Outlook: New Orleans Unlikely To Be Rebuilt

Joel Garreau
Washington Post staff writer
Monday, September 12, 2005; 12:00 PM

The city of New Orleans is not going to be rebuilt. The tourist neighborhoods probably will, along with the French Quarter and the Garden District. But the real New Orleans, whose population of 400,000 has been scattered to the waves? That's far more unlikely, according to Washington Post writer Joel Garreau , in his examination of the future of The Big Easy. Garreau, who taught a course on the future of cities at George Mason University, is the author of "Edge City: Life on the New Frontier." He was online Monday, Sept. 12, at noon ET to discuss his Sunday Outlook, A Sad Truth: Cities Aren't Forever .

The transcript follows.


Joel Garreau: Thanks for joining me today. I look forward to your questions. I got *hundreds* of e-mails to the outlook piece. More than ever before in my career. Surprisingly few people were interested in hanging me from the spire of St. Louis Cathedral. Most were thoughtful, and had a tone that was more in sorrow than in anger.

Let's see how we go today.


Silver Spring, Md.: In the Sunday editorial, you suggest that the flooded area will not be used for homes and businesses. So what will the land be used for in New Orleans that the floods affected?

Joel Garreau: Good question. Depends on how dry, secure and insurable it ends up being, I suppose. But some Army Corps of engineers guys are talking about "opportunities for increased green space."


Morristown, N.J.: In all the news of the Hurricane's aftermath, I did not hear anything about the condition of one of New Orleans' most famous restaurants, Commander's Palace? Did it get destroyed? Also, I heard nothing about Paul Prudhomme, another New Orleans institution. Was he in the city at the time?

Joel Garreau: My colleague timothy Dwyer took a look at that. Check out:

In New Orleans, A Menu of Options


Philadelphia, Pa. : Who decides where things will be rebuilt? Does the person who lost a house in a flood have a right to decide where to rebuild? Could one rebuild at a higher level of existing property? Or, do you think they might be an outright prohibition on rebuilding in the flood zone and, if so, will property owners be reimbursed for the loss of their property and, if so, by whom?

Joel Garreau: To rebuild, you need a building permit. This is historically a local decision. Local government, especially in New Orleans, is susceptible to forces that are not always logical.

Having said that, it will be interesting to see if refusal to issue a building permit is seen as a "legislative taking," requiring the government to pay the owner as if it were being condemned by the government for public use.

Guaranteed lifetime income for lots of lawyers, I'm sure.


Arlington, Va.: Mr. Garreau,

Another issue you didn't mention in your Outlook piece is that in all likelihood, the mouth of the Mississippi will be moving some hundred miles west to Morgan City when the Atchafalaya river succeeds in capturing the bulk of the Mississippi's flow north of Baton Rouge - another piece of Nature the Army Corp has been fighting for 50 years. Nature always wins in the end. While we have gained an enormous body of knowledge about natural forces we have ceased to use any of the new or existing knowledge when designing our settlements - from the regional plan down to the block and building. Founders of settlements used to survey the land for suitability, take note of climate, drainage and prevailing winds, sun orientation, topography and other natural features. Romans used to examine the liver of an indigenous animal to see if it was healthy before establishing a new settlement. Now we assume we can conquer nature. With engineering, but particularly affluence, available natural resources and cheap energy we have done ok in the last 100 years. What will happen to Las Vegas, and Phoenix when energy is no longer cheap to power air conditioning, and motoring in the sprawling desert settlements? Or, will the Colorado river always have spare water to pump for the hundreds of miles to water desert lawns? The desert will win!

New Orleans can and should be restored because of the great cultural history it contributes to the entire nation. But, it should be restored in a manner and scale that makes sense for what the land can support. It should also, in my opinion, serve as a wake up for the rest of the nation to start once again working with the natural world instead of against it.

Joel Garreau: I especially agree with the idea that there are lots of lessons from new Orleans for other places equally vulnerable.

Think what would happen if long lasting toxins from a dirty bomb or a biological weapon were unleashed in Washington. Think what that would do to the property values.

Also agree that water has a way of invariably finding the lowest path. Someday, the Mississippi is going to reroute through the Atchafalaya basin, leaving Baton Rouge and all the rest of those ports high and dry.

That will be the monumental catastrophe.


