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Patience: world doesn't revolve around Louisiana flood control

It seemed to bother a number of commentators in Louisiana that when the federal government’s point man for recovery efforts Donald Powell visited the state last week, he would not give definite assurances that the federal government would pump in huge sums of money to the state to provide for things such as stronger levees and coastal restoration, as preventive measures against future hurricanes’ effects. This shouldn’t.

The state has to get over the attitude that somehow its residents have a divine right to live wherever they choose while somebody else pays huge sums to try to safeguard them against all but the most improbable flooding scenarios. It would be one thing if state or local governments taxed these citizens to provide this service, but in reality only a fraction of these costs are not covered by the federal government and the nation’s taxpayers.

In fact, there’s just one compelling reason why the federal government should pay anything at all – south Louisiana does provide service to the rest of the country, through its port facilities, petroleum production, aquaculture, and agriculture. It’s clear everybody is better off with it protected than without.

But the larger question is whether what amount of protection is cost effective. There’s widespread agreement that, at the very least, levees should be rebuilt (correctly) to withstand a Category 3 storm. However, going beyond that will be incredibly expensive and, perhaps, ultimately futile.

To begin, at a minimum of $32 billion and decades of construction, levees that would withstand a Category 5 storm could be built. (Note that this probably would increase substantially, especially if done right, the roughly $30 million a year spent by the federal government on maintenance of Louisiana flood control measures – the state accounts for about 20 percent of all Army Corps of Engineers projects – and that the federal government already pumps in funds for Louisiana coastal restoration, $65 million scheduled for 2006.) Yet experts point out that a hurricane of this force may occur only once every 500 years, so there is a question of whether that much protection really is worth all the money spent.

Then there’s the question of whether all levels of government can be counted on actually to do proper maintenance. The latest disturbing report is that federal, state, and local authorities performed negligent, cursory inspections of levees, and it’s been known for some time that local agencies demonstrated poor alertness and execution in detecting potential problems. And, of course, there’s the issue of how politically serious is the state in providing flood protection; nobody wants to throw money away on shoddy performance and politics as usual.

Finally, all of this may end up a moot point given the geology and geography of the Mississippi delta region may well be changing. One scientist, even if many other scientists dispute his findings, argues New Orleans is sinking through coastal erosion. But another has supported this argument in a different way, arguing that it’s subsidence through a warping of the Earth’s surface that will have a similar effect, mooting costal restoration efforts and forcing ever-higher levees to be built. Were this scenario to come true, costs could be astronomically higher than initially conceived.

So when federal officials balk at immediately promising everything to Louisiana on this issue, we must understand this behavior reflects prudence and reflection. As immediate and important as the issue may be to residents affected by Katrina and Rita, and even state taxpayers, there must be reasonable cost-benefit analyses which will require much time and information. As it is, what has been promised should be more than enough to encourage all but the most risk-averse individuals to rebuild. And what those whose lives will be affected by the decisions must remember is, in the end, they are recipients of either a huge gift or an insanely huge gift, so a little patience might be in order.


Mark Folse said...

I couldn't agree more. You have absolutely no right to live in suburbia and drive an gas guzzling SUV from one air conditioned building to another, if the phenominal cost is transferred to me in coastal Lousiana. Let's just cap all the damn oil wells and fill the canals. That simple step would go a long way toward mitigating coastal loss at little or no direct cash cost to you or the rest of the nation.

The issue is that we have deferred indefinitely the costs of ignoring the geological impact of coastal oil exploitation, so that people could choose to live whereever they damn well please thanks to the automobile and highway expenditures.

That bill is now due. We prefer cash.

Jeff Sadow said...

Either you don't recognize the lack of logic in your post, or you missed the entire point of my post. If somebody is driving around and using air conditioning, they already are paying for it. Nobody is subisdizing this person's gasoline bills or elecrtic bills (unless you are classified as poor, and then the utilities or government may give you some help) that are a consequence of his lifestyle choice. That's very different from the whining demand that everybody pitch in to subsidize your lifestyle choice.

At a certain point, we have to review the cost effectiveness of policy actions. For the reasons listed in the original post -- lack of confidence in present state and local government in spending wisely and questions about the long-term viability of the New Orleans area -- the validity of my argument still stands, that the response needs to be measured and some people may not get the level of protection they want right away, or at all (an approach, mind you, endorsed recently by the state's on panel in charge of planning for flood protection).

Anonymous said...

I believe the posters is talking about the unpaid cost of externalities, which is pretty basic to economics.

feanor70115 said...

Right on! New Orleanians, who certainly do believe that God gave them the right to live in a swampish sinkhole at your expense, should be down on their knees grateful that the government spent 95 million whole dollars each year to keep South Louisiana safe. That's almost as much as it takes to build a highway interchange! Their whining demands for more money should be ignored, the way they have been for over thirty years while every President and Congress slashed their flood control funding by from 50-90%. That way, the rest of the U.S., when the next hurricane disrupts oil production and sends the cost of gas skyrocketing, can sit back in their safe inland towns, cheerfully fork over $4 for a gallon of gas and s,ugly congratulate themselves on the wisdom of not subsidizing these ingrates' whims. When the streams of refugees come looking for handouts because they didn't have the foresight to have second jobs and homes lined up elsewhere in the country, Americans can teach them all a lesson by refusing to help. What good did all those Red Cross donations do, anyway?

Furthermore, it's (a contraction which, as you, is also a possessive!) plain that geological and tidal forces will cause the place to sink anyway. It makes perfect sense - the Mississippi delta is not the result of tens of millions of years of silt deposits that have slowly spread the continental landmass, but was actually doomed anyway until people changed the order of things by building all those expensive levees.

Suspicions of local politics, hte certain incompetence of the federal government, the state's questionable resolve, the simple senselessness of people choosing to live in a cosmopolitan city with nice architecture and its own culture instead of a safe, inland crossroads sprawling with handy strip malls and chain stores - all these things are serious considerations in any reasonable cost-benefit analysis. When the numbers are finally in, however many years from now, the effects of another unexpected 500-year storm may just show that it would have been better to do nothing at all. Benign neglect during interminable, badly informed debate has its own way of solving problems.