Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Don't Have to Live Like an Evacuee

Also sprach Tom Petty---or at least that's what he would have said had he known that "refugee" would mysteriously become an offensive term in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In fact, however, residents of New Orleans and much of the Gulf coast in fact do have to live like evacuees, over and over again, or at least until the lessons of Katrina are forgotten. Mayor Ray Nagin's recent over-the-top forecast of the "mother of all storms" and threats to send looters "directly to the big house" (without a trial? without even a probable cause hearing?) were perhaps understandable given the context, but that simply calls into question the context. How many storms will have to just miss New Orleans before the public start to ignore evacuation orders or public officials hesitate to give them?

Remember Rita? That was the storm that followed closely on the heels of Katrina, and led to a panicked evacuation of Houston. As I observed in a FindLaw column at the time, the reaction to Rita was best understood as an example of the salience fallacy---the tendency of the human mind to focus on risks made salient by recent events, while ignoring others. The problem in real time, of course, is that you don't want to be wrong about those salient risks.

One possibility is that, knowing what they knew at the time, Bobby Jindal, Ray Nagin and Michael Chertoff were right to deem Gustav an evacuation-worthy storm, and that we are likely to see such storms about once every three years, perhaps more frequently (with Hanna and Ike gathering force). Can a major American city afford to evacuate every three years? If not, but if that's what's necessary, then the Big Easy will not be sustainable.

But suppose that the cost-benefit analysis came out the other way. Suppose, that is, that the cost of evacuating for every Gustav is actually greater than waiting and seeing with the risk that one occasionally gets socked with a Katrina (at least with competently and completely rebuilt levees). I still can't imagine public officials taking that chance. For one thing, the costs of unnecessarily evacuating are mostly financial, whereas the costs of unduly delaying evacuation include substantial numbers of human lives.

Thus, regardless of how the actual cost-benefit analysis comes out, the medium-term future of New Orleans will include relatively frequent all-out evacuations. I imagine that for some number of people, this itself will lead them to give up on the city, but even if a critical mass would voluntarily remain, they will likely do so as partly public charges. People are attached to their homes (as Neil has been noting on this blog for the last few weeks), and public policymakers tend to want to subsidize that attachment both before and after the fact. It is not a politically tenable position to say that New Orleans and other highly vulnerable locales should be de-populated, leaving behind only reinforced quarters for the minimum industrial staff needed for the commerce that flows through the Mississippi delta. But in the cold light of reason, that may be the right policy.

Posted by Mike Dorf (about 200 miles inland)