Rebuild New Orleans the right way

September 13, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Even as the receding waters expose more bodies left behind by the horrors of Hurricane Katrina, there's talk about whether New Orleans can be rebuilt and how. I am wondering which New Orleans is to be rebuilt.

Like other colorful cities, New Orleans is two cities. There's the lived-in theme park centered in the French Quarter with its terrific restaurants, dance halls, burlesque joints and cultural gumbo.

And there's the other New Orleans, the one populated by most New Orleanians.

Katrina and the inept response to it by local, state and federal officials exposed the other New Orleans to the world: heart-tugging images of stranded, mostly black and mostly poor New Orleanians raised issues of race and poverty that embarrassed the world's most powerful nation.

At a time when the country's can-do spirit was shaken by a sudden surge of self-doubt, it probably was not the best time for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to challenge the wisdom of rebuilding New Orleans.

"That doesn't make sense to me," he said during a meeting with the editorial board of the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago. "And it's a question that certainly we should ask."

He also said, "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed." He was roundly rebuked by Louisiana's politicians, among others, although it is important to note that Mr. Hastert never said the place should be bulldozed.

Read in context, Mr. Hastert's remarks are far more sympathetic and supportive than they sounded in most news accounts. He also was trying to be realistic, particularly about the need for Congress to examine an important question: Precisely how do you "rebuild" a city that is as much as 10 feet below sea level and still sinking?

"Of course, the folks from New Orleans will have their own opinion on it," he said. He also declared, "We are going to rebuild this city," even though it is no less risky a proposition than rebuilding Los Angeles, San Francisco or other cities that built themselves "on top of earthquake fissures."

Nevertheless, Mr. Hastert is not alone in casting doubt on rebuilding a city whose next big flood is not a question of if, but when. Swamp-draining, land-expansion and flood-prevention measures in the Big Easy have blocked the fresh sediment that naturally replaces old sediment in river deltas, geologists say, contributing to the sinking of the city. Building bigger levees may only speed up the sinking.

And, depending on which expert you believe, global sea levels are expected to rise 1 to 3 feet by 2099, which could wash New Orleans away. Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist at Columbia University, has proposed "a carefully planned deconstruction of New Orleans," keeping what's on higher ground or maybe building a new city on stilts.

Regardless of what the deep thinkers may want, I expect New Orleans to come back one way or another. You can see it in the stubborn holdouts who refuse to leave, especially those in the French Quarter and other higher-ground areas.

You could see it in the few, but determined, participants in the city's Southern Decadence Parade, the annual gay-oriented echo of Mardi Gras that was held last week. That's the sort of spirit that has kept New Orleans going through wars, fires, floods, high winds and a yellow fever epidemic, among other plagues.

There's also the lure of money. Oil, river trade and tourism will endure in the New Orleans area, and they will attract people to profit from them.

But what about the other New Orleans? Is it to be rebuilt too? New Orleans has one of the highest poverty rates and violent-crime rates of any major city. Almost half of the city's schools are rated "academically unacceptable." Another 26 percent are under "academic warning."

Rebuilt the right way, New Orleans could leave those problems behind. The birthplace of jazz can sing a new tune. Otherwise, the future New Orleans will be another double-sided city, divided against itself as a city of hope versus not much hope at all.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing company. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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