Is New Orleans Worth Reinhabiting?

Should New Orleans be abandoned and never reoccupied? [Not to abandon the survivors or the bodies, mind you, but the physical city itself, once the living and dead are accounted for.]

This is not as audacious as it may seem. It is a legitimate issue, a possibility that thinking people should seriously examine, and a topic which should be open for measured analysis and reasoned debate by public officials in addition to us BLOGgers. It should be put on the table for all to consider. Consider it so.

As I feared would occur (links 1, 2), the city is submerged, mile after mile, and almost in entirety, in a toxic soup of saltwater, mud, raw sewage, oils, household and industrial chemicals, decaying human and animal corpses, disease pathogens, floating and sunken medical waste, hidden and dangerous objects and the assorted mangled detritus of thousands upon thousands of structures.

What will this cost to drain, clean up and rebuild the Big Easy and all those thousands of structures of all sorts, inside and out? Is it worth it?

Should that untold tens of billions in federal and private funds be better spent instead on medical care for the sick and injured, finding housing and jobs elsewhere for the hundreds of thousands of refugees to scatter nationwide, and any absolutely necessary environmental remediation of the toxicity? Why, or why not?

Maybe Lake New Orleans should instead be cleansed of as much of the waste as possible in a sustained toxicity remediation effort, then left to be. The crumbled levee sections can be rebuilt to keep out prohibited boat traffic and — when and if the toxicity has been brought down to EPA approved levels for saltwater estuaries — festooned with water gates to encourage tidal flushing. Tall buildings can be stripped of anything poisonous then dynamited down, if deemed aviation hazards. Boat navigation can be forbidden much as in marine sanctuaries (except as regulated for any remaining salvage operations, and in the future, for archaeological purposes of course).

Some will say, “We will rebuild!” Perhaps that is a blindly sentimental and politically populist desire, but not the most practical one. The better question to analyze, and not just answer from emotion, is: Should we rebuild New Orleans?

Can Louisiana and the nation afford to entangle ourselves with this in time of war, and perhaps more importantly, with the certainty that another major hurricane will again strike like this eventually? Do we want to subject future citizens of still-below-sea-level New Orleans to a repeat of this indescribable horror, or prevent it by allowing the city to become a national historical marine monument, never again inhabited?

Hey, I liked the French Quarter; and the Port of New Orleans was a major hub for American ship traffic. But perhaps we should just remember the Big Easy and its fine food, jazz, and festivals for what they were instead of trying to recreate them at incalculably steep cost that could cripple the nation’s economy and divert our efforts from preventing hurricane related sea intrusions elsewhere. If so, we also should remember the horrid slums and dilapidated industrial areas that needn’t be dealt with anymore. The city can be left as a partially underwater memorial, a solemn site for remembrance of those who were lost in this disaster, a giant if loose analog to the the Pearl Harbor memorial in Honolulu. The port’s business can be dispersed over time to others located next to cities lying a little above sea level, such as Houston, Miami, Corpus Christi, Wilmington, Hampton Roads, New York, Boston? The football team can move to San Antonio and stay. Other public and private universities can absorb Tulane’s functions. And so forth.

There are far more issues wrapped up inside this notion than I can touch on right now, but I welcome their consideration here, as well as dialog on any of the above. Fire away.

In the meantime, check out some before and after satellite imagery, courtesy of NASA and reproduced here since it is in the public domain. [Thanks Alnado and Daphne for the tip.] Open the links in Mozilla using side-by-side tabs, to do “manual animation.” Notice that Lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain for now are one. The Pontchartrain/Maurepas conjoinment really drives home the magnitude of the geomorphological adjustments a hurricane can make. To think — a legendary and uniquely historic American city of half a million has evolved on some of that precariously unstable geology — and now effectively has ceased to exist in two days.

And yet most will want to rebuild it to face yet another Katrina (eventually)? Hmm…maybe not such a good idea.


