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Can New Orleans ever come back?

Urban planners agree New Orleans almost certainly will be rebuilt despite its precarious location below sea level.

Published September 3, 2005

New Orleans is so rich a part of America's cultural, literary, musical and culinary heritage that it is hard to imagine the nation without it.

It is also hard to envision a vibrant city ever arising from the apocalyptic scenes of devastation, death and despair.

Yet even as normally staid urban planners use words like "extraordinary" and "unprecedented" to describe Hurricane Katrina's destruction, they agree that New Orleans almost certainly will be rebuilt despite its precarious location below sea level.

"If history proves anything, it's that a lot of cities have come back from utter devastation - just look at war-torn Europe or Japanese cities hit by nuclear bombs," says Tim Chapin, a Florida State University professor of urban and regional planning.

"There's too much invested in New Orleans financially, socially, psychologically and spiritually - it's a place people have been for centuries and it's not going to go away because of this."

Or, as musician and native son Harry Connick Jr. put it: New Orleans will survive because "people are freakishly strong and passionate about this city."

From an economic standpoint, it would be almost unthinkable to abandon New Orleans, the nation's fourth largest port. Much of the nation's steel, rubber and coffee enter through the Port of New Orleans; huge quantities of grain, timber and other goods move through the port on their way to other countries.

Until now, New Orleans also ranked among the nation's top convention and tourism centers; if there is one glimmer of optimism, it is that the French Quarter, Bourbon Street and other landmarks have suffered less damage than many parts of the city.

Still, it will be a long time - perhaps years - before the Big Easy is inhabitable and the good times roll again.

Even after breaches in the levees are plugged, it could take as much as six months to drain the city, swamped by up to 20 feet of water in some areas. Only then will it be possible to clear roads, repair water, sewer and power systems, and inspect thousands upon thousands of flood-weakened homes.

"You have to make sure that if people live in them, they don't fall down on top of them," says Chapin, who estimates that "easily over half" of the houses will require substantial renovation "if not complete tear-downs."

Critical, too, is averting a similar catastrophe in the future. Engineers must determine if New Orleans' aging system of levees and pumps can be adequately repaired and reinforced. Or will the city require massive hydraulic sea walls like those in the Netherlands, an entire country lying below sea level?

"I think that in the 21st century, technology has advanced to the point that experts can find a solution to minimize any possible new damage," says Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, head of the urban planning department at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"But there will have to be a lot of studies to identify what are the best sites (for rebuilding) and identify all these technological means to stop future flooding and hold back the water."

Even if the city can be protected - essential if it is to attract new investment and retain existing industries - would the "new" New Orleans look and feel like the old one? Planners agree that ravaged cities present not just great challenges but great possibilities - some taken, some squandered.

As the 1871 Chicago fire and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake showed, "at first there is a strong tendency after a traumatic disaster to see some kind of opportunity in it," says Lawrence Vale, head of urban studies and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"The most striking thing about both Chicago and San Francisco was the rapidity with which - despite this horrific destruction and loss of life - the message was very clearly, "We will build a newer and better city soon and put this behind us.' And this was in some cases being said while the city still smoldered."

In Chicago, flames that destroyed thousands of wooden structures inspired a new architectural vision and a revolutionary construction technique - metal framing that gave rise to the world's first skyscraper.

One of Chicago's great architects, Daniel Burnham, went on to design a master plan for San Francisco that sought to capitalize on the city's spectacular natural setting. But after the quake and fire, the plan was scrapped.

Burnham "advocated a City Beautiful that maximized vistas and views, but the city fathers were quite impatient and felt they just didn't have the time to go into more of a long-range master plan," says UCLA's Loukaitou-Sideris.

Though San Francisco is considered one of America's great cities, its claim to beauty still rests more on its setting than its architecture and street layout. Likewise, Anchorage, Alaska, often described as "bland" and "boxy," sacrificed style for speed in rebuilding after a 1964 quake.

"This is the dilemma," says Loukaitou-Sideris. "In order to rebuild right, you need to have a long-term master plan, but at the same time there's a lot of political pressure to rebuild quickly so the city can get back to life."

