View Full Version : Rebuilt New Orleans to be a lot smaller & whiter

09-17-2005, 07:25 PM
Almost three weeks after hurricane Katrina sparked massive floods that submerged much of New Orleans, life is swiftly getting back to normal in Uptown, where the leafy streets are lined with Civil-War-era mansions owned by a moneyed, mostly white, elite, many of whom trace their ancestors to the city's founders.

Drive 10 kilometres east and the City that Care Forgot resembles Grozny more than a scene from the pages of Vanity Fair. The air is heavy with an overpowering stench of rot and decay. Emaciated dogs run wild. Tiny houses are shut tight. Everything is caked in grey mud.

This all but empty area was once home to many of the city's poor, overwhelmingly black, underclass. Tens of thousands of its residents were sent by bus to shelters in cities across the United States and probably many will never return.

"They ran all the locals out of the city," says Nelson Avery, 49, a muscular, black construction worker standing shirtless on St. Anthony Street in the 7th district, where dirty lines mark the water's slow descent on the sides of buildings and cars.

Mr. Avery's biggest fear is that his black neighbours are lost forever, scattered in a diaspora that stretches from Baton Rouge and Houston to Utah and Washington State. "I feel like that's their whole primary objective, to take the black majority out of this parish, make it a majority white district," he said.

As the U.S. government embarks on one of the largest peacetime reconstruction programs in history, the geographic shape and demographic texture of a rebuilt New Orleans is still an open question.

Despite President George W. Bush's vow that "there is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again," the city that emerges over the next decade will likely be a lot smaller. And chances are that it will be a lot whiter.

While Mr. Bush has promised to confront the city's unhappy legacy of poverty and racial discrimination, some blacks talk darkly of state-sponsored "ethnic cleansing" of the city's black neighbourhoods to create a Disneyland version of New Orleans, perfect for tourists.

Even ignoring the conspiracy theorists, many blacks have already decided that Katrina provides an opportunity to escape the city's crime-infested, failing neighbourhoods and start their lives anew somewhere far away.

"A lot of poor people will be happier today moving somewhere else," said Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser. "The key thing is to help the poor people of New Orleans, not to rebuild the city perfectly. Should poor people be allowed to take their [disaster-relief] money and go where they want? Why not?"

Prof. Glaeser said that nobody should be surprised if New Orleans looks a lot different after it's rebuilt.

"New Orleans has had a 160-year decline," he said. "New Orleans was the third largest city in the country in 1840. It's been declining ever since...It could end up being a smaller place, but it wouldn't be a terrible thing if it did."

According to U.S. census data, New Orleans stands at No. 35 in size among U.S. cities, but it tops all in violent crimes statistics. In the last two years, New Orleans had the highest homicide rate of any U.S. city, by far. As of Aug. 19, there had been 192 murders in the city, an increase of 7 percent over the same period last year. With a population of 500,000, New Orleans had 264 homicides last year, compared with 572 in New York, which has a population of 8 million. New Orleans' murder rate beats even troubled big cities like Detroit and Baltimore; and outstrips New York's by 7-1.

The school system is virtually bankrupt and racked by corruption. The U.S. Education Department reported in February that $70-million in federal funds for low-income students had been misspent or could not be accounted for. Two-thirds of the city's public schools were deemed to be "academically unacceptable."

So it should be no surprise that fewer than half of the predominantly black evacuees from New Orleans living in shelters in the Houston area don't want to return to New Orleans, according to a poll published yesterday by The Washington Post and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Forty-three per cent said they'd like to move back to New Orleans but 44 per cent said they want to permanently relocate.

For many evacuees, it's too soon to decide. "I don't know which way I'm headed, I really don't," Bertha Jones, 61, said as she sat on a bench outside Baton Rouge's River Center complex, where she has been living with several thousand other displaced New Orleans residents.

Sitting in the shade to escape the brutal heat, her hair covered in a pink-and-white scarf, Ms. Jones stared into the distance. One of her sons is pressing her to move to Houston, where he was able to get a transfer with the computer company he works for. Her daughter, who is also at the Baton Rouge shelter, is mulling a new life with her three children away from New Orleans.

Like more than half of New Orleanians, Ms. Jones is a tenant. She has no idea what happened to the duplex she rents in the flooded Mid-City neighbourhood and is reluctant to leave without at least one last look at her life's possessions.

"I know there was so many bad things with the city, but it was a place I had learned to call home," says the black caregiver, who had lived in New Orleans since age 13. "I just don't know. It's just hard to make up your mind."

Danatus King, president of New Orleans branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, acknowledges that some blacks will find jobs and apartments elsewhere and not return. But he says it's essential that there be a place for the poor in the rebuilt city.

"As a person who was raised by a single mother with six children and came out of one of the poorer areas of town, it's my personal duty that the poor of New Orleans are not forgotten in this process," said Mr. King, a 52-year-old lawyer. His own home in New Orleans is still under more than two metres of water.

"We're not going to go back and build substandard housing. We're going to make it as good as we can," he said in an interview from Baton Rouge.

