- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2005

Even as receding waters expose more dead bodies left behind by the horrors of Hurricane Katrina, there’s talk about whether New Orleans can be rebuilt and how. I’m wondering which New Orleans is to be rebuilt.

Like many other colorful cities, New Orleans has two cities. There’s the lived-in theme park centered in the French Quarter, with its terrific restaurants, dance halls, burlesque joints and cultural gumbo. And there’s the other New Orleans, the one populated by most New Orleanians.

Katrina and the inept response to it by local, state and federal officials exposed the second New Orleans to the world: heart-tugging images of stranded, mostly black and poor residents, raising issues of race and poverty that embarrassed the abilities of the world’s most powerful nation.

With America’s can-do spirit shaken by a surge of self-doubt, it probably was not the best time for House Speaker Dennis Hastert to challenge the wisdom of rebuilding New Orleans.

“That doesn’t make sense to me,” he said during an Aug. 31 meeting with the editorial board of the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago. “And it’s a question that certainly we should ask.”

He also said, “It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed.” He was roundly rebuked by Louisiana politicians, among others, although it is important to note Mr. Hastert never said he thought the place should be bulldozed.

In fact, read in context, Mr. Hastert’s remarks were far more sympathetic and supportive than they sounded in most news accounts. He was trying to be compassionate but also realistic, particularly about Congress’ need to examine an important question: Precisely how do you “rebuild” a city that is 10 feet below sea level and still sinking?

“Of course, the folks from New Orleans will have their own opinion on it,” Mr. Hastert said. He also declared “we are going to rebuild this city,” though it is no less risky a proposition than rebuilding Los Angeles, San Francisco or other cities built “on top of earthquake fissures.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Hastert is not alone in doubting the practicality of rebuilding a city whose next big flood is not a question of “if,” but “when.” Swamp-draining, land-expansion and flood prevention measures in the 400-year-old Big Easy have blocked the fresh sediment that naturally replaces old sediment in river deltas, geologists say. As a result, the city has sunk to about 10 feet below sea level. Building bigger levees may only accelerate the sinking.

And, doubling the city’s troubles, global sea levels are expected to rise 1 to 3 feet by 2099, depending on which expert you cite, which could wash the city away. Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, has proposed “a carefully planned deconstruction of New Orleans,” keeping what’s on the higher ground or maybe building a new city on stilts.

Regardless of what the deep thinkers may want, I expect New Orleans to make its comeback one way or another, in the way of Chicago, San Francisco and other cities ravaged by historic disasters. That process is already beginning. You can see it in the stubborn holdouts who refused to leave, especially in the French Quarter and on other higher ground. You can see it in the few, determined participants in this year’s Southern Decadence Parade, an annual homosexual-oriented echo of Mardi Gras, which stepped off on schedule, despite a sparse audience and great devastation all around.

There’s also the lure of money. Oil, river trade and tourism will endure in the New Orleans area and it will attract people to profit from them.

Such is the spirit that has kept New Orleans going through wars, fires, floods, high winds and a yellow fever epidemic, among other plagues. The Big Easy will survive, prosper and probably write a song or two about it.

But what about the other New Orleans, the city of poor folks who mostly live, as it happens, in the lowest and most flood-prone land? Is that city to be rebuilt, too?

That city has one of the highest rates of poverty and violent crime of any major city. Almost half of the city’s schools are rated “academically unacceptable.” Another 26 percent are under “academic warning.”

Rebuilt the right way, New Orleans can leave those problems behind. The birthplace of jazz can sing a new tune. Otherwise, New Orleans’ future will be yet another two-sided city, divided against itself, a city of hope against one with little hope at all.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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