Sunday, October 22, 2006

A speed bump on the Road Home

N.J.L.S., writing for First Movers, the Jurisdynamics Network's student-managed affiliate weblog, has logged an important note on the funding of post-Katrina recovery activities in Louisiana.

The gist of N.J.L.S.'s post is that $10 billion in congressional funding has been whittled down, realistically, to a mere $645 million for critical infrastructure. In a maneuver that I criticized in its inception and acknowledged with a sense of frustration and resignation when it came to pass, the Louisiana Recovery Authority has already earmarked $200 million of that shrunken post for Entergy New Orleans, the city's incumbent electric utility. Now 11 disaster-stricken parishes get to play with a total of $445 million for critical infrastructure. Among those parishes is Saint Bernard's Parish, which occupies a low-lying area on the Gulf shore and exhibits very few visible signs of recovery.

Why does this matter? Because the absence of critical infrastructure has the potential to trigger a cascade of irreversible legal and economic decisions, all traceable to a restriction on Road Home financing. The fear is one that Rachel Godsil initially reported, and one N.J.L.S. now echoes: if Road Home financing is limited to buying out homes in places lacking a critical mass of returning homeowners, with no flexibility for reinvesting in these neighborhoods, then initial allocations of financial assistance for critical infrastructure will dictate which areas are designated for elimination in an inevitable reduction of New Orleans' urban "footprint."

An urban planner's proposed "footprint" is a euphemism for someone else's old neighborhood. A metropolitan area that may never regain even half its pre-Katrina population will almost certainly occupy a smaller footprint. Which neighborhoods to zero out will be a difficult decision. We can't eliminate the pain altogether. But we should do everything we can to ensure that the process is not structurally unfair. Allowing decisions on reconstruction versus demolition to be dictated ex ante by irreversible commitments of scarce public funds, in a political culture not historically known for its wisdom or its sense of evenhanded justice without regard to race or class, threatens to foreclose the "road home" for Louisiana's most vulnerable citizens.


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