Rebuilding New Orleans means reinventing the whole city

But many uncertainties cloud planners' visions

Katrina's Wake

September 11, 2005|By Robert Little and Douglas Birch | Robert Little and Douglas Birch,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - The pumps need another month to drain the city, maybe longer. Then the bulldozers and dump trucks will go in for the debris, assuming the remaining survivors and bodies are removed.

Electricity and drinking water will be the next priority, along with repairs to the bridges and boulevards that are still salvageable. Only then will reconstruction begin in earnest - maybe by November, state and federal officials estimate - with engineers and surveyors picking through the wood-framed houses to determine which will survive. Officials expect entire neighborhoods to be razed.

The scope of Hurricane Katrina's damage in New Orleans is still hidden by millions of gallons of floodwater, but J. Stephen Perry, president of the city's Convention and Visitor's Bureau, is already calling the impending reconstruction "the greatest urban rebuilding project in our nation's history." Time estimates range from one to 10 years or more before anything resembling the old New Orleans can be restored, though few expect the city will ever be like it was.

Rather, planners and reconstruction specialists envision a city vastly and fundamentally changed, centered on the historic French Quarter, which largely survived the flooding, and with perhaps half its former population of 480,000. They imagine raising the grade of entire neighborhoods and turning others into parks or wetlands.

With many former residents finding new jobs, homes and schools outside the region, observers also expect New Orleans' job base and economy to shift in profound and largely unpredictable ways.

What about the people?

"They're going to get the city dry, they're going to get the power on and the water going and the communications systems, and they'll get all the sewage and the muck and disease out of there. But then what?" asked David G. McComb, a retired history professor who has studied and written about demographic changes after hurricanes.

"What are you going to do with those 240,000 people evacuated to Texas, or those hundreds of thousands of people in Baton Rouge? Do they want to come back? Will there be any jobs or any communities for them to come back to?"

"They've got to figure out a way to reinvent the city," said George Haddow, a former deputy chief of staff at FEMA and a New Orleans native. "It's an extraordinary opportunity to build a city with the newest technologies and the latest thinking about what an urban environment should look like. It's like this surreal playground for urban planners, and you should assume that it won't ever be the same as it was."

Federal officials aren't ready to talk about reconstruction.

"We're still in the response phase, trying to take care of every victim and make sure they have some place to go," said FEMA spokeswoman Christine May. "I doubt you're going to find anyone who's thought too far beyond making sure people are safe at this point."

But city officials, also focused on finding survivors of the Aug. 29 hurricane, have nonetheless begun crafting a recovery plan that relies on restoring livability to downtown hotels and restaurants, filling them with recovery and construction workers, and then praying that the miniature economy starts drawing services and attractions back into the city.

It is a decidedly long-term strategy. Power is being restored one building at a time in the central business district, and utility officials estimate that it will take weeks to finish - and months to restore power to the entire city. At the 1,616-room Hilton hotel downtown, one of the first hotels to get electricity, about 100 people were working Friday to repair wind, flood and looting damage and sanitize areas contaminated with spoiled food, a task expected to take several weeks.

"That's my guess," said Joe Lopinto, the hotel's director of security, adding, "Getting [fresh] water in is a major concern."

New Orleans' lucrative convention business has been canceled until at least April 2006, as National Guard and FEMA crews make camp at the convention center and city officials determine how or whether to rebuild the damaged Superdome.

Even once those facilities are available, local officials aren't sure whether - or why - tourists and former residents would want to come back to the battered city, especially before stores and restaurants open and some sort of social infrastructure is established. Business owners, meanwhile, say they are unlikely to return until the people do, creating a chicken-and-egg dilemma that further complicates the city's recovery.

Allen J. Becker, general partner in the city's 3,000-seat Saenger Theatre, said he will probably have to leave his business vacant for at least a year before determining whether to invest the millions of dollars in repairs that would be required to open it again.

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