Bil Browning

A Challenge Appropriate to a Great Effort

Filed By Bil Browning | September 08, 2005 5:21 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics

All my life, I have heard people say: "If only we could unite the country behind this project." Sometimes I said it myself. But as I got more experience, learned more history and had time to reflect, I came to realize that the effect of this country united is so immensely powerful that collateral damage would usually exceed the good to be done. American excels in its ability to cooperate, organize and direct its efforts to a particular task. That accounts for our power and wealth. Some people believe that makes us dangerous; others point out that America has, on balance been good for the world. My point is not directed at one or the other side of that argument. My point is that we can focus so much energy and material where we want it (when we put our collective minds to it) that it would usually exceed any needs and cause more problems than it cured.

Every so often, there comes a challenge that is appropriate to such an effort. The one that is most prominent in our memory is World War II. The scope of the production that constituted the American response to the totalitarian menace is beyond comprehension. It started with the conception and construction of most of the industry that then built the materials of war, including food, water and transportation. It included many of the machine tools that the Soviet Union used to manufacture supplies for the Red Army. For various reasons this country was not mobilized in December 1941. Less than three years later, the war was won. All the factories had been built or converted, all the communities created and their output poured out to Europe and the Pacific frustrating the designs of Japan and Germany. Millions of the men who had manned American factories before the war were off fighting, and women and others filled their places, were trained and produced.

Why think about this now? Because I believe that another suitable challenge presents itself to us now. The catastrophe in the Gulf States is far from over. We hope that most of the dying has stopped, but disease and other dangers still threaten. Mississippi, Alabama and upstate Louisiana have gotten less press than New Orleans although the destruction and death there would merit banner headlines were it not for the death of Big Easy. I do not know New Orleans, and the reporting, to say the least, does not give a comprehensive view of the state of that city. To some extent that is clearly because the situation frustrates comprehensive surveys. To some extent it is because that is not, save for a very few exceptions, what our press does. Still it is clear that once the waters recede, much of the city will not simply clean up and resume life.

Many properties will have to be condemned. That will be a tragedy for some and an opportunity for others. We need to mitigate the tragedy and encourage and support the opportunity. Many businesses are gone; inventories ruined or stolen, employees scattered, customers penniless or distracted by the needs of survival. Many people seem to have left, never to return. They had little; that little is gone. Some had much and that, too, is gone. They may feel betrayed by the powers that tried to help them during the storm and aftermath. They may be unable to face the memories that will forever haunt their old neighborhoods. They may simply lack the money for a return ticket. The country should offer to pay for the ticket, but with the other impediments to return, they may feel that the money would be better spent starting over where they now find themselves. Their continued absence will create holes in communities and local economies that will have to be filled.

All of this adds up to a tragedy of epic proportions. New Orleans as it was has died. It has been a very long time since America has seen such civic destruction, if we ever have. But some of New Orleans remains. And the reasons for its existence, the Mississippi and the Gulf demand reconstruction. Determinations will have to be made, we hope that they are informed and wise, about where and how to rebuild. Perhaps some of the city should be moved out of the bowl. Perhaps the bowl should be filled. Certainly the system of protection, including levees and pumps needs to be completely redone to much higher standards.

Between the civic planning, rebuilding and the support that we owe to residents and communities throughout the area of devastation there is ample need to merit the concerted efforts of our country on a scale and for a period of time that we usually associate with total war. It will not look like the Second World War; the world has changed beyond recognition. But it will require people at all levels of government, industry and community and in all walks of life to sustain and coordinate their efforts to pour into the Gulf States the material, capital and human assets that are needed.

Such an effort escapes the ordinary rules of economy, because it is of limited duration, my humble guess is three to five years, based on what our ancestors accomplished in the 1940s. Whatever the time, the effort will not be unending and citizens and businesses can accommodate the need for extra effort in a necessary cause and for a limited time. It is important that the effort, while structured and coordinated on a national scale, be a cooperative effort where there is ample room for individual, corporate, and community input and initiative. It is also important to realize that the funds and efforts consecrated to the effort constitute an investment that will pay enormous dividends, some of them almost immediate. For example, we will all suffer to one degree or another from higher energy costs because of the destruction of the sources in the region and the facilities for importation, processing and distribution that have been devastated. Money spend on reconstituting those facilities, first patched as quickly as possible, then in an improved state that will mitigate future damage and improve daily operations, will come back to all of us, to the United States economy, rapidly and many times over, in reduced energy costs and greater security. The same could be said of all the money sagely dispensed to reconstitute a city that many Americans love above all others, and none would see abandoned. We must not think that the emergency is over until the city is back on its feet.

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