a safer city!

At September 06, 2005 3:56 PM, Blogger Jet said...

I'm not advocating a carbon copy replacement. New Orleans has geographic issues that need to be look at with a long range solution. I do think that it is in the best interests of the economy that we make a public commitment to rebuilding, and a timetable for returning skilled people to jobs and a reasonable degree of services and security.

We also need to deal transparently with the pollution, the soil and the water quality. Fixing these will bring people back. If you know the water won't kill your kids, most people are willing to work to make something out of nothing.

At September 07, 2005 11:44 AM, Blogger Brother Kenya said...

Great post, Jet. Drives home the economic need for the port and the city and the people. Indispensible.

At September 07, 2005 5:09 PM, Blogger Jet said...

We're a country who likes their moola. Sometimes explaining economic impact is the best way to get some attention.


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