We Should Build Bridges Not Walls
“Kesha’s father and stepmother drowned in the Houston flood.” That was the text message I received two days ago at 2:49 pm. I couldn’t believe it. “How?!” was my first question. Kesha is my former colleague and friend of 15 years, who I’ve visited multiple times in Houston, TX. Her father and his wife, Donald and Rochelle Rogers, were driving to make a wellness check on a family member. While crossing a small bridge, rushing water pushed their truck into a flooded ditch.
When tragedies like this claim the lives of innocent people, the second question that enters my mind is “Why?!”,”Why has this happened?” Some might argue that it was a “natural disaster” and that nothing could have been done to prevent it. I strongly disagree. I’d argue that this tragedy is man made, born of decades of neglect of our U.S. infrastructure and a government which now pledges its allegiance to financial interests…money. We are losing our national identity and the solution is not to build walls, it’s to build bridges.
Since 2005 major U.S. cities have been flooded and their people devastated because plans for new infrastructure that would protect people, requiring tens of billions of dollars of investment, have been ignored or turned down. Hurricane Harvey stands before us as the worst national disaster in our history, and it is a disaster which did not have to happen.
You would think that we’d have learned this lesson by now. In 2005 the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina killed nearly 2,000 people and incurred 130 billion in economic losses. Eventually, long after Katrina had gone, new flood-control and seagate infrastructure was built, and guess what? The costs were a fraction of the combined human and monetary cost that was inflicted by the storm. By that reasoning, it would appear to me that we can’t afford not to invest the billions that would be required to safeguard all of the vulnerable regions of our country.
A BIT OF HISTORY
It has been well known for years that the gulf of Texas cities are flood prone. Yet no flood control or storm protection infrastructure has been built since the end of World War II! We have Franklin Delano Roosevelt to thank for what is left of our decaying infrastructure. Please stop yawning. I know the word infrastructure isn’t “sexy” and if you’re like I was for a long time, you may only have a vague notion of what it is but it’s a super simple concept and these are things we must understand if we are to have any chance of influencing policy. Plus it’s fun to learn how society is organized! 🙂 Basically infrastructure is the underlying foundation or basic framework of a system or organization. In the context of a single economy, it’s the system of “public works’ of a country, state, or region. The roads that we use daily and bridges that we cross are part of our infrastructure. The ports that our food is shipped to and then the trains that it travels on to be distributed across the country? Part of our infrastructure. Our power plants and electrical grids that distribute electricity to our homes and keep us cool during these hot summer months? You guessed it, infrastructure and dams, levees, canals and all of the man made control of our water supply is also a part of our national infrastructure. You can think of infrastructure as the veins, arteries and blood of our nation that keeps the entire system functioning.
Now, getting back to Roosevelt, we (America) understood, that through education and the application of science and technology, we could work with mother nature and harness her power for the benefit of mankind and that there was truly “nothing to fear but fear itself”. What Roosevelt did with his “New Deal” during the Great Depression, particularly with the “Tennessee Valley Authority” project is exemplary. The Tennessee Valley (which included parts of its bordering states) was a region that had been neglected and was often subject to so called natural disasters, also in the form of floods. It had the highest annual rainfall total of any watershed in the U.S. which is 51 inches per year, due largely to dissipating hurricanes that came out of the gulf coast region. We just received that amount of rain in Houston over the course of a few days. Roosevelt decided that we were not going to allow the region to continue to be devastated by floods year-after-year. Literacy was down, malaria was up, topsoil was running off creating impossible agricultural conditions, hundreds were drowned and thousands made homeless. It was really a “Developing Nation/Third World” kind of atmosphere, which if we aren’t careful, is where we are soon headed. Roosevelt was determined to take action and decided that the entire river basin would be put to work for the benefit of the people who lived there, not to their destruction. People like David Lilienthal, Senator James P. Pope and others worked together under Roosevelt’s Presidential directive. They devised an ambitious plan to “chain” the river through a series of giant dams, checking the floods and opening it to navigation. The benefit of science and these new technologies allowed the farmers to control the water on their land and enabled a restoration of the fertility of the soil and the reforestation of millions of acres on the hillsides which had been ravaged. They also used the electric power generated by the new dams to rehabilitate industry in the surrounding cities and to electrify the farms, increasing productivity. These are all important developments, to be sure, but the most important development of all that came from the TVA was the proof that human problems CAN be solved by reason, science and education.
Infrastructure development plans have been drafted for Houston (as well as other vulnerable regions) that would be applicable in today’s economy but the $25 billion cost was deemed “too expensive” by our Wall street dominated government, which prefers to place responsibility locally. Nevertheless, Wall Street has been bailed out, repeatedly to the tune of TRILLIONS of dollars, while the “middle” and “lower classes” continually struggle to make ends meet. Once upon a time, we had a different idea of governance. For example, to fund the “New Deal” Franklin Roosevelt created National Credit institutions such as the “Reconstruction Finance Corp” and the “Works Progress Authority,” which financed not only the TVA but all of the New Deal Projects. This is a long standing policy orientation in our National history, as old as our young Nation itself. Alexander Hamilton, our first treasury secretary, was the conceiver of National Credit generation and wrote extensively about it before creating our first National Bank. National Credit (setting aside slavery for this discussion which Hamilton detested) is how we built up our industry, largely manufacturing in the early years. Studying Hamilton is how Roosevelt learned the principle of credit generation. These precedents are well documented and something we can look to as a blueprint for how to proceed now.
Houston is probably most well known for being the “heart” of the space program as typified by the famous line “Houston we have a problem”. Ironically, despite the fact that the average politician would tell us that a scientific orientation is not realistic for a “modern economy” the warnings that were given this past week about Harvey’s arrival were only made possible by the satellite and other technology that came from space program, under Kennedy’s direction. I shudder at the thought of what the casualties had been were there no forewarning. Looking at the city now, you’d never have guessed that not long ago, it was once at the center of the most ambitious project in the entire history of human civilization.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the civil war never truly ended and that we’ve been engaged in ideological warfare, ever since, over two conflicting views of mankind. One, that recognises the equality of all people and the other that doesn’t; that believes that the powerful have the right to herd, cull and when it suits the interest of the “powerful”, allow people to die. This is the reality that we are living right now. That is the ideological conflict currently playing out in our economic policy, veterans hospitals, inner cities, in the streets of Virginia and in various ways all across this country.
Let’s not allow the deaths of Kesha’s father, his wife and so many other innocent victims to have been in vain. Let’s use this tragedy to reach a new levels of intelligent, creative, political engagement. Let us continue to fight to reclaim this government by utilizing some of our greatest weapons; compassion, our minds and the power of great ideas.