Rebuilding offers new opportunity

Solutions: New Orleans has the potential to be stronger if the process is used to address problems, experts say.

Katrina's Wake

September 04, 2005|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

BALTIMORE rebuilt itself after the Great Fire of 1904. San Francisco survived the 1989 earthquake. Lower Manhattan is recovering from the terror attacks of 2001.

Urban experts say New Orleans, too, has the potential to come back - even stronger than it was before disaster struck - if leaders use the rebuilding process after Hurricane Katrina as an opportunity to address problems that have troubled the city in the past.

The challenge, they say, will be striking a balance between embracing 21st-century engineering solutions and holding on to the quirks and eccentricities that made New Orleans one of America's most unusual and beloved cities. In addition, experts say, public officials will be under pressure to rebuild the city the way it was as quickly as possible, when they might be better advised to step back and consider ways to improve it.

Some might argue that New Orleans shouldn't be rebuilt in the same location at all because of its continued vulnerability to Gulf Coast storms. But most observers say that point of view isn't likely to hold much sway in a city with such a rich history.

`Visionary approach'

"It's one of those places where all logic would tell you to get out," said Rob Robinson, a principal of Urban Design Associates in Pittsburgh, a firm that has worked in New Orleans. "But the visionary approach would be to find a way to protect it differently. Until now it's been treated almost like a fortress on the water. Now the question would be: Is there another way?"

"I never like to see a community or city rebuild where it was destroyed previously as long as there is a chance that it could be destroyed again," said Terrance Brown, a New Mexico-based architect who is co-chairman of the disaster assistance committee of the American Institute of Architects.

From a planning standpoint, Brown said, "there will be heavy pressure on government to get homes and businesses up and running as soon as possible. The question is: Should they be rebuilt as is or are there other options to consider? Should the city be moved altogether? You also have to think about the vitality of the place. It would be hard to take that historic community and try to move it."

"I've heard people say the city is destroyed and they can never build it back again," said Ann Breen, co-founder of the Waterfront Center, a nonprofit organization that works to improve public waterfronts. "I find that hard to believe. They have such great spirit."

"The city is a million people. It's not going to go away," said Michael Stanton, a Baltimore native who taught architecture and design for 10 years at Tulane University in New Orleans.

"There is a kind of inertia that will keep New Orleans there. The question is: What can be saved of the old stuff, the really great old stuff? The city has such a Caribbean, Old World atmosphere. It's unique in America. Whatever can be saved should be saved."

The AIA's disaster assistance committee typically would come to an area after a hurricane to assess the damage building by building, and see what can be saved. In this case, Brown said, there is need for a larger vision to guide the rebuilding effort.

Unlike in Baltimore, where brick is a prevalent building material, many of the houses in New Orleans were made of wood - and infested with termites, Stanton said. Because of the wood construction, he said, "they were extremely vulnerable."

The biggest concern now is the water damage, said the AIA's Brown. If cleanup crews can remove water from a building quickly, there is a good chance it can be dried out and saved, he said. But when water stays in a building a long time, gypsum board walls get saturated and that causes mold, which can be difficult to treat.

Mold is "the next asbestos" in terms of liability issues, he said. "People are going to want to know if they're going into a building that's full of mold."

If it wants to rebuild in a way that prevents future flooding, New Orleans could raise the level of its streets or build every new structure on stilts, but the most practical solution would be more effective levees, said Robinson.

Places such as the Netherlands are more adept at coming up with engineering solutions that protect cities from flooding, and New Orleans should take advantage of their expertise, Robinson said.

"There is going to be an enormous amount of rebuilding," he said. "This is an opportunity to look at other cities that are below sea level and create a sustainable technology for this city. There's going to be a fundamental decision to make: Do you build back the existing language of the place, or do you dump it and go to a new vision of the future?"

In any rebuilding effort, city leaders would be wise to accentuate the historic treasures that can be saved, Robinson said.

"If you look at Charleston, S.C., after [hurricanes] David and Hugo," he said, "the mayor there used those storms as an opportunity to channel the redevelopment funds and rebuild the historic district as a new phenomenon.

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