- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2005

“There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-eighths of our territory must pass to market.”

So wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1803 to his negotiators in France, in words intended to persuade Napoleon to sell the thriving port city to the young United States. The French ruler was impressed enough to throw in the vast hinterland of the Louisiana Purchase, all for the bargain price of $15 million.

Four days after the levees broke, the possessors of New Orleans were the waters and the looters and thugs who plundered luxury merchandise and shot at policemen and rescue teams. The criminals were largely dispersed by the soldiers who later poured into the city (several were shot dead after bringing rescuers under fire). Engineers have already started pumping the floodwaters back into Lake Pontchartrain. It will seem an agonizingly long time before the water is all pumped out. But the question will remain: What kind of city will be rebuilt?

It could just be an industrial terminal. George Friedman, of stratfor.com, argues that “the ports of South Louisiana and New Orleans, which run north and south of the city, are as important today as at any point during the history of the republic.” As in Jefferson’s time, this “is where the bulk commodities of agriculture go out to the world and” — we get beyond 1803 here “the bulk commodities of industrialism come in.” Those bulk commodities include oil and natural gas, about one-quarter of the national production of which come through New Orleans and South Louisiana.

Mr. Friedman’s argument seems hard to counter. And it is surely within the nation’s physical and financial capacity to rebuild New Orleans’ port and oil infrastructure — re-engineering it to withstand a Category 4 or 5 hurricane this time, not just a Category 3 — and make it once again what it was until last weekend. But ports and petrochemicals are no longer labor-intensive industries: It doesn’t take that many employees to man a refinery or a container port. Port Fourchon, site of the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, is a tiny community in southern Lafourche Parish. Restoring the port will not restore the fabric of the city.

And some parts of that fabric are not worth restoring. The city of New Orleans has had a horrifyingly high crime rate in recent years. And after disaster hit, reports of looting — not just of food and necessities, but of luxury items — have been rampant. Supplies of food and medicines on their way to hospitals have been hijacked; gangs of criminals have stolen boats from survivors. Flooding has produced an urban riot like those of the 1960s or Los Angeles in 1992.

I worked as an intern in the Detroit mayor’s office during the riot summer of 1967, and I know what happened to that city during the riot and after. The riot destroyed some commercial strips, but the high crime persisted for years after, emptying large parts of the city, destroying the value of commercial and residential real estate, and causing a population drop from 1,670,000 in 1960 to 900,000 in 2004.

Something similar has been happening recently in New Orleans. The central city’s population declined from 484,000 in 2000 to 462,000 in 2004 — one of the biggest percentage declines in the nation. It seems unlikely many of the small wooden houses in neighborhoods dominated by the criminal underclass will be habitable after the waters recede, nor will it be worthwhile for anyone to rebuild them. New Orleans may suffer a population loss similar to Detroit’s in a much shorter time.

The suburbs are likelier to be rebuilt, and the gambling casinos and the historic structures of the French Quarter and the Garden District will be, too, as much as possible. The tourist trade, recently New Orleans’ biggest employer, will likely revive, and the city’s great restaurants reopen.

But New Orleans’ French heritage of upper-class complaisance and political corruption work against a broader commercial and economic revival. Without new attitudes, historic New Orleans may revive. But the city will be little more than a theme park, like Venice, not the great commercial beehive it once was.

Michael Barone is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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