Takoma Park, Md.: Afternoon Joel,

I'd like to ask you the following:

1. Do you see the Republicans being swept out of Congress & the White House in the 2006/2008 elections in large numbers as a result of the mess in Iraq & Hurricane Katrina?

2. Do you see Rick Santorum losing his seat in the 2006 election due to his comments in the last few years re: stem cell research, gay rights, etc. & his most recent comments re: the victims of Katrina?

3. Will the investigation into Pat Robertson's organization being listed as one of the White House's choices of where to donate to the evacuees of Katrina come back to bite Bush & the administration?

And finally;

4. Do you feel, as I & many others I have been speaking to recently, Democrats, Independents AND republicans, that G.W. Bush will go down in history as the worst & most ignorant president this country has ever had?

Thanks Joel.

Joel Garreau: Sorry, not my department. I don't make predictions. I just report on what I see in the pipeline.


Clifton, Va.: Your book on "Edge Cities" captured beautifully how the market economy drives urban form.

The economy that is sustainable in New Orleans is the Port of New Orleans and the French Quarter tourist industry. Not often does a city get a blank slate from which to start over. Should such a city plan how to house its (low wage) labor force, or should we assume the market will provide? Does subsidized housing play a role?

Joel Garreau: I guess the answer is based on how much you trust government to spend your tax dollars sensibly and compassionately.

The market is obviously more efficient, but it has difficulty assigning a dollar value to "heart".


Corona, Calif.: It is most heartening to believe that the former residents of New Orleans will not be given the option to return to their former areas in rebuilt homes. And, thereby, repeat all that has gone before.

I believe that the best thing that could happen to America in that regard is for all those poor and unfortunate souls to be broadly integrated throughout America.

Better days ahead! Yes?

Joel Garreau: Be careful how you harden your heart. In corona, you live in a desert that is only inhabitable because of world-class engineering that brings water *into* your area.

There are a lot of places that will be facing lessons from New Orleans, I suspect.


Arlington, Va.: Mr. Garreau,

While the truth is hard to face for this former native, New Orleanian, I agree that bringing back the eastern parts of the parish - even the middle of the city - doesn't make a whole lot of sense given how far it is below sea level. But your article seems to suggest that Metairie is worth rebuilding even though "there was four feet of water in some expensive living rooms in Metairie." Metairie and most of Jefferson Parish is below sea level too and is protected by an even less fortified levee system the last time I knew (which was awhile ago - I haven't lived there for over a decade). If the storm had moved just 10's of miles further to the West, Metairie would have suffered damage on the scale of St. Bernard and Orleans parishes - and I know for a fact its levee system can't handle more than a Category 3 storm. Suggesting that predominately black sections of Orleans should be bulldozed - but that Metairie should be rebuilt isn't going to win you a lot of points. True, fixing the storm-related damage in Metairie is nowhere near the scale of what will be needed just East of Metairie. But that was due to the storm path - not the intractable problems of levees, elevation, global warming, etc. On a federal level, I suspect the political will to rebuild all of Orleans parish, if it is to be found anywhere, will be found in the fact that if you rebuild AND continue to insure predominately white, Jefferson parish, you'll have to do the same for predominately black New Orleans - or risk further race-related accusations being brought to the foreground. The race-card might seem a pretty thin hand to justify spending billions in federal money, but if you rebuild and reinsure Metairie, which is from where the poster-child for Louisiana-style racism, David Duke, hails, I wouldn't underestimate the implied message that might send and the type of politics that will stir-up.

Joel Garreau: Remember, I am not advocating any of this. I'm reporting it. i simply looked at the driving forces that have shaped cities for thousands of years and reported how they are stacking in New Orleans.

Don't shoot the messenger.

Now having said, there are a couple of things you can say about Metairie and northern Jefferson parish. first, it simply didn't take the hit Orleans parish did from Katrina. Though as you say, a lot of it is also below sea level, which raises questions about what we should do long term.

Then comes the tricky part about race and class. They are inextricably linked in New Orleans. But historically, you can see that cities are always shaped first by class.

Rich people get first choice in every civilization throughout all of history. After the reason for initial settlement is established, they usually head uphill, upwind, and upriver, because the wisdom of the ancients is genuinely inscribed in the motto, "excrement flows downhill." the poor get the rest. the poor, for example, got south Chicago well before the great migration of African Americans showed up.