10 Responses to “Is New Orleans Worth Reinhabiting?”

  1. Chuck Doswell on August 31st, 2005 8:45 am

    No. Do not rebuild New Orleans. Nor should we do much rebuilding ANYWHERE along the Gulf or Atlantic coasts after major hurricane strikes. And we should NOT allow Federal support for rebuilding after such incidents, which simply encourages the understandable but ultimately destructive will to rebuild. If we use Federal funds to help those who need help (not the rich bastards who put up $million beachfront palaces), it should be for relocation to safe ground. We did SOME of this after the 1993 Mississippi floods, but not enough. Anyone with any brains saw this coming … well, it’s happened. We should NOT let it happen again! The arrogance of the Corps of Engineers in attempting to control the uncontrollable has actually been a major factor in causing this disaster.

  2. Amos Magliocco on August 31st, 2005 6:50 pm

    I agree that it would be unwise to rebuild New Orleans as a major population center. However, I think the city center, specifically the French Quarter and surrounding areas, should be preserved. These areas are unique in the world, important to our national history and culture, and generate millions in tourist revenue for a cash-strapped state.

    As for the 1.4 million residents of Greater New Orleans, the answers are harder to imagine. I’m guessing that as evacuees (rather than the refugees) return, temporary camps or tent cities will appear, perhaps along the North Shore.

    Those people will want to be near their old homes and perhaps they’ll be allowed to visit and salvage possessions eventually. But I can’t believe they’ll be allowed to move back anytime in the foreseeable future. In fact, I think some officials already know this, but don’t dare say so in public. It will be impractical for people to “wait around” until the water is drained, the toxic waste removed, and infrastructure rebuilt. This could be a ten year task!

    So it’s not hard to imagine that those tent cities or camps will see improvements over time, like paved roads or even electricity. It would seem natural for a “new” New Orleans to grow out of one or more of these areas–on higher ground and in a sensible place. Communities along the North Shore fared well in Katrina, towns like Hammond or even Slidell, where water has already receded.

    None of these ideas will be greeted warmly, but it would be foolish and irresponsible to place so many people in a position to suffer this way again.

  3. Karen Rhoden on September 2nd, 2005 10:45 am

    This may be redundant, but…

    In general, every other organism on this planet we inhabit still possesses some basic instinct genes, as far as I know. Humans are about the only beings on Earth who insist on colonizing and fighting against nature everywhere it exists. Whereas animals with instincts live in harmony and acceptance of the world around them – we humans take much glee in “proving” to ourselves that we can “master” the elements, “tame” the beasts, “conquer” the unconquerable.

    Thus – when we populate an area which would have never been populated (at least to the extent is was) in the first place – we infringe on nature and openly invite our vulnerability to a disaster should it ever arrive.

    The vast majority of attitudes in New Orleans seem to have been an “it’ll-never-happen-to-me” one. Sure we all know about the flooding potential – but it won’t happen while I’m here!

    I never truly realized the precarious nature of New Orleans’ location FULLY until now (not being originally from this country). Now – I wonder why they weren’t more prepared, and draw comparisons between the apparently archaic “levee” system of New Orleans, and the completion of the major project in the Netherlands knows as The Delta Works (

    Good blog and essay, Roger.


  4. Dave Wolfson on September 2nd, 2005 11:21 am

    It would be better for children and other living things to keep the vulnerable coasts free, of course. Unfortunately, New Orleans is the Port of New Orleans, the prime commercial hub at the mouth of the Mississippi. Ports have to be on the coast and the people who service the commerce and culture want to have a comfortable, secure, urbane place to live. The French Quarter, the original NO, isn’t under water.

    In many ways I think the disaster was caused by our modern corporate society losing touch with its cultural and environmental roots. Let’s get back in touch: restore the marshlands and natural barriers, rebuild the city on the higher ground and with modern engineering, and give the people who service this engine of commerce a comfortable, safe environment befitting a great country.

    A levy on all the industry and commerce that profits handsomely from the riches and access to the coast would go a long way toward rebuilding New Orleans and protecting the other vulnerable coastal areas IMHO.

