Planning for a New, Improved Orleans

The filigree of the French Quarter survived, but much of New Orleans would have to be rebuilt.
The filigree of the French Quarter survived, but much of New Orleans would have to be rebuilt. (By Shannon Stapleton -- Reuters)
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 8, 2005

Some things you just cannot rush, even after a catastrophe such as the one in New Orleans.

You can and should rush to rescue people, find them shelter and provide medical aid. You can and should begin right away to ask questions about what went wrong, why it did so and who is responsible.

And, of course, it is natural to wonder what's going to happen in the future.

What you shouldn't do, however, is to try to answer these questions in haste and rancor.

Rushing to judgment, though understandable, is a short-term response to a lot of serious, long-term issues. One is the very survival of a nearly 300-year-old city.

New Orleans, in the apt description of geographer Peirce F. Lewis, a longtime student of the city, has over the years come to resemble "a large shallow saucer with its center below sea level." As was many times predicted, Katrina's waters filled the saucer and the result was incalculable human, environmental, material, cultural and economic losses.

It is not unreasonable, then, to ask if we should rebuild a city in such a geographical bind.

The cost will be astronomical -- billions of dollars just to build an adequate levee system; billions more to do something about the degraded swamps that surround the city and which, when in good health, can do much to protect from hurricane-driven surges. Such a prospect implies an immense investment of federal money -- more by far than went to New York after 9/11 -- simply because there is no other capable source. And so, whether they desire it or not, all federal taxpayers have a stake in the future, or non-future, of New Orleans.

It is with such thoughts in mind, presumably, that House Speaker Dennis Hastert verbalized his doubts about the wisdom of rebuilding New Orleans in the same spot. Hastert quickly wiggled away from his statements, but he cannot be the only person in the country with such concerns.

Of course, geography and money aren't everything. New Orleans also is a national issue because it is a national treasure. Simple as that. Actually -- because of its history, its unique blending of cultures, especially in architecture and music, and its unending sociability -- the city is an international treasure.

People love New Orleans for life after a single visit. Heck, people love it just by listening to its music and picturing the place in their minds. Folks are volunteering by the hundreds to conserve the city's art and architecture, several organizations report, reminiscent of the outpouring of volunteerism that followed the disastrous 1966 flood in Florence. (The difference, of course, is that folks could immediately get to work in Italy because the waters receded in one day.)

Perry Cofield, a local architect who got his professional degree at Tulane University in the 1960s, says his years there affected him for life -- the house he designed for himself and his family in Arlington's Lyon Village neighborhood has a second-floor balcony. "You adopt that lifestyle and take it somewhere else," he says. And Cofield was only a temporary resident.

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