With so many obstacles to rebuilding, New Orleans' charm may be forever lost

September 05, 2005|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - I have a deep affection for New Orleans. It is easily one of the nation's most distinctive cities - a rich and charming cultural polyglot that refuses to succumb to the sterile sameness of the rest of the Sun Belt. The city is older than the nation.

When my sister and her husband moved there in 1998 - and especially after their daughter was born - I had more reasons to visit than the city's ample tourist attractions. And I've gone there often, using every opportunity to explore not just the touristy French Quarter but also its many other distinctive neighborhoods, from the Garden District to Gentilly. I'm glad I visited as often as I did, because Hurricane Katrina may have finished the city off.

Louisiana's political leaders struggle to remain optimistic about reconstruction, but the obstacles are enormous. The city was constructed by French colonials in a most unlikely place - a swamp that sat below sea level in a bowl between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Any city in that spot would always be vulnerable to nature's fury.

Who would pay for reconstruction? New Orleans is one of the nation's poorest major cities; about a fifth of the population lives below the poverty level. And what property and casualty groups would be willing to take on the risks of insuring homes and businesses there in the future?

Then there is the toxic stew that has literally flooded the landscape - a foul mixture of petroleum from nearby refineries, industrial pollutants and human waste. How long will water supplies and soil be contaminated?

For now, of course, President Bush and leading members of Congress are pledging ample resources for the rebuilding effort. Even while acknowledging that any recovery will take years, Mr. Bush said: "But I'm confident that, with time, you can get your life back in order, new communities will flourish, the great city of New Orleans will be back on its feet, and America will be a stronger place for it. The country stands with you. We'll do all in our power to help you."

Don't bet on it. As a nation we have a short attention span, especially about matters that don't affect us directly.

The short-lived national response to the terrorist strikes on New York is instructive. Mr. Bush and Congress pledged a national effort not only to help rebuild the area around Manhattan's doomed twin towers but also to fully equip that city's courageous first responders.

But it didn't take long for Congress to revert to the old pork barrel system of distributing the booty; the result is that places such as Wyoming and South Dakota have emergency equipment they will never need, while New York City's firefighters still wait for some of the new equipment they were promised.

By the time New Orleans' first levee breached Monday night, my sister and her family were safe in my home in Atlanta. They've heard little news of their neighborhood, although it's a pretty safe bet that their friends made it out OK. They are all among that group of Americans with the economic and social resources to rebound after a disaster - even though they will long grieve for all they've lost.

Much of America shares their sorrow. In a country where local communities are quickly losing their distinctiveness, merging into one bland continental mall, New Orleans is an irreplaceable treasure.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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