New Orleans on the edge: past rich, future in doubt

City's path to recovery will be long and difficult

Challenges Ahead

Katrina's Wake

September 04, 2005|By Larry Williams | Larry Williams,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

Will New Orleans rise again as a great American city?

With spirit that echoes the defiant response of New Yorkers after 9/11, residents of this 300-year-old city and some leaders across the nation have answered that question in recent days with a resounding yes.

"New Orleans will get back on its feet, and America will be a stronger place for it," said President Bush in his first public response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

"A great American city is fighting for its life," said former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, now president of the Urban League. "We must rebuild New Orleans, the city that gave us jazz and music and multiculturalism."

But, in fact, the future of the nation's 31st-largest metropolitan area is much in doubt. Never before has such a large city been ordered totally evacuated. Never have the challenges of recovering from disaster been so large.

"It makes no sense to spend billions of dollars to rebuild a city that's 7 feet under sea level," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Ron Bonjean, Hastert's press secretary, said the Illinois Republican was not suggesting that New Orleans should be abandoned or relocated: "What he is saying is that rebuilding the city in the same way is not sensible."

The engineering, environmental, social and economic challenges of rebuilding are daunting. And, even with federal spending likely to measure in the hundreds of billions of dollars, the ultimate fate of a rebuilt city is imponderable.

Despite all of that, New Orleans is almost certain to survive in some form.

Its location makes it a logical nexus for the oil and gas industry as well as shipping on the Mississippi River, the nation's most important inland waterway. And its rich history and reputation for unique charm will pull many residents back, despite incalculable hardships ahead.

Among the major hurdles in the months and years to come:

Draining the bowl - Somehow Army Corps of Engineers must find ways to block three large gaps in the miles of levees designed to hold back the waters of the 603-square-mile Lake Pontchartrain that dominates the New Orleans landscape, more than 6 feet above the city's street level. The city sits in a bowl between the lake and the Mississippi, protected by its levees.

Because the city is largely below sea level, the storm water won't drain naturally as it has from other storm-damaged cities. Instead, it must be pumped out. But restarting the giant pumps will take considerable effort. Motors must be dried and repaired, and at least limited electrical service restored before the pumps are started.

Draining the city is likely to take months - a period when engineers and citizens will keep a nervous eye on the weather. Fresh storms could test the hastily patched levees.

Cleaning the city - What's likely to be left after most of the water is drained is a highly dangerous residue of chemicals, oil, human waste and other materials set loose from businesses, factories and homes during the flooding. Removing and disposing of this residue is expected to be a technically challenging, dangerous and expensive task. Flushing the waste away is likely to spread pollution beyond the city.

Repairing the infrastructure - This includes broken and leaking gas and sewer lines, many miles of jumbled interstate highway, collapsed bridges and an electric-power distribution system that is in a shambles. Cleaning and reopening New Orleans' fresh-water purification and distribution system could take months. Providing basic public services in even a limited area of the city is likely to take years. Finishing the job is likely to take decades. The city's substantial infrastructure will compete for federal aid dollars with other storm-ravaged areas of the Gulf Coast and competing priorities across the nation.

Rebuilding the city - After weeks and possibly months of soaking in filthy water, most of the city's homes are likely to be uninhabitable. Apart from likely structural damage, mold, mildew and dangerous contamination will be difficult if not impossible to remove. Expensive salvage efforts are expected to focus on high-profile historic buildings and classic neighborhoods such as the Garden District. But even there, homeowners are likely to face challenging questions: Will their rebuilt houses be insurable? At what cost? How many others will make the same investment?

For businesses, the risks of rebuilding and reopening are likely to be large, too. For retailers, there is the question of who will buy their goods and services in a city that has been largely emptied.

For larger national or regional companies, the costs of stripping and replacing electrical, heating, cooling and other systems in the steel and concrete high-rises that dot the city will be heavy and are likely to be weighed against the option of relocating to less- expensive, safer and more attractive locations in the suburbs or other cities.

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