A week before Rita, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin encouraged residents to return to less damaged parts of their soggy city. Federal authorities countered that the Big Easy was not safe enough for habitation or business. Later, when Rita aimed at Texas, the mayor had to withdraw his invitation, and shoo returnees out. Now he's got his "open for business" sign up again.
This miscue is just one example of a key tension as the Gulf area starts to rebuild: The eagerness for speedy recovery may override the patience to do things right.
On every level (personal, business, and government), these two characteristics of speed and patience conflict. And yet, in an extraordinary circumstance such as this, both are required.
It may appear premature - even risky - for Mayor Nagin to jump-start his city, especially since hurricane season is not even over. But consider the force pushing him: The longer people stay away, the greater the likelihood they'll stay away permanently. The city could be greatly diminished.
Beyond the economic, civic, and cultural impetus for hurricane-stricken areas to recover quickly is the urge of evacuees to return to normal. Uncertainty, idleness, and loss take their toll on the human spirit as it fights like mad to recover.
Americans are good at that fight - much better than they are at patience. Very little in today's supersonic society, deluged by cellphones, kids' busy schedules, and a high expectation that goals can be accomplished instantly, encourages this virtue. The phrase 24/7 itself seems passé.
Yet patience is critical to the recovery effort. It takes patience, for instance, to wait it out in temporary housing while a dangerous area is being cleaned up. And citizen, government, and business leaders Gulf-wide shouldn't shortchange the deliberate thinking and public debate necessary to rebuild smarter. Front and center should be the trend of more powerful and frequent hurricanes.
Joe Riley, mayor of Charleston, S.C., for 30 years now, has some perspective on urgency and patience, which he says have to be practiced "simultaneously." In 1989, hurricane Hugo slammed his city with 150 m.p.h. winds. The damage was severe, with hundreds of trees downed and almost every roof affected. It took about three months to make the city operational again.
To help individuals deal with understandable impatience, Mayor Riley says he committed himself to a "demonstrable, Herculean effort" to do everything possible to bring the city back to normal. Then, through regular updates, he communicated the progress, even if it was small.
"You have to celebrate that a neighborhood is open, or that a mail route is back. Then people can see progress, even if it's not theirs yet."
Right alongside restoring power, Riley advises, a city also needs to set up a forum to deal with longer-term issues raised by a hurricane. In the Gulf, that would mean starting a process now to consider what to do with the poor areas of New Orleans, for instance, or more broadly, with coastal wetlands. That process will take time, but there's no time to waste in beginning it.