Will rich neighborhoods fare better than poor neighborhoods?

What do you think?


Oakton, Va.: The determination to rebuild that you speak of in your column will come from the federal government. It will not be an organic, practical decision made by the citizens of the area, who might very well decide not to live there (I know that's what I'd do). It will be an artificial phenomenon created by Washington, with the politicians making such statements as "We need a New Orleans for our economic prosperity...I can't imagine the U.S. without New Orleans...the Creole/Cajun culture will die without New Orleans...we owe it to those people who suffered so much, etc." And don't forget the realpolitik -- the Louisiana delegation is petrified of losing half a million residents and a House seat or two in the next census. So the feds will basically bribe the underclass to return with promises of new housing built on a floodplain that was cleaned up (maybe) and protected (another maybe) at enormous public expense. Never mind the fact that there will be nothing there for them but the dead-end jobs, awful schools, corruption and hopelessness that were there before. All so Washington can expunge some guilt and the Louisiana pols can keep the voters that they never did much for in the first place.

Joel Garreau: The trouble I see with that scenario is (1) the deficit, and (2) the politics of spending that kind of money on a democratic city and state.


Columbia, Md.: As much as many current refugees state that they intend to return to the flood affected areas, the history of such migrations would indicate that, for the vast majority of them, this is highly unlikely. The movement of a significant portion of the population of the rural South and New Orleans will change the American social and political landscape in non-trivial ways yet to be determined. Do you care to speculate on how this will do so?

Joel Garreau: I probably shouldn't answer this question, but one thing that I worry about is New Orleans' murder rate. It was 10 times the national average. I suspect some of the people responsible for that are now in Houston.


Vienna, Va.: Hi Joel,

I've been an follower of your byline since Edge City (I still have the original edition hardcover somewhere).

I'm pleased that you were able to give a logical, coherent treatment to the ideas that I have been able to only vaguely articulate: New Orleans cannot and should not be rebuilt as it was. As you wrote, the cultural crescent might be preserved, much as Venice has been preserved as a historical city where millions visit, but perhaps only 50,000 live.

In addition, there is the danger of precedent in the context of global warming. If New Orleans, a worst case, is rebuilt after being largely destroyed, every coastal community, however poorly planned and situated (developments built on Atlantic barrier islands come to mind) will expected to be rebuilt after enduring massive storm damage. How many trillions of dollars might it require to honor such an implicit insurance pact?

Joel Garreau: Not long ago, at the school of public policy at George Mason University,I co-led a semester-long scenario planning class that addressed the question of which cities would be the winners and losers globally in the next hundred years.

The students looked at hundreds of factors, and ended up liking places on high ground with a great deal of social cohesion, like Atlanta.


New Orleans, La.: So if New Orleans doesn't rebuild, what will happen to those of us who have property there in unaffected areas that did not flood? What happens if one owns a mortgage where there is no city?

Joel Garreau: It will be interesting to see what happens in that portion of the area where you can get building permits. Do values go up because supply is constrained? do they go down because demand is dropping?

In other cities over time, where people find themselves with mortgages that are "upside down" -- with the mortgages higher than the value of the property -- some just walk away, handing the keys to the bank.


Falls Church, Va.: I'm a native New Orleanian. Lived there for my first 30 years, been here for the last ten. My friends from home think that this hurricane will cause the outlying burbs to build up- Denham Springs, Gonzales, B.R. and that the drug dealers and general lowlifes will gravitate there and N.O. will be better off. Comments?

Joel Garreau: The most depressing idea I've heard lately is that new Orleans will become the Branson, Arkansas, for the sinners.

The question is, if it isn't going to have enough people to show up on the list of America's 50 largest cities, focusing mainly on its tourist attractions, will it have the diversity that creates soul.


RE: Corona, Calif.: Thank you for your response to Corona. I'm sure he/she didn't think about the man made interference that makes it possible to call Corona home.

Is the wisdom that makes it possible to live under sea level is the same that makes it possible to live in the desert?

Joel Garreau: Yup. I don't think people spend a lot of time thinking about their dependence on world-class technology when they buy a house.


