Rebuilding New Orleans.

What we build.
Dec. 28 2005 6:46 AM

After Katrina

What is going on in New Orleans?

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New Orleans' Ninth Ward, under water in August 
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New Orleans' Ninth Ward, under water in August

It took 10 years and cost $150 billion to rebuild Kobe, Japan—a much larger city than New Orleans—after the disastrous 1995 earthquake. Only three months have passed since Katrina, so there is no reason to be impatient. Yet it is impossible to escape the distinct impression that the city is adrift. It is normal in emergencies for the state to suspend or curtail municipal powers. That has not happened in New Orleans, leading to wrangling between the mayor and local neighborhoods about where—and especially where not—to locate FEMA trailer housing. A city that is unable to decide where to temporarily house its own refugees is unlikely to grapple successfully with the more complex question of exactly how to rebuild. Should low-lying areas be turned into parkland, and housing concentrated on higher ground? Should building codes be changed to require all structures to be raised on platforms or stilts? The social and economic implications of both strategies are major. Private property would have to be expropriated, and new lands would have to be made available. Upgraded building codes would raise the cost of construction.

It would obviously be simpler if everything could stay as it is, and if the flooding problem could be solved by simply constructing higher levees and more and bigger pumps. The recent White House commitment to increase spending on reinforcing levees to $3.1 billion does not even begin to resolve this issue, however; it has been estimated that fully protecting the city against a Category 5 hurricane (recent reports suggest that Katrina was actually a Category 3 storm when it made landfall) could cost more than $30 billion. But absent adequate protection, many people who were evacuated from the city have—prudently—been reluctant to return. The population of New Orleans is currently about 100,000—not even a quarter of its pre-Katrina size.

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What strategy to adopt? "Build levees and they will come back," or plan for a better—but smaller—city?

Bomb-ravaged Berlin, 1945
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Bomb-ravaged Berlin, 1945

Although we have considerable experience with post-disaster urban reconstruction, the lessons of history aren't very useful in this case. After the end of World War II, many bombed cities in Europe and Japan were successfully rebuilt. Most, such as Rotterdam, Warsaw, and Hiroshima, were much more severely damaged than New Orleans. But postwar reconstruction occurred in a climate of rationing, massive public assistance, military government, and highly centralized decision-making. What's more, the reconstruction effort itself was the chief economic activity. Everyone was handed a shovel and told to get on with it.

Another example of post-disaster reconstruction occurs following natural disasters. Earthquakes devastated the cities of Skopje, Yugoslavia, and Tangshan, China, as well as Kobe. The rebuilding of Skopje was an international effort in which donor countries provided not only materials and technology but also planners and architects. The 1976 Tangshan earthquake was massive, a quarter of a million dead, half a million homeless. There, as in Japan, it took a decade to rebuild. But like Yugoslavia then, China was an authoritarian, Communist regime. Decisions were made quickly, plans were drawn up and imposed. Even in democratic Japan, a highly centralized government acted effectively and quickly to plan the rebuilding process.

New Orleans is different, and not only because effective leadership and governmental action have been glaringly absent, but also because it is an American city. The shape of our cities is not the result of bureaucratic planning, but of demand. If people want to live in houses with their own gardens, you get suburbs; if yuppies want to live in lofts, you get rehabbed industrial districts; if wealthy investors want to put their money into sun-drenched real estate, you get the Miami condo boom. If businesses want their offices in high-rise buildings, you get central business districts, but if those office buildings become too expensive, you get suburban office parks and Silicon Valley. Moreover, because the country is large and there are many cities, competition is fierce.

Reconstructed West Berlin, 1966 
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Reconstructed West Berlin, 1966

Conversely, if people don't want to live somewhere, they are free to leave. "Demand" in New Orleans was already a problem before Katrina. The population of the city hit its peak in 1965 and has been declining ever since. At the time of the hurricane, the city had a third fewer inhabitants than 40 years earlier. The metropolitan area wasn't doing much better. The result was that although New Orleans is in the Sunbelt, where urban areas are generally booming, in many ways it is a Rust Belt city—think Detroit or Newark—with a stagnant economy, a lot of unemployment, and poverty. Research has shown that while cities grow extremely quickly, they decline slowly, since people's homes—and their attachment to a place—act as an impediment to moving. Katrina cruelly removed that impediment for many New Orleanians.

Given weak demand and weak governmental leadership, the prognosis for recovery is not good. It would take a massive federal program along the lines of the Depression-era Tennessee Valley Authority to deal with the hard case that is New Orleans.

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.

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