Location: The Streets Of A New World Order
|Reclaiming the Big Easy
the Big Easy will require hard decisions
05:15 PM CDT
on Wednesday, August 31, 2005
Matt Crenson /
An astonishing phenomenon -- the
drowning of New Orleans -- leads to a mind-boggling question:
How to rebuild a city? Some are already considering the
Officials from the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers estimate it will be weeks before all the water that
flowed into the city through breached levees can be pumped
back out. After that, it will take several years -- and many
billions of dollars -- to rebuild homes, offices, streets and
It is the decisions people make as they go
through that process that will determine what New Orleans
eventually becomes, disaster recovery experts said. From the
major political battles over how to spend public funds to each
family's deliberation over whether to return to a city where
there's not much to go back to, the choices people make in the
weeks and months ahead will determine the Big Easy's fate.
"It will reveal a lot about the power structure of New
Orleans," said Lawrence Vale, a professor of urban studies and
planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Federal, state and city government will need to make
big investments in infrastructure -- especially flood
protection -- to entice businesses back to the city and
reassure insurers that nothing like this is going to happen
again any time soon. They will also have to convince people
that the city is a safe place to live.
The owners of
single-family homes are usually the first to rebuild after a
hurricane, said Walter Peacock, director of the Hazard
Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. But
because fewer than 50% of New Orleans homeowners have flood
insurance, many of them probably won't have financial
resources to rebuild at all.
Condominiums and rental
housing take longer to come back simply because they have more
complicated insurance and financing issues to work out. That
can make finding a place to live in the aftermath of a
disaster extremely difficult for renters, especially poor
ones. The flooding has wiped out many of the neighborhoods
where low-income minorities live, making their situation
especially tenuous as the city recovers.
"If you get
reinvestment it probably isn't going to be targeted at those
people," Peacock said. "That could be a major problem in New
Orleans if that housing doesn't come back."
low-income housing in the Florida Keys has not been replaced
after hurricanes, he said, the resort area's hotels and
restaurants now have trouble finding enough employees. Many of
them have to commute from Homestead, south of Miami.
Ironically, the destruction caused by Katrina gives
New Orleans residents the opportunity to gird themselves
against the next hurricane that pounds into their city. Even
before Katrina hit, Louisiana was considering a stronger
building code that would require more wind-resistant designs
for roofs and walls. With the proper building materials and
techniques, a house can usually survive a Category 5 storm
intact, said Marc Levitan, a professor of civil and
environmental engineering at Louisiana State University.
The new rules should be instituted as soon as
possible, Levitan recommended, before people start to rebuild.
"It would be nice if we could make some
recommendations and get them in place so we're not building
the same thing that fell down last time," he said.
Katrina also gives the Corps of Engineers, which is
responsible for flood control in New Orleans, the opportunity
to modify the network of levees it uses to keep water out of
the city. The structures that are currently in place are
designed to withstand a Category 3 hurricane, but the Corps
has been considering an upgrade for several years that could
handle a Category 5 storm.
"I think there's a lot of
opportunities for improving the levees," said Joannes J.
Westerink, a civil engineer at the University of Notre Dame.
"There are lots of ways of protecting the city."
all cost money, of course. So for New Orleans and everyone who
has a stake in it, the big question over the next few years
will be how much to spend and what to spend it on.