More on rebuilding the coast

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?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.