A Season to Swarm

Policy wonks are having a field day with creative ideas to rebuild the Gulf Coast. But action is likely to be the same old-same old.
December 2005
William Fulton
By William Fulton  |  Columnist
Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

A friend of mine likes to talk about "policy cicadas"--policy ideas that remain buried for years, sometimes decades, until they suddenly surface and swarm the entire legislative process. They finally have their day.

Hurricane Katrina is a great example of the kind of storm that brings out the policy cicadas. A massive crisis, a call for dramatic action and the sudden appearance of a ton of money--these are the conditions that will bring long-buried policy ideas out into the open quickly.

President George W. Bush--not exactly a policy wonk by nature--has proposed a slew of new initiatives, ranging from the "Gulf Opportunity Zone" (a variation on enterprise zones) to "Worker Recovery Accounts" (a variation on health and retirement accounts). Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, enlisted architect Andres Duany and a cadre of "New Urbanists" to tour 11 devastated communities and make recommendations about how they should be rebuilt. Not surprisingly, Duany concluded that reconstruction should proceed according to New Urbanist principles.

Even the amateur policy wonks are having their day. Bloggers have proposed everything from flooding New Orleans streets with water--a la Venice--to rebuilding it as a floating city that rises and falls with the water

All of these discussions, however, really boil down to one fundamental economic development question facing the Gulf region: How should the public infrastructure be rebuilt? Despite the many different policy ideas floating around, everybody agrees that the public infrastructure has been devastated; everybody agrees it needs to be rebuilt; and everybody agrees it will be rebuilt mostly with federal money. (Indeed, Democrats have had trouble crafting a pro- active response to Katrina, largely because Republicans have usurped the traditional Democratic strategy of throwing huge amounts of federal money at the problem.)

This is where some of the policy cicadas--and even some of the crazy ideas--might come in handy. Katrina's devastation was so vast that it would seem to create a huge opportunity to rethink things. Maybe New Orleans should be on pontoons. Maybe the entire Gulf should become a kind of tax-free zone for a while. Maybe New Orleans should consider, as one wag suggested, rebuilding itself to be prosperous and ugly like Houston, rather than charming and poor.

But in the end, none of these ideas are likely to be seriously considered, and the policy cicadas are likely to go back underground with little overall impact. Natural disasters and their public policy responses, it seems, follow a familiar pattern, even in extreme cases like Katrina.

At first everyone is horrified that our society could put so many people in harm's way, so the initial impulse is to rebuild differently and move everybody somewhere else. But this "change window" is short. Over time, the accumulated effect of the televised sob stories begins to have an impact. Hundreds of thousands of people just want to have their lives back the way they were before. And gradually, the public policy responses--and the money--will begin to flow toward that goal.

After the disastrous fires in the Oakland hills in 1991, for example, California officials began to question the wisdom of continuing to permit people to live on narrow, winding streets on firetrap hillsides. In the end, the folks were allowed to stay, albeit with more fireproof houses. This same pattern has been seen over and over again in Laguna Beach and Malibu, the rich and beautiful but fire- prone oceanfront playgrounds around Los Angeles.

When hurricanes flatten South Florida or the barrier islands in the Carolinas, nobody moves. They rebuild and play the odds. When floods ravage the typical river city, few people move to higher ground. Insurance policies shift, but only gradually; there is too much public sentiment and too much private investment at stake to monkey with the status quo very much. People return and rebuild as before, trying to build stronger and more resistant to natural forces.

And so it will be in the Gulf. Sooner or later we'll stop talking about pontoons, opportunity zones and an ugly but prosperous New Orleans. We'll rebuild the levees, only we'll make them bigger and stronger in the hope that they can withstand whatever hurricanes and floods might hit in the future. We might restore a few wetlands along the way, and we'll probably build stronger buildings that can withstand winds. But in the end, New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast will look a lot like it did before. And the policy cicadas will go underground again.