Vale of MIT says disasters often reveal the inequalities and tensions that have long existed in a city. That may be especially true in New Orleans, where more than two-thirds of the 500,000 residents are black, many of them poor.

It will be "fascinating," Vale says, to see who or what sets the priorities in rebuilding New Orleans.

A disaster "is almost like a window into the structure of power. I think there will be a disproportionate amount of attention to restoring the tourism image of New Orleans, but the problem is that a lot of the people who serve the tourist industry don't live in the French Quarter. It's impossible to restore one aspect without attending to the dramatic needs of the broader population."

If Hurricane Andrew in 1992 is any guide, New Orleans' population is likely to shrink. An estimated 40,000 people permanently left Miami-Dade County, and the numbers could be higher in Louisiana.

A key difference between the two storms is that Andrew hit mostly residential areas while "in New Orleans you have a much wider scope of damage," says Stanley K. Smith, director of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida.

"In Miami-Dade, there may have been a small loss of jobs but it was quickly made up by other types of economic growth, whereas with Katrina the economic impact will be very severe."

Nonetheless, many New Orleanians are likely to return after their forced evacuation, especially poor people who can't afford to move elsewhere but have strong emotional ties to the city. More than 80 percent of New Orleans residents were born in Louisiana, making it second only to Santa Ana, Calif., in the percentage of natives.

When they come back, though, they may struggle to find housing. After Andrew, new apartments and other rentals were typically more upscale and expensive than what they replaced. A similar trend in New Orleans could change the character of the city.

"When you get that kind of development it becomes the Disney World type of New Orleans - very different from the earthy, diverse, unique environment that is New Orleans now," says Walter Peacock, director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University.

Given its location and susceptibility to catastrophic storms, some question whether New Orleans should be rebuilt at all. U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, said Wednesday that "it doesn't make sense to me," though he later backed off that view.

Jack Chambless, a Florida economist, thinks it's up to the citizens of Louisiana to decide if they want to rebuild - but only if they pay for it themselves or with donations, not with money from other taxpayers or the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In parts of Louisiana hit by previous storms, residents repeatedly "were getting checks from FEMA higher than the value of their homes," Chambless says.

"When you have hurricanes the size of Katrina, you have a lot more people dying and a lot more loss because people have not been given the proper incentives over time to leave these dangerous areas."

Others note that New Orleans is by no means the only city prone to disaster - Los Angeles, San Francisco and Memphis sit on or near major earthquake fault lines, while almost every city along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts faces a threat from hurricanes.

"We heard after Andrew - "If they want to rebuild let them do it, but not with my tax dollars,' " Peacock says. "These are completely legitimate questions, but let's put it in the context of what we do in the United Staes, which is subsidizing almost everything," including "the extraordinarily rich and powerful petrochemical industries that are getting richer and more powerful even as we speak."

In ancient times, it was not unusual to abandon devastated cities; the most famous example is Pompeii, buried under ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. More recently, though, even cities like Bam, Iran, leveled by a 2003 earthquake, are being rebuilt.

Part of the reason is the growth of nation-states, says MIT's Vale: "Instead of a city being left on it is own, there is a national community and increasingly an international community that wishes to come to its aid."

Another factor, especially in the United States, "is the power of the insurance industry, which doesn't see things going away," he adds. "The combination of insurance and inertia - coupled with the strong attachment to place that people have emotionally - has almost always caused rebuilding to occur in an area that has been devastated."

As restless as New Orleanians may be to quickly rebuild, they should fight the temptation, says Assem Inam, author of Planning for the Unplanned: Recovering from Crises in Megacities. He notes that Germans have taken a half-century to rebuild Berlin but the result is a magnificent capital that combines striking new architecture with vestiges of the city's pre-World War II grandeur.

"Cities are hundreds, sometimes thousands of years old, so 50 years in the life of a city is not particularly long," Inam says. "If it takes a few decades to rebuild New Orleans, I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing. The cities that do really well are the ones that don't just say, "This is what we had before,' but "How can we improve it?' "

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

[Last modified September 3, 2005, 19:09:02]

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