Rebuilding On Ten Feet Under

I’m often drawn to the things that people don’t want to talk about. You know, the elephant in the living room syndrome. Today, that uncomfortable topic is the rebuilding of New Orleans.

Along with other excellent people and organizations, Mercy Corps has been helping do the above. Last week I was at Jimmy Mak’s when Neal Keny-Guyer, the CEO of Mercy Corps, was speaking. So I asked him during Q and A whether it was really in the best interests of the residents of New Orleans to rebuild on coastal land that is ten feet below sea level. In the face of rising sea levels as climate change is advancing, and extreme weather events will only increase.

He replied, in essence, that people who live in a given place naturally need to control their own destiny as much as possible. “It comes across as elitist if people from outside tell them in a top-down way that they can’t live any more in the place they call home,” he said. “You have to involve them very closely in any decision-making. That’s the way you have to handle it.”

I asked the same question last fall of other hard-working people who were rebuilding New Orleans. It was at the conference on poverty that Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon presented. “Emotionally, I know I would want to rebuild my home, too,” I said. “And I hugely respect the work you’re doing. But with global warming slated to flood coastlines around the world, I’m afraid we’re setting people up for more suffering.”

Their reply in essence was that the government had abused and neglected them during and after Katrina, and needed to do right by them from now on. ‘Mitigation of environmental hazards’ was the key phrase in their strategy.

The problem is that I agree with Neal Keny-Guyer about the self-determination of communities and with the activist rebuilders at the conference about the government’s terrible behavior — but I disagree with their conclusion that the rebuilding of New Orleans should continue.

I think it’s an emotionally based decision that flies in the face of the uncomfortable truth about global warming and rising sea levels. I still love Mercy Corps (in fact, that organization is in our will) but I disagree that New Orleans should be rebuilt. I think we should be teaming instead with its residents on relocation.


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