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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Let them work

It struck me over the weekend that what makes sense in New Orleans now is to put people to work. I’m talking about a massive public works project.

For those who are willing and able, it’s a good way to channel their needs into something positive and productive. Many of the displaced by Hurricane Katrina have lived on the Gulf Coast their whole lives. The government has already pledged money to rebuild the homes, businesses, churches, parks and schools.

So let them rebuild their city. Give them something to do — because if you do you also give them hope.

During the Depression, FDR put Americans to work through the Works Progress Administration. I envision something similar. Tens of thousands of able-bodied people who presently have nothing else to do except watch helplessly and try to restart their lives would stand to benefit greatly from such an opportunity.

Call me an idealist, which I’ll readily admit I am, but this would foster a tremendous sense of community among those for whom New Orleans is more than a weekend vacation or a convention destination.

Now I know skills are needed, but not at first. The first step after pumping out the contaminated water is demolition and clean up. There are many able-bodied men and women who could engage in such as effort. As the Amish (or is it the Shakers) say, many hands make light work.

The government, which has to shell out billions for the reconstruction anyway, could pay these folks a decent wage. Not only would the residents be earning a paycheck, but they also would be participating in the rebuilding of the city they love. Instead of watching helplessly from Memphis or Houston, they could turn their energies into something tangible.

In the beginning, the government could set up temporary housing outside of the contaminated areas in the form of Quonset-style barracks (which can be air conditioned for comfort). Bus them into the sections of the city and, under the leadership of experienced engineers, architects, developers, city officials and builders, put them to work.

Progress will be slow at first as people figure out the sequence of what needs to be done. But the process will enable people to develop valuable job skills — refurbishing infrastructure in the form of highways, bridges, power and water lines; building trades such as electricians, plumbers, roofers, carpenters, etc. Some may find themselves interested in safety services, traveling to Baton Rouge to take the civil service exam, perhaps getting police, fire or EMS training. Lord knows the city needs them now. And others may discover that they possess leadership skills required to lead their parish council.

As environmental conditions improve, perhaps you bring back some teachers and set up temporary schools to educate the children of New Orleans while new schools are being built. Bring teams of middle school and high school age children in to help paint classrooms, shine floors, landscape grounds and parks. Let the college students refurbish the campuses of the institutions they’ve called home.

It will take lots of money. But it’s going to take lots of money to rebuild anyway. And it will give the men and women of New Orleans, regardless of race or economic status, a chance to improve their lives while also improving their community and the economy.

This disaster and its aftermath are unprecedented in our country’s history. Our response must be nothing less than unprecedented. There will be plenty of time for pointing fingers, politicking and armchair quarterbacking the event and the response. Right now, our government needs to do something truly innovative for its own citizens. That’s the LEAST it can do in the wake of such spectacularly failed leadership.


Amy Green said...

Hi Wendy,

I really like this. It would definately sell.

Hope you're doing well. Take care,


Lori said...

Well said. Someone has to do it; why not let it be those who need the work most and have the most at stake in the rebuilding?

Neil Ralston said...

Wendy, you have an interesting and reasonable idea, but we first must decide what city should be rebuilt.

Most people outside of Louisiana seem to think of New Orleans as a charming, Old South city with a enchanting past. That's what the tourist bureau wants you to think.

In reality, New Orleans was (hmmm, past tense already) a major metropolitan area with major problems that tourists either didn't know about or care about. New Orleans was poorer than most cities, more dangerous than most, less educated than most, and its infrastructure was less stable than most.

In spite of this, though, visitors viewed the Big Easy as a romantic getaway. And often this oddly optimistic notion persisted in spite of the evidence under their noses. For example, I've heard tourists describe the smell of alcohol and rotting garbage in the French Quarter as "quaint." And they saw the poor who sometimes roamed the downtown areas as part of the captivating Southern experience.

In pointing out the problems, I am not suggesting that we should not rebuild New Orleans; it means that we need to look at what we want the city to be when we finish. We need a new New Orleans; the old New Orleans shouldn't be good enough.

For a good look at some of the city's problems and an argument against rebuilding the city, check out this article from Slate