Why even think about rebuilding New Orleans in the same place?

September 19, 2005|By Steve Chapman

Of all the ideas I've heard about what to do with New Orleans, the best one came from former Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Roemer of Indiana, who said we should "put somebody like former President Jimmy Carter in charge of rebuilding New Orleans."

As president, Mr. Carter distinguished himself by failing to free the hostages in Iran, failing to vanquish inflation and failing to solve the energy crisis. Were he to fail to rebuild New Orleans, he'd be doing the country a great service.

If you were looking for a place expressly designed to endanger people and property, it would look a lot like New Orleans. No one today would ever think of building a city on a plot of ground below sea level, surrounded by water, endlessly vulnerable to floods and hurricanes. So why would anyone think of rebuilding a city in exactly the same place?

New Orleans was a unique and wonderful creation, and I'd give my eyeteeth for the chance to go back to the city I got to visit only once. But neither I nor anyone else will ever be able to return to that place: It's gone. Whatever comes next will not be the same. You can't flood most of the buildings in the city, immerse it in a toxic stew, empty out its residents for months, and expect it to blossom anew like a perennial flower in the spring.

Restoring New Orleans to anything like its former self would take an astronomical amount of money - to rebuild infrastructure, clean up horrendous pollution, resettle people, and replace many or most of the 150,000 properties that were flooded. That doesn't count the vast sums that would be needed for levees and other flood-prevention projects that were too expensive to undertake before Hurricane Katrina.

No amount of money will change the fact that this is no place for a large urban population. Most of the city is below sea level, and it continues to sink, even as the ocean is rising. Over the next century, it's expected to drop by a full meter.

Katrina was not the worst-case scenario: Had a Category 5 storm smashed into New Orleans head-on, the flooding, destruction and death toll would all have been much worse.

Over time, the question about a Category 5 storm is when, not if. To guard against it, the city would need greater and more expensive protections than were ever contemplated.

Yes, we could spend whatever it takes trying to re-create the New Orleans we once knew. But why would we want to, given the other ways that money could be spent? Much of what the city offered is not worth resurrecting - such as widespread poverty, high unemployment, a backward economy and rampant crime.

Much of what is worth resurrecting, such as its vibrant culture and street life, may be fatally compromised.

Before the hurricane, New Orleans had one of the poorest and least mobile populaces in the country. You could have made a case before Katrina that the best thing most residents could do is leave for someplace with higher living standards and a better job market.

Now, most of them have done exactly that. It's hard to see why they would be better off returning to New Orleans six months or a year from now. It's even harder to see why the government should encourage them to do so. There's a whole continent where they can settle, most of it above sea level.

Some of New Orleans will doubtless survive, starting with the areas that didn't flood. But the message to those who want to remain there is that while the rest of us stand ready to help them begin new lives, we aren't going to bail them back into a city that will always be a disaster waiting to happen. If they want to resurrect the New Orleans of old, they should bear the full cost of making it safe and livable.

For a long time, New Orleans has been fighting a war with nature, and it finally lost. Why fight that war again?

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.

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