In Defense Of Dennis Hastert

Dennis Hastert has gotten a lot of flack for some comments he made about New Orleans:

“It makes no sense to spend billions of dollars to rebuild a city that’s seven feet under sea level, House Speaker Dennis Hastert said of federal assistance for hurricane-devastated New Orleans.

“It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed,” the Illinois Republican said in an interview Wednesday with the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill.

…Hastert, in a transcript supplied by the suburban Chicago newspaper, said there was no question that the people of New Orleans would rebuild their city, but noted that federal insurance and other federal aid was involved. “We ought to take a second look at it. But you know we build Los Angeles and San Francisco on top of earthquake fissures and they rebuild too. Stubbornness.”

There are “some real tough questions to ask,” Hastert said in the interview. “How do you go about rebuilding this city? What precautions do you take?”

Hastert later issued a statement saying he was not “advocating that the city be abandoned or relocated.”

“My comments about rebuilding the city were intended to reflect my sincere concern with how the city is rebuilt to ensure the future protection of its citizens and not to suggest that this great and historic city should not be rebuilt,” the statement said.”

Of course, the left is already complaining about this, but a few people on the right have gotten in on the act as well.

For example, I received an email from RWN reader Melissa Thompson, who said:

“As avid readers of your site, we would appreciate any comments you might make on Congressman Hastert’s disgusting comments today on not rebuilding the city of New Orleans….(A)s a Republican, Hastert’s comment embarrass the hell out of me, and strike me more as something some atheist Democrat would say at this time of extreme vulnerability in the city.”

The folks over at QandO said basically the same thing:

“Yeah, no kidding. Fine. I even see your point.

But now is not the time for stupid insensitive statements like that. Now is the time to be getting your fat @ss out and seeing if you can expedite some help, maybe from the state you represent, Mr. Speaker.”

I’ve got to tell you that not only do I agree with Dennis Hastert’s sentiments, I agree with the timing.

Why?

Because after a big natural disaster, there is always enormous pressure on politicians to do something now, now, now! They’re supposed to fly over the disaster zone, give reassuring speeches, and then appropriate gargantuan sums of money as fast as possible to prove they care. Any sort of delay in doing any of these things is treated as icy and nearly inhuman indifference to human suffering…and keep in mind, this is one of the biggest natural disasters in American history. That means the pressure is going to be ratcheted up that much higher. That’s why tomorrow, the House is supposed to: “return for an emergency session Friday to approve some $10 billion in federal aid for hurricane victims.”

Of course, that’s understandable. It’s vitally important to establish order in New Orleans, evacuate the city, help the people who are displaced, etc., etc. Those things need to be done and they need to be taken care of as quickly as possible.

Going beyond that, the problem here is that in a very short period of time, maybe in just a matter of weeks, our legislators will likely be spending tens of billions of dollars more and making far reaching decisions about the future of New Orleans. Moreover, it’s entirely possible that little critical thinking will be involved because of the aforementioned political pressure.

That would be an enormous mistake.

New Orleans is a city that is, at least in the United States, uniquely vulnerable to big hurricanes. Despite the fact that they’ve known that for decades, not only were their defensive measures against a big hurricane woefully inadequate, the city has been completely hamstrung in their response afterwards. We’re talking about a city that can’t even maintain public order or properly evacuate the Superdome. Of course, the fact that much of the city is under 15 ft. of water has a lot to do with that, but however you slice it, it should still be noted that the local government, despite plenty of forewarning, wasn’t able to protect the city from Katrina and has been nearly helpless since the storm hit.

So, who’s to say that if we pour 40 billion dollars into New Orleans, the whole city won’t be wrecked again in exactly the same manner in another decade? As a matter of fact, given how long New Orleans had to prepare for this hurricane and the dismal results, a better question at this point might be why would we think the city wouldn’t be destroyed again if it was hit by another hurricane in the future?

That’s why people should be glad Hastert had the guts to speak up. There are some very hard questions that need to be asked about the rebuilding of New Orleans and the answers need to add up. If they don’t, then maybe we should be encouraging people to move elsewhere. Maybe some parts of the city shouldn’t be rebuilt. Maybe we should be asking if it’s even possible to protect the city from a category 4 or 5 hurricane? These are things that need to be seriously discussed by experts before we open up the federal coffers for rebuilding a city on the coast that’s in effect, in the middle of a colossal soup bowl.

What it all comes down to is that the people who have been effected by this hurricane deserve our compassion. But, as we move forward, we need to make sure that compassion is tempered by reason. Call that insensitive if you like, but a few tough questions today could end up saving 50 billion dollars and thousands of lives a few years down the road…

*** Update #1 ***: Melissa writes back:

“I read your response to my and others’ comments on Hastert and the rebuilding of New Orleans. By your logic, and those of the commentors, Los Angeles should not have been rebuilt after the last earthquake, right? And certainly no areas affected by the tsunami should be rebuilt, because they are prone to another. Florida? All those low levels in the midwest along the Mississippi river that flooded several years ago?”

Each situation is unique and it has to be looked at that way. In the case of New Orleans, they’re uniquely vulnerable to hurricanes for a city their size and their entire city has been in essence destroyed because of that despite decades of preparation.

So, before we start throwing enormous sums of money at the problem, let’s ask the pertinent questions, starting with: Can we prevent this nightmare from happening again or does the location of New Orleans mean there’s not much that can be done?

If the answer is “nothing we can do”, then we shouldn’t pump let’s say 50 billion dollars into a city that will be wiped out every time it’s hit with a big hurricane. If the answer is “yes,” then we spend the money on rebuilding, but strings should be attached to part of the money to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

What we don’t want to do is follow Washington’s usual procedure in a situation like this, which amounts to: open up our wallets now and ask questions later, lest someone think we’re being insensitive.

PS: I’d say the exact same thing about rebuilding the houses of some of those people who live beside of parts of the Mississippi river that are particularly flood prone.

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