Rebuilding levees

December 19, 2005

On balance, it's good news that, more than 100 days after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to New Orleans, President Bush finally got around almost to doubling the $1.6 billion already promised for rebuilding and raising its neglected and damaged life-support system, its hundreds of miles of levees. This time around, administration officials vowed last week, these banks will be built to last, reinforced with concrete and stone and raised to the heights that they were supposed to reach before they dramatically sank into the earth.

The administration's financial commitment resolves the question that apparently has been too big - and too fraught with political hazard - to be asked head-on: Should New Orleans, America's only below-sea-level metropolis, be rebuilt at all? Louisiana and New Orleans officials hope that the promise to pay for repairs to protect the city from a true Category 3 hurricane - a big improvement but still not up to full protection from a Category 4 storm like Katrina - will encourage residents to return and reinvest in their city. Whether that really turns out to be the case, it's certain that to decide not to rebuild New Orleans' levees would have been its death knell.

But it's already been well established that mere levee repairs ultimately cannot be the Big Easy's salvation. These repairs will be extensive and costly, but they will not be sufficient to protect New Orleans in the long run from the force of the Gulf of Mexico. That would take a much greater commitment to restoring the marshlands that truly protect the city from the sea, marshes that have been disappearing at a startling rate - in large part because of the diversion of the Mississippi River's silt by all those levees.

Such a plan, dubbed Coast 2050, has been around since 1998. Over 30 years, it would cost $14 billion, a sum that used to look like a lot of money to protect New Orleans and now doesn't. Before Katrina blew in, Louisiana officials had failed to generate much support for Coast 2050 in Washington. And it's sadly telling that this plan wasn't discussed much last week when the administration said it doubled funds for levee repairs.

New Orleans is already devastated. If it's unthinkable that it would not be rebuilt, then this is the time for thinking about both short-run levee repairs and a massive coastal re-engineering effort. Quick fixes have their appeal, but in this case it may impart a sense of confidence as delusional as that enjoyed before Katrina hit. It's actually those marshes - which Louisiana has been losing at the rate of about 34 square miles a year since the 1930s - that are New Orleans' best protection against powerful storms. They should be restored.

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