Belle View, Va.: A Republican member of Congress was overheard telling an associate that he was delighted at the prospect of bulldozing all of the poor peoples homes, noting that "what we had been attempting to for years, God did it for us in a matter of hours." Do you think that the Republicans will allow poor people to ever live in New Orleans again?Thanks.

Joel Garreau: Poor people's houses obviously are the ones least likely to be able to withstand the conditions we've seen in New Orleans.

Will we offer new federal housing for these poor? Interesting question. Depends on whether this tragedy changes minds and hearts.

Will we put this housing in the places most likely to be flooded again someday? I sure hope not.


Austin, Tex.: Apparently they are managing to drain New Orleans faster than they expected. Also, the death toll is apparently going to much lower than feared.

In a similar vein, is their any chance that the physical damage to housing and other infrastructure might wind up being somewhat less extreme than it appears?

Also, if I may make an editorial comment.... I know that New Orleans had terrible problems. Maybe the flood will be a catalyst for solving some of those problems (one way or the other). But the people who are suggesting that this hurricane was a good thing (such as a couple of posters) are, frankly, sick.

Joel Garreau: Agree hugely that the people who are taking pleasure from this disaster need to have their souls adjusted.

Some huge unknowns about what the damage will be to the buildings. How deep in the toxic damage to the soil? Can you scrape off a few inches and be back in business? Or has it permeated into the (very high) water table? All the sheet rock and carpets will have to go. have the toxics permeated into the very frames of the houses? Good questions, that we probably won't have good answers for for months.

Meanwhile, a lot of people will have decided to pull up stakes.


Grass Valley, Calif.: We have more than enough water here - and, to send to desert cities like Corona.

But Corona does pose an appropriate question, I believe, in wondering where assimilating the Katrina displaced persons about America or returning them to rebuilt structures in N.O. and a possible repeat when the next big hurricane arrives.


Joel Garreau: Grass Valley is in the northern San Joaquin Valley, up near the Sierras.

There was a huge influx to the San Joaquin Valley from the dust bowl in the '30's. Do you think those survivors have assimilated?

Be careful about sending all your water to southern California. It will end the agricultural way of life and the pleasure people take in abundant waterfowl.


Branson: Is in Missouri.

Joel Garreau: Right you are, by about 10 miles. Sorry.


Washington, D.C.: "The most depressing idea I've heard lately is that New Orleans will become the Branson, Arkansas, for the sinners." - Could you clarify this? What is Branson, Arkansas known for?

Joel Garreau: Branson, Missouri, has become a far greater tourist mecca than you might think possible, given its location not near much of anything, by providing music and other attractions aimed at the family trade.


Md.: People may WANT to rebuild NO, but common sense says there is a better use for the millions (billions?) it would take to do so. People congregated around ports years ago because ports were intensive users of manual labor - let the ports be rebuilt, but let the personnel relocate to higher ground. If anyone WANTS to rebuild in flood plains, let them pay the market driven costs. The very idea of federal flood insurance is a farce: if the market is unwilling to insure the risk at a cost people are willing to pay, don't you think there is a reason?

Joel Garreau: Pretty cold. But then again, the market does not trade much in sympathy.


Bethesda, Md.: Personally, I would send Alex Krieger down to NO and have him report back on what to do. Alex, former chair of something or other at Harvard, is the Pierre L'Enfant of our century. He drew up the Anacostia plan, Pittsburgh, Dallas and many other riverfront revival plans. He is an urban planner beyond compare. He is great at public participation and at working with local, state and federal governments, as well as with developers. He likes buildings; he likes parks; he likes rivers; and he likes wetlands.

Joel Garreau: I'm sure there will be work for planners there for generations.

Do worry, however, that we will study this for decades, as a way to avoid rebuilding.


Fairfax, Va.: One way of addressing the problem of development in environmentally inappropriate areas might be a long term phaseout of federally sponsored flood insurance. Gradually decreasing coverage, starting with the most expensive buildings, would be a way to encourage long term development in more environmentally appropriate areas.

However, I am politically savvy enough to know that the chance of implementing such a measure ranges between slim and none.

Joel Garreau: Think of the barrier islands of north Carolina so beloved by Washington vacationers.


New York, N.Y.: Are there plans to conduct autopsies on all casualties? If not, isn't it possible that many suspicious deaths will never be investigated?

Joel Garreau: I don't think there are going to be as many deaths as were initially estimated. the water didn't rise *that* fast.

