Rebuilding New Orleans—The Right Way

By Eric Lerner

NJ Workers Democracy Network

Two years from now, New Orleans could be rebuilt. Its entire pre-storm population could be back, living in homes sturdier than the ones that were destroyed. Their children could be attending new schools, their medical needs provided by renovated or new hospitals. The entire city and most of the surrounding delta could be defended against category 5 hurricanes by an unbreachable wall of sea gates, levees and wetlands. Tens of thousand of high paying jobs for both native born and immigrant would be created. And this could all be accomplished without a penny wasted in corruption and graft.
How could this be done? Not be private enterprise, or by contractors working for public funds. Instead it would be done by a reconstruction program of direct government employment—a new WPA.  How do we know? From looking at the accomplishments of the original government projects—the Works Progress Admsintration and the earlier Civil Works Administration, the CWA.

Building America in the Great Depression

The Civil Works Administration, begun in the fall of 1933 lasted only four and a half months. In that period CWA built or repaired 33,850 public building, carried out 3,220 flood control projects, built from scratch 1,000 airports and 3,700 playgrounds. Within the first week of its operation, it employed 1.1 million workers and employment peaked at 4.2 million.  The total cost of the project was $30 billion in 2006 dollars.
CWA was able to accomplish so much in so little time because it was based on direct government employment. No contracts were let, no contractors involved—the government employed the labor directly—at union wages.
The project enraged the corporations and political pressure caused the Roosevelt administration to terminate it. However, a militant and growing movement of unemployed workers forced the government to again institute a giant jobs program—what WPA. Unlike CWA, WPA did not provide union wages and workers had to battle constantly to raise wages and to preserve the program itself.
On the other hand, WPA lasted six years, not four and half months, so it accomplishments were on an even grander scale: 600,000 miles of highway, 116,000 bridges, 5,600 new schools, 30,000 new public buildings, countless parks and recreation areas. Again no contracts with their profits and corner-cutting were involved. The quality of the work is evident today, 70 years later, in nearly every community in the country.

This project showed how to get the work done—an integrated plan carried out by direct government employment. That system can work again today in rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

What is needed in New Orleans?

A program to rebuild New Orleans needs to simultaneously address three critical needs—none can be accomplished without the others. The first is of course to create a defense against future flooding that will withstand a Category 5 hurricane. The second is to rebuild the housing that has been destroyed to allow the return of all those who lived in New Orleans before the storm, and make that housing affordable for them. The third is to rebuild the shattered infrastructure of the city—its schools, hospitals and other essential services, including making its electricity supply system again completely reliable.
Competent engineers like Ivor Van Heerden of Louisiana State University have already described what needs to be done to protect New Orleans and the surrounding area. Their plan includes five main elements:

Giant Flood gates at I-10 to keep storm surges out of Leak Pontchartrain and at Industrial Canal

Pump stations to the head of the main canals to prevent any storm surge from entering them

Armored levees from Orleans East to the Intercoastal Waterway with a gate in the area of the Funnel

A giant barrier levee from the Mississippi River Westward to Texas, with navigation gates as needed

Diversion of the Mississippi below New Orleans to rebuild the wetlands

The cost of this plan is about $30 billion dollars. If this plan were implemented ALL of New Orleans would be protected. NONE of the lowest lying neighborhoods would have to be abandoned.  The defense against flooding will be strong enough so that no area within them will ever again require evacuation or face devastating flooding.
To house those who lived in New Orleans before Katrina, nearly 200,000 units of housing in the city and immediate surrounding will have to be built or completely re-built.  These must be a mix of public housing and single-family dwellings, to reflect the pre-storm population.  Without the overhead and inefficiencies of contractors, a government housing program could build this housing for under $20 billion.  All those who lost their homes must be provided with new ones without charge—people have a right to protection from disasters, especially those created by the negligence of the government itself. Rents should be fixed at or below pre-storm levels.
New Orleans schools and hospitals were totally inadequate before the storm. They must be rebuilt so as to provide high quality education and health care to all who live in New Orleans.  Together with smaller infrastructural projects to rebuild the power supply system and other essential services, infrastructure repair will cost about $20 billion.
Thus the total cost of rebuilding New Oreland will be only about $70 billion, less than half a million per family.

