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Thursday, September 01, 2005

NEW ORLEANS: Can the Big Easy Ever Be Rebuilt?

It depends on who you are talking to whether the answer to the question posed in the headline is yes, no or who knows. The Washington Post appears convinced the answer is no, there simply are too many environmental and financial difficulties to overcome.

It is, to be sure, a depressing case, as seen in the Post piece's concluding three graphs, which focus on the environmental damage caused by the flooding, release of untreated sewage and chemicals, decaying human and animal flesh and much else:

"Given New Orleans's desperate straits, recovery teams will not be able to do anything with the toxic mess except pump it into the Gulf of Mexico, ensuring that the contamination will spread to a larger area, [Hugh B. Kaufman, EPA senior policy analyst] said. 'There's just no other place for it.'
"Once the water is gone, environmental officials will likely undertake a 'grid survey,' sampling the formerly flooded areas to get soil profiles and determine how safe it is for residents to move back or rebuild.
"The survey is likely to take six months. 'If it were me, I wouldn't go back until there was a solid assessment of contamination of the land,' Kaufman said. And even then, he added, authorities will be monitoring levels of water toxicity along the coastline for years: 'There is no magic chemical that you can put in the Gulf to make heavy metals or benzene go away. You're stuck with it.'"

Ancient history is littered with cities that were destroyed, usually by man such as Carthage, which was utterly wiped out by Romans, but sometimes by natural causes such as Pompeii and Herculeum, which were buried in volcanic ash by Mt. Vesuvius. On the other hand, Dresden, Stalingrad and Hiroshima, three cities that were virtually destroyed during WWII were all rebuilt and are inhabited today.

But there is a more optimistic view and it is grounded in the fact that America is not just another nation, it is a nation that has from its beginnings done things differently and achieved without equal as a result. Ed Morrissey of Captain's Quarters read the Post article and responded by noting:

"Small wonder that around the nation, watercooler talk openly questions the idea of rebuilding The Big Easy at all, especially since the trend in disasters like Katrina sees residents taking the insurance money and relocating elsewhere. Those disasters, like Hurricane Andrew, took weeks for recovery to begin. This recovery will take months before decisions even get made on whether to salvage anything in the stricken areas.
"However, Americans don't do pessimism, not as policy and not as part of our national character. We grew into the nation we know through an unbridled optimism about the kind of people we are and the kind of people we could become. Jimmy Carter found that out when he decided to tell Americans that we had come as far as we could go in his infamous "malaise" speech, and that we needed to know our limits. Rarely has an elected leader so misunderstood the people he led. We put men on the moon less than a decade after the notion occurred to us as a real possibility. We don't do limits.
"How we take care of New Orleans will say something about our national character and whether it remains as tough and optimistic as our history, for all its flaws, amply demonstrates. Will we walk away from a tough fight? Will America shrug its shoulders and tell the city that we don't want to take on difficult tasks?

"Make no mistake; our response to New Orleans will say just as much about our staying power as a cut-and-run from Iraq would, and to much the same audience. Believe me, some of those who plan our destruction have cheered the scenes shown on television around the world of Katrina's devastation in New Orleans, and they're watching to see what we do.
"And so New Orleans must be rebuilt, in some manner, right where it is now. No leader will get up and say, We give up. Katrina beat us. Let's move on. That message will not resonate with the vast majority of Americans on either side of the political divide, which will bring a political consensus to ensure that we produce some kind of recovery for New Orleans. We can and will debate the how and the what, but not the whether.

"We're Americans, and we don't run from a fight."

You can read Ed's complete post here.


John Hawkins of Right Wing News has lots of excerpts from a 2002 article in American Radioworks that describes in unnerving details what would happen if New Orleans were hit by a category four or five hurricane. John is not optimistic about the prospect of a rebuilding effort every succeeding.

Here's just a sample:

"It's going to look like a massive shipwreck," says [Walter] Maestri. "Everything that the water has carried in is going to be there. It's going to have to be cleaned out— alligators, moccasins and god knows what that lives in the surrounding swamps, has now been flushed -literally—into the metropolitan area. And they can't get out, because they're inside the bowl now. No water to drink, no water to use for sanitation purposes. All of the sanitation plants are under water and of course, the material is floating free in the community. The petrochemicals that are produced up and down the Mississippi river—much of that has floated into this bowl... The biggest toxic waste dump in the world now is the city of New Orleans because of what has happened."

And it's not like the local, state and federal authorities weren't aware of this scenario:

"Federal officials are so stunned by these sorts of findings that they're rethinking their assumptions about New Orleans. Officials in the U.S. Army say, 'There's got to be a way to prevent some of that devastation.' So they'll study whether they should build more levees and build them higher. They'll study whether the region needs new highways, so people can evacuate faster.


New Orleans native Brian Schwaner is an editor at the Cinncinati Enquirer. Like everybody else in America, he's watching the scenes of destruction and desperation back home but he is confident the people of New Orleans will be back and they will find a way to rebuild their city:

"As I watched the television reports of my hometown drowning and sinking into depths approaching civil anarchy, I wondered whether my son will want to go back home.Many of his friends, with whom he is staying in touch by e-mail, fled the city. Some say they have no intention of returning.
"But as a lifelong veteran of hurricanes, I’m betting the people of New Orleans will get past this, hunker down and rebuild a national jewel often called America’s Most Interesting City. It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen soon.
"I’m confident that one day Brett will go back to New Orleans, as will I. But the N’Awlins we find will be a very, very different place. As monuments rise to the heroes whose 'let’s roll' attitude rescued thousands in the storm’s aftermath, generations of Orleanians and residents of the Mississippi coast will shudder at the memory of Katrina."

Read the entirety of Schwaner's fascinating post here.

Where The Washington Post focused on how environmental damage could make the rebuilding problematic, City Journal's Nicole Gilenas, a former New Orleans resident, draws on her knowledge of the local political, economic and cultural institutions and offers little hope that any amount of outside help or resources will be sufficient.

"But to anticipate what the city must go through now, after damming up its broken levees and pumping the floodwaters back into Lake Pontchartrain, is heartbreaking. No American city has ever gone through what New Orleans must go through: the complete (if temporary) flight of its most affluent and capable citizens, followed by social breakdown among those left behind, after which must come the total reconstruction of economic and physical infrastructure by a devastated populace.
"And the locals and outsiders who try to help New Orleans in the weeks and months to come will do so with no local institutional infrastructure to back them up. New Orleans has no real competent government or civil infrastructure—and no aggressive media or organized citizens’ groups to prod public officials in the right direction during what will be, in the best-case scenario, a painstaking path to normalcy.
"The truth is that even on a normal day, New Orleans is a sad city. Sure, tourists think New Orleans is fun: you can drink and hop from strip club to strip club all night on Bourbon Street, and gamble all your money away at Harrah’s. But the city’s decline over the past three decades has left it impoverished and lacking the resources to build its economy from within. New Orleans can’t take care of itself even when it is not 80 percent underwater; what is it going to do now, as waters continue to cripple it, and thousands of looters systematically destroy what Katrina left unscathed?"

I'm not sure that I agree with Gilenas but she surely points to some undeniable truths.