The case against rebuilding the sunken city of New Orleans.

Media criticism.
Sept. 7 2005 3:19 PM

Don't Refloat

The case against rebuilding the sunken city of New Orleans.

What's to rebuild? 
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What's to rebuild?

Nobody can deny New Orleans' cultural primacy or its historical importance. But before we refloat the sunken city, before we think of spending billions of dollars rebuilding levees that may not hold back the next storm, before we contemplate reconstructing the thousands of homes now disintegrating in the toxic tang of the flood, let's investigate what sort of place Katrina destroyed.

The city's romance is not the reality for most who live there. It's a poor place, with about 27 percent of the population of 484,000 living under the poverty line, and it's a black place, where 67 percent are African-American. In 65 percent of families living in poverty, no husband is present. When you overlap this New York Times map, which illustrates how the hurricane's floodwaters inundated 80 percent of the city, with this demographic map from the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, which shows where the black population lives, and this one that shows where the poverty cases live, it's transparent whom Katrina hit the hardest.

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New Orleans' public schools, which are 93 percent black, have failed their citizens. The state of Louisiana rates 47 percent of New Orleans schools as "Academically Unacceptable" and another 26 percent are under "Academic Warning." About 25 percent of adults have no high-school diploma.

The police inspire so little trust that witnesses often refuse to testify in court. University researchers enlisted the police in an experiment last year, having them fire 700 blank gun rounds in a New Orleans neighborhood one afternoon. Nobody picked up the phone to report the shootings. Little wonder the city's homicide rate stands at 10 times the national average.

This city counts 188,000 occupied dwellings, with about half occupied by renters and half by owners. The housing stock is much older than the national average, with 43 percent built in 1949 or earlier (compared with 22 percent for the United States) and only 11 percent of them built since 1980 (compared with 35 for the United States). As we've observed, many of the flooded homes are modest to Spartan to ramshackle and will have to be demolished if toxic mold or fire don't take them first.

New Orleans puts the "D" into dysfunctional. Only a sadist would insist on resurrecting this concentration of poverty, crime, and deplorable schools. Yet that's what New Orleans' cheerleaders—both natives and beignet-eating tourists—are advocating. They predict that once they drain the water and scrub the city clean, they'll restore New Orleans to its former "glory."

Only one politician, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, dared question the wisdom of rebuilding New Orleans as it was, where it was. On Wednesday, Aug. 31, while meeting with the editorial board of the Daily Heraldof Arlington Heights, Ill., he cited the geographical insanity of rebuilding New Orleans. "That doesn't make sense to me. … And it's a question that certainly we should ask."

"It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed," Hastert added.

For his candor and wisdom, Hastert was shouted down. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., and others interpreted his remarks as evidence of the Republican appetite for destruction when it comes to disaster victims. But if you read the entire interview—reproduced here courtesy of the Daily Herald—you might conclude that Hastert was speaking heresy, but he wasn't saying anything ugly or even Swiftian. Klaus Jacob seconded Hastert yesterday (Sept. 6) in a Washington Post op-ed. A geophysicist by training, he noted that Katrina wasn't even a worst-case scenario. Had the storm passed a little west of New Orleans rather than a little east, the "city would have flooded faster, and the loss of life would have been greater."

Nobody disputes the geographical and oceanographic odds against New Orleans: that the Gulf of Mexico is a perfect breeding ground for hurricanes; that re-engineering the Mississippi River to control flooding has made New Orleans more vulnerable by denying it the deposits of sediment it needs to keep its head above water; that the aggressive extraction of oil and gas from the area has undermined the stability of its land.

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