Lindsay Beyerstein invokes George Friedman’s article detailing the importance of the Port of Southern Louisiana (roughly, the 50-odd miles of the Mississippi from New Orleans to Baton Rouge) to the US economy to cast doubt on my doubt (and by inference, Steve Teles’) that rebuilding New Orleans as it is or even where it is makes sense. I’m awash in doubt about this; no-one knows the answer. I hope we invest some serious IQ-hours trying to find it, a search that will require examining more, and more complicated, alternatives than the inexcusably vague and romantic “rebuild New Orleans.”
As regards the port, those goods have to be received from ships somewhere on a coast, but alternatives exist (Houston, Mobile) that are less at risk from the next hurricane and the next, and from the uncertain future path of the Mississippi which is overdue for evulsive change, probably into the Atchafalaya, and only held in its current channel by Corps of Engineers gear. The special merit of New Orleans, of course, is its connection to the Mississippi/Ohio/Missouri barge route. But barge hauling is partly inertial and traditional, and highly subsidized by public maintenance of locks and levees. Considering all its real costs, (for example, barging is somewhat cheaper per ton-mile than rail, but because these rivers wind and wind, point to point distances by barge are much greater than rail distances) it’s not as much cheaper than rail as it looks, and not essential to the economy if we consider using reconstruction money for doomed rebuilding along the coast to beef up the rail system instead.
It costs about the same, and takes much less time, for example, to get a ton of beans from Nebraska to China by rail to Seattle and then by ship as to take it down the Mississippi by barge and then in ships. This is because the ocean part of the trip is so much shorter, and because the west coast option allows the use of bottoms too large to go through the Panama Canal. So the river route is not essential to a large and growing part of our foreign trade.
In any case, the port doesn’t require the city. Ports are a lot more automated than they used to be, and the workers needed to keep POSL humming could very well live in smaller, safer places upriver. The late evacuees from New Orleans were late because they didn’t have good-paying industrial jobs at the port, not because they did. If they did, they would have had cars.
The petrochemical investment along the river is another thing that needs careful analysis. It all does. I’m not at all sure whether we should try to restore the coast communities, but I’m absolutely certain we shouldn’t do it out of sentiment or habit, and fairly certain that if we try, we will wind up with something quite different from what a lot of advocates seem to be expecting. Finally, given what we know about hurricane risk, knowledge that has not changed but only been made more salient by Katrina, I think Friedman’s argument cuts both ways quite keenly: if that shipping function is as important as he says, isn’t it especially important not to put it at the especially high risks characteristic of the Mississippi delta, given that river shipping is no longer the only game in town?