- The Washington Times - Friday, September 2, 2005

The reclamation of New Orleans — once the floodwaters are removed — will require the demolition of neighborhoods and the full-scale reconstruction of infrastructure, a multibillion dollar prospect expected to forever change the historic city’s unique face.

The price tag estimated in the tens of billions of dollars inevitably has sparked debate — despite the city’s 287-year history — about the logic of rebuilding and how to best ensure surviving future hurricanes in a bowl-shaped flood plain among rivers, lakes and bayous.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois yesterday questioned the logic of rebuilding the city after Hurricane Katrina’s powerful display.

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Mr. Hastert told the editorial board of the Daily Herald, a suburban Chicago newspaper on Tuesday. Mr. Hastert acknowledged it would be a contentious statement, but said: “There are some real tough questions to ask about how you go about rebuilding this city.”

Mr. Hastert later took back some of his words, issuing a statement couched in terms of “when we rebuild this historic city.” He specified that “I am not advocating that the city be abandoned or relocated.”

President Bush and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco already have vowed to rebuild the city, and Rep. Charlie Melancon, Louisiana Democrat, yesterday called the speaker’s comment irresponsible.

“The world loves New Orleans, and I assure you that great city and the communities in Southeast Louisiana will be rebuilt,” he said.

Mrs. Blanco went further, demanding an immediate apology from Mr. Hastert.

“To kick us when we’re down and destroy hope, when hope is the only thing we have left, is absolutely unthinkable for a leader in his position,” she said last night.

Economists cite the importance of the region’s Mississippi River port, the busiest in the nation, and the crude oil refineries that produce upward of 40 percent of the nation’s oil and gas as reasons to rebuild.

Mary Comerio, author of “Disaster Hits Home,” predicted the city would be rebuilt, but it would take years. She compared the destruction in New Orleans to the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, which left 300,000 homeless and cost more than $150 billion to rebuild over five years.

“The strongest, most powerful urge is to get back to normal,” said the professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley.

Local and federal officials first will need to heavily invest in new infrastructure — roads, sewers and electricity — to ensure businesses, their employees and their patrons can survive. They also will have to spend significant amounts of money in the city’s flood-protection system of levees and pumps to make it insurable.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for flood control in New Orleans, will be forced to spend hundreds of millions of dollars designing a levee system to handle a Category 5 hurricane, not the Category 3 hurricane the existing system was created to withstand. Katrina was a Category 4 hurricane when it hit Monday.

The romantic and functional architecture of the city is destined to change.

“It will never be the same place, but it will probably maintain the flavor of its history,” said Miss Comerio, adding that regional architects will help preserve the area’s historic influences, but outsiders invariably will put their marks on it.

Engineers and architects say the damage wrought on houses sitting in water, whether Greek Revival style mansions or the shotgun houses synonymous with many of its neighborhoods, will be irreversible.

“I think a lot of [houses] will not be salvageable,” said Thomas J. Campanella, an urban-landscape historian at the University of North Carolina and co-author of the 2004 book, “The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster.”

But in many instances, they say, the foundations will be reusable.

Besides a house’s contents, water will damage beyond repair wooden floors, Sheetrock, plaster, insulation, electrical circuits and much of the interior components of a building, said Spencer M. Rogers Jr., a coastal-engineering specialist with the North Carolina Sea Grant at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

The survival of the French Quarter, or Vieux Carre, provides hope to preservationists and local leaders, who know the city’s original neighborhood and its infamous street, named not for whiskey but for the royal Bourbon family of France, will continue to be an attraction.

“Preservation is a vital part of the New Orleans economy and helps define the unique character of the city,” said John Hildreth, director of the southern office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The long-term nature of the process will test the endurance of its now scattered residents, many of whom face months to years in temporary accommodations and uncertain job prospects.

“Families, however poor they may be, if they have deep roots in a place, they’re going to want to come back. This is where their story is rooted,” Mr. Campanella said.

It’s what New Orleanians have done since the early 1700s, when European settlers first survived Mississippi River floods. They’ve learned to roll with the bad as well as the good, all the while producing the jazz and cuisine people have been coming to for generations.

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