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Post-World War Reconstruction Plan Offers Lesson for Rebuilding U.S. Gulf Coast

Many have called Hurricane Katrina an unparalleled disaster in modern American history. Last week, during a symposium at a New Orleans museum devoted to the Second World War, scholars and officials took a look at the catastrophe through a wider historic lens. They examined the parallels between rebuilding the Gulf Coast after the destruction wrought by Katrina, and rebuilding Europe from the ashes of World War II.

Gunter Bischof grew up in Austria. Looking around the still-ruined landscape of the Crescent City, the University of New Orleans historian says it brings to mind how his home country was rebuilt under the U.S.- led Marshall Plan after World War II.

Bischof says it's the most common model for large-scale rebuilding today. "It's been pulled out recently by the British Prime Minister for recovery programs in Africa," he points out. "President Bush has mentioned it for Iraq as a potential template. I was sort of struck at how it wasn't used as a template here for helping us at least figure out some of our programs for Gulf Coast reconstruction."

There are lessons from the Marshall Plan that could apply to many levels of rebuilding here. First, Bischof says, is the need for a regional approach to recovery. "If Louisianans and Texans and Mississippians coordinate their efforts, ultimately they're going to have much more [influence] in Washington."

In addition to this group effort, he says, Washington must provide strong leadership, "leadership that clearly was there in the Marshall Plan era, where the U.S. [recruited] some of its best minds to lead the effort in the reconstructions."

Bishof says the federal government hasn't devoted that same kind of high-minded, high-profile attention to Gulf Coast reconstruction.

But that needs to come from the local level, according to Sean Reilly, of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. He says that while Washington can lead the way, ultimately Gulf Coast citizens must control their own futures. "Our job is not to dream for New Orleans and plan for New Orleans," he says. "Our role is to give voice to those dreams and help finance them."

But Jeffry Diefendorf, a historian at the University of New Hampshire, says that European citizens actually did rebuild their own communities under the Marshall Plan. His research focuses on post-War Germany. He says the notion that the United States funded all levels of rebuilding is untrue. "What is true," he explains, "is that the Marshall Plan provided money particularly for large-scale infrastructure projects. Railroads, getting the power grid functioning. And of course it did free up monies - local monies - for simply rebuilding houses or individual businesses."

Diefendorf also says that German cities faced many of the same rebuilding dilemmas that the Gulf Coast cities are facing today. "There was a constant struggle between those who wanted to plan and guide rebuilding carefully, and property owners and institutions that wanted to get right to it and get going."

But, he says, the Germans were more united than Louisiana and other Gulf Coast residents seem to be. "After the war, there was a belief that those folks who'd seen their property survive should pay often one-time special taxes to provide a fund to help those whose properties were damaged rebuild." This would mean that residents of un-flooded uptown New Orleans, for example, would help pay to rebuild the devastated Lower Ninth Ward.

Sean Reilly of the Louisiana Recovery Authority says it's one of many interesting strategies discussed at the Marshall Plan symposium. Eventually, he says, his office will create a plan based on a variety of historical disaster recovery scenarios. "Not just the Marshall plan, which was a great example, but [earthquake-ravaged] Kobe, Japan, [and] 9-11. You can't get the job done without lessons learned from those who've gone before us."