Dennis Hastert has been backpedaling furiously from his question about the wisdom of rebuilding New Orleans, at least rebuilding it where it is. Too bad, because brave declarations of indomitable spirit and promises to “restore” the Crescent City need an extended, hard, look. It will be very sad if brave refusal to accept an almost unimaginable loss were to lead us into another tragedy. But exchanges like this, between Tim Russert and Marc Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, in which Morial answers a reasonable question with something more like a prayer than a real reply, are cautionary and unfortunately typical:
MORIAL: New Orleans must be rebuilt. It must be rebuilt as the diverse cultural gumbo that it�s always been….
It may well have been worth investing enormous sums to protect New Orleans while it was a going concern, with irreplaceable history, buildings, and culture alive and kicking. But it could at the same time not be worth it, now that so much of that is gone, to try to get it back, and most people seem to agree. The following rather lengthy post examines some of the reasons it may be better to rend our garments, mourn the dead, and accept that the history of New Orleans, at least on its present site, may be over no matter how desperately we try to revive it.
At a price, the physical structure of the city can obviously be repaired or replaced, and the levee system strengthened to withstand the next large hurricane or, at a higher price, an even stronger one. But to sign up for this plan ignores the important lessons learned in the bad “urban renewal” days of the fifties and sixties, when we thought we were “improving a neighborhood” by expelling its residents and building new housing for, inevitably, a whole new population. If you fixed your coordinate system on the physical place, you could think things were better afterward, but if you fixed it on the displaced residents, you would not.
The result of an enormous investment in reconstruction in New Orleans’ current location will be quite different from what we might hope for. In the first place, most of the city will have been under water for weeks and almost everything in those areas will be a total loss. The rebuilding will therefore be an enormous Levittown of quickly built tract housing, one house after another distinguished only by paint color and superficial details, but nothing like the complex physical texture that characterized the city before the flood. More important, the people who live there will be fewer, perhaps by a third or more, and not randomly. Lots of evacuees are already putting down roots where they have landed and it’s a good guess that the loss will not be random. Most likely, the most vigorous, courageous, and adventurous among the city’s citizens will be selectively left in Texas and Arkansas when everyone else starts dribbling home.
When they come home, even if we can figure out a way for some to return to their former addresses, the social networks of friendship and habit that make a city alive will have been shredded and unused for months, perhaps years. It will be a city of deracinated people with new houses, new neighbors, new furniture, new schools, new (or no) local shops, no heirlooms, no familiar places, scarfiying memories, and no pictures of the kids or the grandparents. An enormous number will be bereaved–six mourners each for the ten thousand dead and missing that seem likely is more than ten percent of the city’s former population. All will be traumatized by the storm, and the profound economic and racial divisions of the city will be all the stronger and more bitter after the bungled evacuation. This is nothing like coming home to your rebuilt house after a fire, among your stable, helpful, neighbors and familiar sights. The evacuees won’t be coming home; they will be coming to something we, and they, have never seen before and whose viability we should consider with the greatest skepticism.
The same goes for the new economic reality. In the next several months, a lot of New Orleans businesses will also have settled down somewhere else. Will a faceless, new, expanse of ticky tacky suburb around the bits of the city that survived the flood (granted, including the French Quarter) have anything like the tourist appeal New Orleans had two weeks ago? Almost everything will be new…but new is not what New Orleans has traditionally had to sell.
Finally, this will be a city at the mercy of the next hurricane, or maybe the next one a little stronger and better targeted than Katrina, because no matter what is done about the levees, it’s below sea level and unlike almost every city in the world at risk of flood, it will then do almost exactly what it is doing now, which is to fester and decay under water for months rather than drain out when the storm ends. It’s worth noting (compared, for example, to San Francisco after its next earthquake) that hurricanes are independent events: after an earthquake, the probability of another goes way down and builds up slowly over decades; after a hurricane, especially in the current high-risk cycle, another is as likely as it was last year. Actually, with continued global warming and sea level rise, it’s not unreasonable to think that risk will get higher and higher.
New Orleans will also remain at the mercy of Mississippi floods, which are as natural a feature of the region as hurricanes, and which can drown the city, from a higher starting level than the lake, any spring. It will be at risk of a spring flood overwhelming the Old River Control Structure and diverting the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya, where it really wants to go, something widely regarded as a sooner-or-later certainty, an event that will end its life as a port.
Most daunting, it will be a city at risk of total re-destruction from an explosive charge placed by truck (or from the air) against any of a number of levees. Such a flood would come without warning or the possibility of evacuation, a level of destruction a similar terrorist attack can’t begin to threaten in any other city.
If we could get it back for a lot of money, the New Orleans of the last century and last month might be worth buying. But the best we can get for that money now is almost certainly not “New Orleans” as we understand the name, and whether that outcome is worth what it will cost is, as Speaker Hastert perceived, not at all clear.