My mother grew up in New Orleans and I grew up on her stories of life in the Crescent City. She moved to Florida in the late 40s where she met and married my father and gave birth to my brother and me. The sweet memories of her childhood caused her to move back briefly after my father's death in the early 70s and my leaving home. She returned to Florida after only four months, despairing at what had happened to her beloved hometown and its once stable, working-class neighborhoods.
That is why I feel certain that if she were alive today, she would agree with Jack Shafer, author of "Don't Refloat: The Case Against Rebuilding the Sunken City of New Orleans" which appeared in Slate on September 7. He posits that rebuilding New Orleans is not only geographically and oceanographically questionable, but nostalgically delusional because the city that tourists see is little more than a mirage. Dennis Hastert was right, he contends, because the question of whether to rebuild is a fair one that should not have political consequences.
Shafer writes that " . . .the Gulf of Mexico is a perfect breeding ground for hurricanes; . . . 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 [and] . . . the aggressive extraction of oil and gas from the area has undermined the stability of its land."
In a New York Times op-ed piece last week, a geophysicist named Klaus Jacob agrees, as does Timothy Kusky, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences. Kusky tells reporters from two different national periodicals that "New Orleans naturally wants to be a lake" and "[a] city should never have been built there in the first place."
Then there are the human considerations. Beyond the decadence of the Quarter and the affluence of the Garden District, lies an economic wasteland. Overwhelmingly black and poor, if one were to look up "areas of centralized poverty" in a dictionary of sociology terms, there would be a picture of New Orleans. The 80% of the city that was flooded overlays neatly with a demographic map that illustrates the bleakness of the neighborhoods that are now awash in befouled water. Neighborhoods where 27% of its residents lived below the poverty line, and only 25% of its adults had a high school diploma. Neighborhoods that contained 73% of New Orleans' schools considered "academically unacceptable" or "under academic warning."
Before Katrina, New Orleans was a great tourist destination. I am sorry to see it destroyed. But to rebuild any city that is so geographically vulnerable is just plain irresponsible. And when one asks whether reconstructing a city so rife with social problems makes any sense, the answers seem too obvious to ignore.
And this writer asks if anyone has an absolute right to live in an area that the rest of us could be expected to rebuild in less than a generation, just because their family settled there generations ago. Thousands of people were displaced in the TVA projects of the Great Depression when river valleys were flooded to provide massive power capability for the region. Most of them didn't want to give up the land they worked and the homes they built. Should the citizens of New Orleans be treated any differently?
These are issues that might need to be examined about any of our natural disaster-prone regions from California to North Carolina. Hard questions to answer, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be asked.
There is no doubt that billions of dollars will be spent to clean up New Orleans in a public works project of unimagined scope. America's current economy could certainly use the stimulus of a TVA-like endeavor, and what is government's job if not to help provide opportunities for its citizens? We could use any public works initiative to provide jobs for the poorest citizens displaced by Katrina. So, as horrible as the devastation is, we can utilize this opportunity to make New Orleans and its environs better than ever.
But we might want to modify our ambitions and rebuild only the Quarter and other parts already on higher ground, with bridges leading to residential districts that would be less prone to flooding. Or move the historic areas to higher ground as Missouri did after the 1993 flood. Or turn the low-lying areas south to the coast into a wildlife refuge similar to Donana National Park in Spain which is accessible only by park vehicles or on foot. Or create a lake resort with tourism services on ground above the current city.
Whatever the area becomes, however, it should not be a place that requires an evacuation of a million people trapped by topography. Or breeds, perpetuates and concentrates poverty so great that a cycle of bad weather traps not the tourists that now clamor for its renaissance, but those for whom the old New Orleans was anything but a glamorous break from daily life.
I am an amateur historian who loves to travel. Few things delight me more than visiting culturally significant places and sitting in a cafe soaking up the local flavor. But as the bumper sticker says, stuff happens. I am sorry that my grandchildren may not see a city so colorful and rich with traditions as New Orleans. But places come and places go, and human tenure on this planet in geological terms is almost not worth measuring. We need to get over the notion that we can save the planet. The planet will survive. The question is whether we want to battle the planet when the odds are so solidly stacked against us.
The Netherlands' ability to keep the sea at bay in their dyke-surrounded country notwithstanding, it's not nice to fool Mother Nature. Perhaps we should stop working against Her and let the city of New Orleans become the lake it was meant to be. She usually takes the last word anyway. This time we may need to let Her have it.