We cannot design ourselves out of Katrina. No matter how well intentioned we architects may be, no matter how many plans and volunteer hours we commit, the scale and complexity of this disaster exceeds the grasp of design alone, despite the fact that many of us are trying hard.
Currently, the front line rests with government action. Think about the immense implications of the storm, the largest natural disaster ever to strike the United States. The Red Cross now estimates that over 275,000 homes were destroyed, as many as 200,000 in Louisiana alone. The storm cut a swath across three states, affecting each differently. In Mississippi, the entire coastline lies wounded, with whole communities ground into powder. Greater New Orleans stews in political, economic, and social gumbo, its people forming a diaspora scattered throughout the 50 states. Nothing alters the fact that FEMA maps due out in April will demonstrate that scores of houses and plots of land remain in harm’s way. Until the U.S. Corps of Engineers stabilizes the levee systems that have historically ringed the city, vast tracts are subject to further flooding, and hurricane season is galloping toward us again.
Local citizens have been outraged at our lack of a national response. Put yourself in the residents’ place for a moment. If you, a New Orleans citizen, found your house irreparably damaged, and you faced a monthly mortgage, what would you do? Shouldn’t the federal government offer relief? The Baker Bill, sponsored by U.S. Representative Richard Baker from Louisiana, proposes establishing the Louisiana Recovery Corporation—an agency to purchase back damaged property from residents. While the bill, an admirable proposal, has found advocates in Congress, and support from the AIA, the Bush administration is withholding its favor; congressional Republicans seem to be pulling back their support as well, relying on the forces of free-market capitalism. The administration has, instead, already earmarked $19.8 billion in supplemental appropriations for agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, and for federal structures (such as VA hospitals), with $4.2 billion for the Community Development Block Grant program for Louisiana. Money for federal agencies come out of these requests.
The temptation might be to accept the latest federal appropriations as the much-sought relief. It sounds like a lot of money and will help with housing and local infrastructure, but unfortunately, the total pales in comparison to Katrina’s toll. According to credible sources, the actual cost soars to $30 billion when you outline the real needs. Among the requirements are levee and flood protection, coastal wetlands mitigation, the local match for hazard mitigation, the costs to colleges and universities (some of which were decimated), local public services (police and fire protection, for example), electric utilities, and other infrastructure work that is not fully determined.
While the dispensation of federal appropriations seems to be changing with each day’s posting on the Web, this much is clear: Our largest natural disaster deserves a heroic response from all our citizens. New Orleans alone, the fulcrum, remains vital to our commerce and to our national soul. That city takes its place among the great cities, not only of this country, but uniquely on the world stage. The Mississippi Gulf Coast, struck with commensurate disaster, deserves equal, full attention.
Our immediate response as architects always seems to be design. In this case, we should be acting to provoke leadership and keeping the pressure on our elected officials. We need vision, direction, and commitment at all levels as never before. While an ever-present war continues to demand our sons and daughters, our national treasury, and our emotional energies, it is time that the allied communities of design professionals rise up, speak out for the cities we have helped to design and build in this country, and find the political will to revitalize an indisputable lodestone of American culture—the Gulf South. Design will come later.