For the mainly well-off residents of the French Quarter, the Central Business District, Algiers and Uptown, which escaped the worst of the flooding, the news is better. Mayor Ray Nagin announced on Thursday that 182,000 resident of these districts will start moving back home over the weekend.

Over the next six months, the mayor expects the city's population to "settle in" at about 250,000. That still leaves more than 200,000 residents who won't be able to return home even if they want to, probably for a long time.

Estimates are that as many as half of the city's 160,000 homes, in the city's poorest areas, are so waterlogged that they'll have to be demolished. And before new construction can even begin, the levee system will have to be repaired and the soil will need to be cleaned up.

Despite the huge personal losses, nobody should regret the death of many of the districts currently under water, says Bruce Katz, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

"One in five poor families lived in neighbourhoods of extreme poverty, with poverty rates of 40 per cent or more. One out of three poor blacks lived in those kinds of neighbourhoods," he said. "What we know about neighbourhoods of extreme poverty is that the schools don't function, businesses don't invest and there is an absence of jobs and employment opportunities.

"There is a way of avoiding this by building more integrated communities. I think there is a huge opportunity in New Orleans to create a completely different social and income mix within these neighbourhoods and to do it in such a way so that many of low-income households are better off than before the hurricanes."

Geographer Peirce Lewis, has spent much of his career chronicling the city. His study, New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape, was published in 1976. He returned four years ago to update the book. He found huge changes.

"In 1975, the city was almost exactly 50-50 white and black. By 2001, it was two-thirds black."

The city's economy had also changed profoundly. The port, which used to provide large numbers of low-skilled jobs, had been containerized and employment had fallen precipitously.

Mr. Lewis believes a rebuilt New Orleans will become smaller. "I think there is no doubt it will end up shrinking." And he doesn't think that's a bad idea at all. Simply returning all the evacuees to the city means "a big majority would go back and form another super ghetto."

"My hope is that they would condemn a lot of that centre city area and make it off limits to building. They can turn it into a city park."

"Anything that can be done to dilute the racial concentration in New Orleans is a good thing," Mr. Lewis said. "No matter how you cut it, New Orleans is a deeply racist city."

In rich white enclaves like Uptown, residents are wary of sounding racist. But with their deep business and family connections, they say they are determined to ensure the new city will be a very different than the old one, which for so long has been associated with crime, poor schools and corruption.

"Whatever you do, don't put people back in the city who are criminals and who are incapable of, or unwilling to, help themselves," said Mr. O'Dwyer, a volatile, white 57-year-old lawyer.

Sandra Poloma, who is white and has never lived outside the greater New Orleans area, has already decided her future. She and her husband will soon move into a house on a lake in a Baton Rouge subdivision. Their six-year-old son Nicholas started First Grade last week.

"We didn't want to be forced to move like this," says the 44-year-old bookkeeper, whose home was submerged in flood waters and oil from a refinery spill a few days after Katrina struck.

She is direct when asked what should happen to New Orleans. "I think they should just bulldoze the whole thing and just landfill it higher so it doesn't happen again," she said. "Why not?"

But urban planner Thomas Campanella of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill said New Orleans is worth saving. He says great cities have not been abandoned in recent times, even after disasters. Chicago was rebuilt after its Great Fire, as were San Francisco and Kobe, Japan, after their earthquakes.

"We're rebuilding cities in Iraq. The least we can do is save one of our own," he said.

Prof. Campanella is worried that if everybody ignores the low-income neighbourhoods, "we'll end up with a Crescent City theme park" that encompasses the French Quarter, the Garden district and the wealthier neighbourhoods along the crescent of the Mississippi River.

"Whose New Orleans will get rebuilt? What we have to work towards is coming up with a vision for a city that is holistic, that works to welcome back the low-income folk who are scattered to the four winds and not just the real-estate developers." Without all the city's residents, the city will never be the same, he said.

"It's these communities, poor as they may be, that gave us jazz, that gave us the blues, that gave us gumbo and jambalaya."

09-17-2005, 07:56 PM
Protecting New Orleans will cost billions and take decades, not years.

Given enough money, engineers agree that they could eventually build a system of levees and other flood control structures sufficient to protect New Orleans from another Katrina or even a stronger hurricane. But it would cost billions, and the work might not be completed for up to 30 years.

The question is, and always has been, how much the federal government is willing to pay for that protection.

"New Orleans is what it is because the federal government made it that way," said Robert Hartwig, chief economist at the Insurance Information Institute. "And what it is today underwater."

Much of New Orleans, especially the neighbourhoods that were most severely flooded by Hurricane Katrina, would not be inhabitable at all without the ramparts that have been constructed around the city over the past 40 years. After Hurricane Betsy destroyed much of New Orleans in 1965, Congress authorized a massive construction project to ensure that such a storm would never threaten the city again.

The project began by raising the levees along Lake Pontchartrain on the city's north side, and linking them to the Mississippi River levees to form the "bowl" that encloses New Orleans. Over the years, Congress also approved levees to protect suburbs south and east of the city.

