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Dear America:

New Orleans does not need you.

Oh, don't get me wrong.  We really appreciate the billions you've pledged to our rebuilding, and we'll be requiring a lot more to restore our eroding coast and protect our threatened "land"scape from storms and the invading Gulf.  We'd really love a bit more help with housing and medical facilities for our dispersed population.

But in the end, New Orleans does not need you.  You need New Orleans.

I've already on diaried on Port Fourchon and the grave threat that coastal erosion represents to your energy supply, so grave in fact that Fortune magazine has called the problem America's "Next Energy Crisis."  I've talked a little on what coastal erosion could mean to your supply of seafood (take note, fund-raising pols).

Still, maybe you don't eat seafood.  Maybe you don't own a car and the only fuel you use is shoe leather.  Well, chances are, that leather came through the Port of New Orleans.  Don't wear leather? Those rubber soles probably came through here too.  Plastic?  Heck, the PVC pellets to make it likely enough came from a plant in Louisiana's "Cancer Alley."

In fact, there's hardly a single part of the U.S. economic life that isn't dependent on the ports, factories, wells and refineries of South Louisiana.  And it's been that way since before there was a U.S.

The indispensability of New Orleans was put clearly by George Friedman in an article for Stratfor titled New Orleans: A Geopolitical Prize published before the waters of Lake Pontchartrain had even finished rushing through the walls of the 17th Street Canal:

The ports of South Louisiana and New Orleans, which run north and south of the city, are as important today as at any point during the history of the republic. On its own merit, the Port of South Louisiana is the largest port in the United States by tonnage and the fifth-largest in the world. It exports more than 52 million tons a year, of which more than half are agricultural products -- corn, soybeans and so on. A larger proportion of U.S. agriculture flows out of the port. Almost as much cargo, nearly 57 million tons, comes in through the port -- including not only crude oil, but chemicals and fertilizers, coal, concrete and so on.

A simple way to think about the New Orleans port complex is that it is where the bulk commodities of agriculture go out to the world and the bulk commodities of industrialism come in. The commodity chain of the global food industry starts here, as does that of American industrialism. If these facilities are gone, more than the price of goods shifts: The very physical structure of the global economy would have to be reshaped. Consider the impact to the U.S. auto industry if steel doesn't come up the river, or the effect on global food supplies if U.S. corn and soybeans don't get to the markets.

The problem is that there are no good shipping alternatives. River transport is cheap, and most of the commodities we are discussing have low value-to-weight ratios. The U.S. transport system was built on the assumption that these commodities would travel to and from New Orleans by barge, where they would be loaded on ships or offloaded. Apart from port capacity elsewhere in the United States, there aren't enough trucks or rail cars to handle the long-distance hauling of these enormous quantities -- assuming for the moment that the economics could be managed, which they can't be.

Put simply, if you intend to have an economy in the United States that reaches beyond self-contained farmsteads, you must have a deepwater port accessible to the central two-thirds of the continent. You must, in short, have a New Orleans.

Let's say you're reading this diary at the kitchen table in a farmhouse in Nebraska, drinking a cup of coffee and indulging in a little Kos action before hitting the combine.  Where did that coffee come from? Chances are better than one in four that it came from New Orleans.  The steel in that big ol' American-made combine?  Well, 9,000 tons of it come through our port daily, so likely that's from here, too, along with the rubber in the tires.  The natural gas that boiled that water for your coffee likely (30%) came from a well off our coast.  Hell, the coal that generated the electricity powering the computer probably came through here (about four million tons a year).

I know, now you're getting frustrated.  You just can't get away from us.  So you'll close down the laptop and get to that combine, ignoring the question of where the steel and rubber and fuel for it came from, and just get the damn crop in.  Then what?

Well, if your grain is bound for export, then there's a 60% chance that it's going through--you guessed it--the Port of New Orleans.  (Did you click on that last link?  Hell, even Newt Goddamn Gingrich gets it!)

So, even if you've never had a shrimp in your life, even if, somehow, you build your own farm equipment and power it using biodiesel that you make from the soybeans you grow yourself (though the Second Law of Thermogoddamnics tells me that's unlikely). . .

Even if you don't give a wharf rat's behind that we taught America how to cook and deal with diversity, that we invented the music that won the world's war against fascism, not to mention the music  that represented the freedom of the war's aftermath. . .

Even if you believe that soul, funk, fiyo and fee nah nay got nothin' to do with your life. . .

If you ever hope to see another goddamn U.S. dollar in your pocket. . .

You need New Orleans.

And, despite what I said earlier, we need you.  Badly.  Now.  

Show some love.

Update:  Please take the time to read (and rec, of course) the great diary by my City Council member Shelley Midura:  New Orleans Mission NOT Accomplished.

Also, I should have mentioned in the diary:  Mike Tidwell's book Bayou Farewell is the best work to date on the issue of coastal erosion in Louisiana and what it means to the country.  Highly recommended.

Originally posted to Crashing Vor on Wed Aug 29, 2007 at 03:30 AM PDT.

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