The case against rebuilding the sunken city of New Orleans.
By Jack Shafer
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.
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 Herald of 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.
"New Orleans naturally wants to be a lake," St. Louis University professor of earth and atmospheric sciences Timothy Kusky told Time this week. "A city should never have been built there in the first place," he said to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Why was it? Settlers built the original city on a curve of high flood land that the Mississippi River had deposited over eons, hence the nickname "Crescent City." But starting in the late 1800s and continuing into the early 20th century, developers began clearing and draining swamps behind the crescent, even dumping landfill into Lake Pontchartrain to extend the city.
To chart the aggressive reclamation, compare this map from 1798 with this one from 1908. Many of New Orleans' lower-lying neighborhoods, such as Navarre, the Lower Ninth Ward, Lake Terrace, and Pontchartrain Park, were rescued from the low-lying muck. The Lower Ninth Ward, clobbered by Katrina, started out as a cypress swamp, and by 1950 it was only half developed, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. Even such "high" land as City Park suffered from flooding before the engineers intervened. By the historical standards of the 400-year-old city, many of the heavily flooded neighborhoods are fresh off the boat.
The call to rebuild New Orleans' levee system may be mooted if its evacuated residents decide not to return. The federal government, which runs the flood-insurance business, sold only 85,000 residential and commercial policies—this in a city of 188,000 occupied dwellings. Coverage is limited to $250,000 for building property and $100,000 for personal property. Because the insured can use the money elsewhere, there is no guarantee they'll choose to rebuild in New Orleans, which will remain extra-vulnerable until the levees are rebuilt.
Few uninsured landlords and poor home owners have the wherewithal to rebuild—or the desire. And how many of the city's well-off and wealthy workers—the folks who provide the city's tax base—will return? Will the doctors, lawyers, accountants, and professors have jobs to return to? According to the Wall Street Journal, many businesses are expected to relocate completely. Unless the federal government adopts New Orleans as its ward and pays all its bills for the next 20 years—an unlikely to absurd proposition—the place won't be rebuilt.
Barbara Bush will be denounced as being insensitive and condescending for saying yesterday that many of the evacuees she met in the Astrodome would prefer to stay in Texas. But she probably got it right. The destruction wrought by Katrina may turn out to be "creative destruction," to crib from Joseph Schumpeter, for many of New Orleans' displaced and dispossessed. Unless the government works mightily to reverse migration, a positive side-effect of the uprooting of thousands of lives will to be to deconcentrate one of the worst pockets of ghetto poverty in the United States.
Page One of today's New York Times illustrates better than I can how the economic calculations of individuals battered by Katrina may contribute to the city's ultimate doom:
In her 19 years, all spent living in downtown New Orleans, Chavon Allen had never ventured farther than her bus fare would allow, and that was one trip last year to Baton Rouge. But now that she has seen Houston, she is planning to stay.
"This is a whole new beginning, a whole new start. I mean, why pass up a good opportunity, to go back to something that you know has problems?" asked Ms. Allen, who had been earning $5.15 an hour serving chicken in a Popeyes restaurant.
New Orleans won't disappear overnight, of course. The French Quarter, the Garden District, West Riverside, Black Pearl, and other elevated parts of the city will survive until the ultimate storm takes them out—and maybe even thrive as tourist destinations and places to live the good life. But it would be a mistake to raise the American Atlantis. It's gone.