Workers for Reconstruction

The basic limitation on how fast such a reconstruction can be carried at, other than the important one of the political will to do it, is the number of workers required. Based on standard levels of construction productivity, some 150,000 workers would be needed to complete the bulk of the work in two years. Some of the flood control works, such as the wetlands reconstruction would inevitably take longer, up to a decade.  Given economies of scale and the use of advanced construction techniques, a somewhat smaller work force might be needed.
However, a huge number of jobs will be created, more than the local population, depleted by evacuation, can probably provide.  There will be enough jobs for both native Louisiana workers, immigrant workers and probably skilled workers from around the country.  Temporary housing for the workers, --trailers that are much sturdier than the shacks provided by FEMA-- will probably have to be provided for the first six months as the work force expands and the first homes are built. Later, these homes can act as temporary housing until the job is done and the original population moves back, while most of the work force returns to permanent addresses outside of the city or the area.
Since schools and hospitals and flood control works will be built up simultaneously, re-population of the city can probably be well under way after the first twelve months of the project and will be essentially complete in two years from its start.

Who will decide?

Ideally, neither politicians nor government bureaucrats should have the power to plan reconstruction. Initially, overall plans for reconstruction can be drawn up by competent engineers under the direction of a planning broad elected from New Orleans residents, both those now living there and those that have not yet returned. Basic guidelines can be decided on, such as reconstruction of all neighborhoods, rebuilding services to acceptable levels, not just those of pre-Katrina, and paying all workers union-standard wages.
As reconstruction proceeds, individual neighborhood-elected planning boards can work with engineers to draw up more detailed plans.  In addition, to ensure work is carried out in the most effective manner elected represnetive from the workers can be added to planning boards as the work force increases.

Rebuild New Orleans, Rebuild America, and Rebuild the World

While no other city has suffered the devastation of New Orleans, every US metropolitan area is in dire need of massive reconstruction, both to meet the needs of our existing population and to prevent future disasters.  The infrastructure of the US is literally falling apart. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, over a quarter of all bridges are in urgent need of repairs, flood control projects are needed in almost every region and the lack of maintenance of the highways accounts for 30% of all highway fatalities—over 15,000 deaths a year.  Schools are inadequate and overcrowded, and a housing deficit of at least 10 million units drives immigrants and native-born poor to double up, while all workers suffer from soaring housing costs. 

To overcome these huge deficits, some $2.5 trillion in new construction is needed, or about $250 billion a year for ten years. Such construction nationally, as in New Orleans, could only be carried out by a nationwide Civil Works Administration, with direct government planning and employment. Directly and indirectly such a project would produce at least 2.5 million good high-paying jobs in construction and manufacturing.
In the rest of the world, infrastructure needs are even greater, and the US industrial capacity could be used to help fill those needs, creating many millions of industrial jobs in this country and re-vitalizing the nation’s crippled manufacturing base. Billions of dollars worth of industrial and construction equipment could be shipped from the US to Latin America, Africa and Asia to help built the housing, water supply systems and other basic infrastructure the world’s population needs to live decent lives.

Who will pay?

The $35 billion a year needed to rebuild New Orleans, the $250 billion a year needed to rebuild America and the additional hundreds of billions needed for this country’s contribution to rebuilding the world do not have to come out of the pockets of working people or be diverted from other needed government expenditures.  They can come exclusively from what has been looted from us by the rich and the corporate vultures.
Here are some sources of funds that could make available far more money than is needed for reconstruction:

Taxing the oil companies: A tax of one dollar for every dollar that the oil and gas companies have increased gasoline prices in the past four years would yield a fund of $700 billion dollars—and put a cap on gas prices at the same time

Taxing the rich: A tax of just 2% on the wealth of those in the US who have over $2 million in assets (just ½% of all American) would raise $600 billion a year.

Stopping the War machine: Ending the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and cutting huge wasteful production of armaments would free up $400 billion a year, and allow the arms plants to be coverted to the production of vital industrial machinery.

Writing off the International Debt: Ending the debt that is strangling developing countries would give them $400 billion a year to pay for new infrastructure, industrial machinery and improvements to health, education and other services.

There is more than enough money available to not only rebuild New Oreland, the nation and the world, but to raise wages, improve education and health care, cut hours of work and raise living standards for all. What is needed is a mass movement that can demand that those resources be used for the good of all.