At four to five metres high those levees are high enough to handle another Betsy, but not a Katrina, a Category 4 hurricane.

"We tend to build for the last storm," said Craig Colten, a professor of geography and anthropology at Louisiana State University.

It isn't that nobody thought a storm more powerful than Betsy would ever strike New Orleans. The Army Corps of Engineers had looked into the prospect of building the city's levees up to Category 5 protection. But levee construction projects proceed over decades, and the last one isn't even close to finished. Some of the follow-up projects to the original 1965 effort, added during the 1980s and '90s, aren't scheduled for completion until 2018.

"The whole thing takes a long, long time," Mr. Colten said.

Now that Katrina has supplanted Betsy as the Crescent City's most recent catastrophic storm, the government is likely to embark on a new round of flood control construction. This time, experts say, the goal is likely to be Category 5 protection, achieved through a diversified approach that includes not just higher levees but storm gates and the abandonment of some low-lying areas.

"City and parish officials in New Orleans and state officials in Louisiana will have a large part in the engineering decisions to come, and the Army Corps of Engineers will work at their side to make the flood protection system stronger than it has ever been," U.S. President George W. Bush said Thursday evening.

Bringing just the area of New Orleans along the Lake Pontchartrain shoreline up to Category 4 or 5 protection would cost $2.5-billion (U.S.) to $3-billion, according to the Army Corps of Engineers' latest estimates.

For comparison, the National Flood Insurance Program received approval this week to borrow $3.5-billion for the settlement of Hurricane Katrina claims. And the losses to the program could go higher than that, said Ed Pasterick, a senior adviser in the Federal Emergency Management Agency's mitigation division.

Bringing the whole city up to Category 5 protection would take about 30 years, Army Corps of Engineers project manager Al Naomi estimated before Hurricane Katrina. Parts of the project could be expedited, but it will be years before all of New Orleans is protected against the strongest storms.

Katrina may also generate the support needed to go ahead with Coast 2050, a plan to restore some of the marshes and swamps along the Louisiana coast that have disappeared since the 1930s. Those coastal wetlands help decrease the destructiveness of an incoming hurricane by slowing down, and thus spreading out, the storm surge it pushes ashore.

The cost of the Coast 2050 Project would be more than improving the levees about $14-billion over 30 years, depending on how much of it was implemented.

"There are lots of ways of protecting the city," said Joannes Westerink, a civil engineer at the University of Notre Dame who builds computer simulations of hurricane storm surges for New Orleans and other parts of the U.S. coast.

Some experts recommend putting flood gates in the channels that funnel water toward the city, specifically in the Mississippi River itself and in the Rigolets, a narrow passage that connects Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico.

The gates would be left open under normal conditions, allowing water and ship traffic to pass unhindered. In the event of an approaching hurricane they would be closed to keep the storm surge from getting into Lake Pontchartrain or moving up the river.

London has a system of such gates in the Thames River. In the Netherlands, an extensive system of dams and gates protects the population from storm surges.

Within New Orleans itself, experts recommend improving the pumps that are used to remove rainwater from the city. Because the levees around New Orleans create a below-sea level bowl, every drop of rain that falls inside the barrier has to either evaporate or be pumped out.

There's no way that pumps could keep New Orleans dry in a Katrina-scale flood. But if they were elevated and had their own power generation, Mr. Colten said, the pumps might be able to pump the city dry in days rather than weeks.

It might also be possible to elevate some neighbourhoods above flood level. Civil engineer Henry Petroski of Duke University has even suggested raising the entire city. The city of Galveston, Texas, used that approach after a hurricane washed over it in 1900, killing as many as 8,000 people.

Individual houses could be elevated as well. Many homes in New Orleans are already jacked up off the ground for flood protection, but since the 1950s the majority of them have been built directly on concrete slabs.

And it would be just as helpful to go down as up. New Orleans could create drainage basins inside the levee walls to collect floodwater that would otherwise flow into the lowest-lying neighborhoods.

Finally, some have suggested restoring some of the city's most vulnerable areas to the marshlands they once were. Neighbourhoods that are up to 13 feet below sea level today got that way in part because they were built on marsh soils that compacted after being drained. The longer those areas are kept dry, the lower they will sink and the more flood-prone they will become.

Generally, the lowest parts of New Orleans lie in a belt just behind the high ground of the Lake Pontchartrain shoreline that stretches from the Ninth Ward in the east to Jefferson Parish north of Louis Armstrong International Airport.

"The lowest of the low areas probably shouldn't be redeveloped," Mr. Colten said.

There is plenty of time for the vocal debate that is bound to accompany such proposals. The Army Corps of Engineers estimates it will be next year before the Big Easy's flood protection is back up even to where it was before the storm hit.

"Certainly we're not going to be able to restore the levees back to their original protection before the end of hurricane season," said Col. Duane Gapinski, the commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers task force responsible for pumping New Orleans dry.

That leaves vast swaths of the city vulnerable to even a relatively weak tropical storm. But as long as 80 per cent of New Orleans remains damaged or destroyed by Katrina, another hurricane would add more insult than injury