Columns » Warwick Sabin

Disaster relief

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Two major disasters have struck in wide swaths of the Southern region. Both have wrought havoc with the economy, ruined people’s lives and caused mass exodus of people and resources.

One took place over several hours and provoked a national outpouring of sympathy and demand for rebuilding and social justice. The other has been going on for decades and gets little in the way of attention and assistance.

It’s understandable why the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina has concentrated so much concern for relief efforts in New Orleans and surrounding Gulf Coast areas. The disaster was dramatic in its scope and speed, with its physical impact and the victims’ desperation conveyed instantly through the media.

But although the pace of destruction has been slower, an almost identical set of circumstances exists in the Mississippi Delta region that encompasses about half of Arkansas. Its slow march is no less brutal to those who endure it, but they suffer out of the spotlight, with no urgent call to confront their plight.

Consider the income levels there, which are among the lowest in the nation. Think about the out-migration, especially among the black population, which has continued steadily for 40 years. Examine the infrastructure and housing, which are in decay. In these ways it is no different than New Orleans, except the collapse didn’t happen overnight and fewer people remember what the area was like before its decline.

Since many people do not seem to comprehend the immense scale of the challenges facing the Delta, its advocates need to take bold and dramatic action.

Earlier this week, a group called the Mississippi Delta Grassroots Caucus gathered at the state Capitol to call for the formation of an official congressional caucus that could bring more federal funding to the region. They talked about the need for a new interstate corridor and proposed increasing the budget of the Delta Regional Authority to $30 million.

Those are worthy goals, but $30 million is a drop in the bucket compared to what it will take to revive the Delta. For instance, the congressional legislation responding to Hurricane Katrina proposes over $19 billion for relief to the affected areas. And billions more has already been donated to charities that will assist with the rebuilding there.

That’s a better indication of what the Delta needs, but since it will never be able to secure that kind of money through tax dollars or charitable giving, its leaders need an imaginative plan to attract a comparable level of investment.

If that sounds far-fetched, it may help to know that it’s been done before. In the early 1950s, academic and business leaders in North Carolina started talking about creating a research park in the general vicinity of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. It must have seemed like a crazy idea at the time, considering North Carolina’s reputation as a cutting-edge academic and research center was, well, about like Arkansas’s is now.

But the visionaries assembled about 4,000 acres of land and formed a non-profit foundation to begin research and recruit companies to the park, which became known as the Research Triangle. IBM arrived in 1965, which was a tremendous coup, considering it was pioneering computing technology at the time. Over several more years, pharmaceutical companies came, followed by biotechnology firms and assorted laboratories.

UNC and Duke were not considered great schools in the 1950s, but the evolution of the Research Triangle has propelled them into the top tier of universities. A sleepy Southern area turned into a progressive and prosperous region. And all because a few dreamers acted on an innovative impulse.

It’s not difficult to envision a similar transformation in the Delta. There is ample land and an impressive network of universities and community colleges to anchor a high-tech corridor. Real estate costs continue to rise in major metropolitan areas, which may make start-up companies and their young employees more vulnerable to a recruitment pitch. Advances in communication and transportation have made it more feasible than ever for business to be conducted away from big cities — certainly more feasible than it was in the 1960s.

Such a plan would be the massive kick-start the Delta needs, similar to how the Clinton Presidential Center landed on a piece of neglected land and revitalized a entire neighborhood, stimulating Little Rock’s ongoing economic, cultural and civic development. And that project had its doubters, too.

If New Orleans and the Gulf Coast can recover from Katrina, the Delta can chart a course out of its own dramatic disaster. But its leaders need to dream as big as the problems they face and then grab the world by the collar and say, “We have a plan.”

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