Occasionally we’re told that disasters bring out the very best in folks. I’m thinking of the Big Apple following the 9-11 attacks. Unfortunately, what just happened to the Big Easy has brought out some of the very worst.
Perhaps over time we’ll hear more stories of genuine heroism–ordinary people who did extraordinary things to make a horrible situation a little bit better. But for now, who isn’t depressed about not only what happened, but also what happened in its aftermath?
As relief workers tend to the immediate needs of a human tragedy, it looks like a recovery at last is underway. Yet President Bush has warned us that the rebuilding takes years and years. Over time, we’ll want to devote an increasing amount of attention to the long-term problem of how we might minimize the effects of future catastrophes.
Wreckage on the scale of what we’re seeing in New Orleans affects every single American. At first, most of us experienced the disaster vicariously, through television screens. But it wasn’t long before we began to feel the impact of the crisis upon our own lives. The initial evidence appeared at the pump, as gas prices shot upwards–about $1 per gallon where I live.
Other prices may spike as well. A lot of fruit imports, especially bananas, traditionally have come through New Orleans. Coffee is another point of vulnerability. I’ve read that millions of pounds of java are stranded in warehouses in and around the city.
The export market is taking a hit as well. Here in farm country, where we grow a lot of corn and soybeans for overseas markets, Katrina has walloped commodity prices. Right away, I saw corn bids drop by 30 cents per bushel in my area.
That’s because barges are stuck on the Mississippi River with nowhere to go. The waterways eventually will come unclogged, but it will take a while before business returns to normal. America’s grain harvest is just a couple of weeks away, and it may stress our system even further.
Hurricane Katrina certainly demonstrates how much we all depend upon the global economy. When we’re shut off from it, either though a natural disaster or because of an unnatural trade barrier, each and every one of us is made a little bit poorer.
The storm also exposed weaknesses in our national infrastructure. Water is by far the best way to transport what we grow in the Midwest, and New Orleans has been the most feasible way out. It’s the only place that can handle many of our agricultural exports in a cost-effective way.
In the months ahead, we’re going to hear an awful lot of talk about infrastructure, from questions about how well our roads can handle major evacuations of coastal cities to the advisability of building a metropolis below sea level.
Part of this discussion needs to focus on our inland waterways. The Army Corps of Engineers is going to catch a lot of flack for the problems we’ve seen, and most of it undeserved.
Consider the case of the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project–an Army Corps of Engineers project that was meant to thwart a disaster in New Orleans. As it happens, the project didn’t receive sufficient financial support from federal, state, and local officials.
Would more money have made a difference? It’s impossible to say. But I do know this: You get what you pay for, and we haven’t been spending enough on America’s infrastructure. Now we’re witnessing the grim consequences of negligence, not only in New Orleans but also in cities and towns that are far removed from the lowlands of Louisiana.
In the wake of a calamity that has ripped apart a region, maybe this is a grand project that can help bring the country together.
Tim Burrack raises corn and soybeans in partnership with his brother on their NE Iowa family farm. Tim is a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org) a national grassroots advocacy group based in Des Moines, IA formed and led by farmers in support of freer trade and biotechnology.