`We will rebuild'

September 19, 2005

IN CASE anyone doubted Louisiana's intention as to the fate of hurricane-hammered New Orleans, Gov. Kathleen Blanco proclaimed last week, "Hear this and hear it well, we will rebuild." But how and where and when will determine the future of this most original American city. The Bush administration has offered up three initiatives focused on rebuilding, job creation and home ownership - key components to restoring the Gulf Coast's liveability and viability.

But decisions on rebuilding the Big Easy won't be easily reached. The solution to one problem may complicate another. Private concerns may conflict with the public's interest. Individual need could compound the common good.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina offers enormous possibilities and challenges in remaking New Orleans. Urban planners, architects and social scientists envision a new New Orleans that improves on the city's past faults. Increasing home ownership may benefit the middle class but exacerbate efforts to house the city's poor. Geologists and engineers have focused on the city's infrastructure and underpinnings. The rallying cry has been "Build high." But height won't suffice if New Orleans' foundation remains as it was.

Hurricane Katrina left Mississippi's Gulf Coast and parts of Alabama in shambles, but rebuilding there is a matter of scale, not complexity. Reviving New Orleans is a vastly different undertaking that requires a multi-tiered response on three key grounds:

Flood control: Rebuilding New Orleans can't happen without overhauling its levee system and restoring vanishing wetlands. Elaborate plans to shore up the below sea-level city were delayed or scuttled because of cost, estimated in the billions of dollars. But cleaning up Katrina's mess is already costing billions. The first priority should be reconfiguring how to fortify New Orleans' foundation. The Netherlands offers an elaborate model of defensive gates. A Columbia University geophysicist suggests redeveloping parts of New Orleans as a floating city.

Housing: Areas of New Orleans, a city of wood houses, were flattened or reduced to debris. Homes left standing have been fouled by filthy, bacteria-laced grime and water. Then there's the mold. Housing that has been irreparably damaged should be replaced by mixed-income developments under new storm-enhanced building codes. Increasing home ownership is a laudable goal, but renters lived in nearly half of the city's dwellings. The government also must be prepared to help homeowners who find themselves unemployed and with mortgage payments. They will need assistance so they can stay in their homes and repair them when their incomes stabilize.

Economic development: The city's revival can't be geared solely to pumping up the tourism industry and its service jobs. Schools were in deplorable shape; rebuilding the education system inside and out would help retain the middle class and reduce the economic gap exposed by the storm. The hurricane reconstruction boom will provide much-needed jobs. The private sector in Louisiana (and elsewhere) should lead the way. But President Bush should tap a respected citizen with the can-do credentials of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani or corporate executive Jack Welch to oversee the government's investment in reviving the damaged coast.

The pressure will be enormous to reopen businesses and return residents to New Orleans. But the redevelopment should proceed with deliberate speed. The legacy of Hurricane Katrina should not be its superlative destruction, but the rebirth and fortification of the Crescent City.

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