The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Rebuilding in Historical Perspective

September 5, 2005

Nice post at the Glittering Eye. A small snippet:

The disaster that has occurred in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is enormously larger and will, undoubtedly, be significantly more costly than any of the disasters above. The size of the area affected is hundreds of square miles. We don’t yet know how many people were killed.

There are several key factors that were present in all of the disasters reviewed above:

Civil order was maintained immediately (sometimes ruthlessly) even while the disaster was in progress.
Reconstruction efforts began immediately and were completely under local (and mostly private) control.
Funding for relief and reconstruction was almost exclusively through private investment and philanthropy.
Although large parts of all of the cities were destroyed, large parts remained.

None of these factors are true in New Orleans.

New Orleans will be re-built if the people of New Orleans want to re-build it. And if they do it themselves it will be a New Orleans they can be proud of and love. It will be their New Orleans.

If, on the other hand, they wait around for someone else to re-build their city for them, it won’t be the New Orleans they loved. It will belong to somebody else. And New Orleans will be dead.

It strikes me that whether or not civil order was restored immediately – as it wasn’t in New Orleans – is less important than wether order is maintained during reconstruction.

I’m also a bit unclear if the key conclusion we’re supposed to draw is about the relative importance of local autonomy, private financing, or both? It doesn’t seem likely that it matters that much where the funding comes from, as long as local interests have sufficient flexibility and the money is allocated intelligently. Considering New Orleans’ history of, um, less than clean government, we’ll just have to see.

In the end, what we really need to know is what happened in cases where reconstruction after a disaster proved unsuccessful, and what the metric of success is.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.