  5. Carrie Halliday on September 2nd, 2005 11:25 am

    This is such an emotional issue, and one that will get worse with time. Once the sensationalism of the disaster is behind us, then these tough questions need answered.

    Rebuild? No. Why? Like the rest of us weather people realize, Mother Nature will win out in any battle. This battle is of the Mississippi River reclaiming its rightful turf from those who tried their best to make it habitable LAND. Instead of burdening our society with the cost to rebuild in a dangerous area, let the river have it and rebuild in an area that is above sea level. I understand Amos’ thoughts of preserving the historical areas, but not sure that it will be feasable, or if they will stop at just that area.

    The term “you can never go home again” comes to mind. These poor souls, there is no way that any of us can understand the feeling of loss and despair they must be feeling. And they (anyone really) should never have to go through this again. Rebuilding will leave that possibility out there.

  6. Mike Peregrine on September 3rd, 2005 1:04 pm

    New Orleans can be rebuilt as it was – with the caveat of understanding that it will do so at the expense of thousands of future lives in the bigger storms to come. Unless absolute protection can be guaranteed next time, it is illogical to reconstruct this urban environment in the same manner it stood until this past week.

    Personally, I feel that the majority of infrastructure should be relocated to higher/safer ground upriver from its current location, leaving only the historic neighborhoods (i.e., the French Quarter) behind. New Orleans has a terrific element of history and heritage that could somehow be preserved while still protecting life and property from future disaster.

    However, I believe that the reality of this situation is that we will likely see LARGE numbers of New Orleanians who will not be willing to return at this point, no matter what. They have been through an amazingly stressful and traumatic event that will be perpetuated in the weeks and months to come. The majority of them will opt to remain in their new homes, or build up the regions being developed as emergency evacuee centers. The New Orleans that we all knew last week will likely never again exist as the city we all knew.

  7. Elke Edwards on September 4th, 2005 12:18 am

    A few days ago the commander of the Army Corps of Engineers was asked in a television interview what the fix might be for the levee system. He stated the system could be patched up short-term, but the only thing that could protect New Orleans long-term was an extensive restoration of delta wetlands. Perhaps I should not have been surprised, given the Kissimmee River restoration from central FL to the Everglades. We begin to come full circle.

    While not likely, this disaster could be turned into such an opportunity. There’s clearly there no better time to start than now.

  8. bc on September 9th, 2005 5:21 pm

    N’Awlins should not be rebuilt with federal tax monies. Period. The founding fathers did not intend the federal government to be the “bailout of last resort” for failed business models, such as Chrysler, New York City, UAL, or the City of New Orleans.

    Turn it over to the archeologists and the wading birds.

  9. Sara on September 27th, 2005 4:59 pm

    People do not live in an uninhabitable area of the north pole because. . . it is uninhabitable!
    We should consider the fact that these coastal areas are uninhabitable because of the potential loss of life. People don’t live in areas of the North Pole because they don’t have anyone that will save them if peril befalls them.
    Let us get real and discuss not habitating areas that are vulnerable to floods, hurricanes etc. Let’s protect our people, from habitating areas that are (despite their desire to); unsuitable, and will cost the rest of the United States economic disaster. Common sense must rule now; not sentimentality or ego.

  10. Don on October 6th, 2005 5:08 pm

    I agree with Chuck Doswell. We should not rebuild in the Gulf Coast after a hurricane. We should also not rebuild in Oklahoma or anywhere else on the great plains after a tornado. We should not rebuild from California to Alaska after an earthquake. We should not rebuild in the west after a forest fire. We should not rebuild in the Mississippi River valley after any flood. We should not rebuild in New England after a major snow storm. Dang, someplace is going to be REALLY crowded. Look, New Orleans is an anomaly. It was built below sea level. Don’t compare the rest of the Gulf Coast to New Orleans. I think we still need all that refining capacity from Texas and Louisiana, as well as the offshore drilling capacity. If you don’t believe me, go to your fuse box and flip the master switch off for a month.

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