But yes, breakdowns in social order always offer opportunities for settling scores.

Alhough I've been pleasantly surprised by how little violence we've seen.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Someone earlier mentioned the mouth of the Mississippi River has shifted 50 miles. If this is so, does this mean most port facilities should also shift to the new river mouth?

Joel Garreau: It hasn't shifted yet. The levees much higher up the Mississippi would have to go for that to happen.

But yes, having to completely rebuild the ports would put this disaster in the shade.


Atlanta, Ga.: Thank you for taking my question.

In your article you cited ancient cities that weren't rebuilt. Do you know of any more recent cities that weren't rebuilt and why?

Also, the overall tone of those who say New Orleans shouldn't be rebuilt is bothersome. Though unintentional, I hope, the implication seems to be "those stupid folks should know not to live there." Is this valid or am I being unfair.?

Joel Garreau: I totally agree that some of the tone of the questions today have been pretty harsh.

We don't have many cities that are utterly abandoned in this country. We usually find some new purpose for them, even if much diminished from the original idea.

We are, however, really hollowing out the great plains. The number of young people there who are fleeing for opportunities elsewhere I find alarming, because I think the people of the plains are the repository of a lot of our values.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Garreau:

I love New Orleans. I graduated from Tulane and lived in the city for a few years after that. I read your article with a certain sadness and wariness. When I came across your reference to the "American Sector" I realized that you really did know New Orleans. Unfortunately, you are right in what you have said.

The next time you are in New Orleans I recommend you look at the base of one of the street lamps on Canal Street, which as you probably know, are replicas of those on the Champs Elysee and were given to New Orleans by the French government.

On each side of the base of each lamp is a medallion. (I don't have the dates quite right). One says "Spanish Domination 1700 to 1750". One says, "French Domination 1750 to 1805". One says "Confederate Domination 1861 to 1863" and the last says, "American domination 1863--". A curious philosophical concept and "only in New Orleans." And perhaps American domination will end because the city will end.

Joel Garreau: "American quarter," I think. the "American sector" is in Berlin, is it not? ;-)

Well, the Mexican navy is offering humanitarian assistance there right now, bringing water purification units.


Chicago, Ill.: Is there any recent historical precedent in this country for wholesale urban renewal like what will be necessary for New Orleans? This just isn't something that we do well here in the U.S. It's something the Germans, Russians and Japanese have a lot more experience with (and the Brits, and the Dutch, etc.). I just see this process bogging down in the immense costs and social issues involved, and eventually puttering out into some kind of park, festival marketplace on the waterfront, bigger levee or two, and then a bunch of cheap housing going up again. After all, it's much easier for the rest of us to create an incentive for poor New Orleanians to return to their neck of the woods than to integrate them in our communities. Thanks.

Joel Garreau: Thank the Lord, we haven't suffered the kind of wholesale devastation of war that the other countries have.

But yes, I can surely imagine the process bogging down.

After the Loma Prieta earthquake in the Bay Area, the Bay Bridge lost a few sections, and it was rebuilt immediately. Some tiny downtowns are still being "replanned." Tells you a lot about what we view as important.


Austin, Tex.: What are some of the implications for the state of Louisiana as a whole? Baton Rouge is growing like mad now, but the Advocate (BR paper) had a series of articles recently on out-migration from La. It was seen as a real problem. This can't help. Nor is everything from the looting to the governmental confusion going to dispel any stereotypes about Louisiana government and politics.

I know I wouldn't be an any hurry to relocate a company to Louisiana at this point....

That beautiful, fascinating state is in bad trouble, isn't it?

Joel Garreau: Louisiana hasn't been setting any economic records for a long time.

It's going to be a tough patch, no doubt about it.


Winthrop, Mass.: While New Orleans should take this chance to improve economic and social conditions for its people, its wrong to even imply that the lower lying areas wouldn't have been fine if the recommendations of nearly everyone had been followed anytime in the last twenty years.

1. Do a real study of the impact of the worst storm ever recorded and add 20-50%.

2. Build up and strengthen all the levies to operate safely under those conditions over their entire lifetime.

Expensive, yes, but a lot cheaper than the 100-200 billion this storm will cost the U.S., if we are extremely lucky. Not to mention the cost of high gas prices, airline tickets etc.

They might think about nationalizing the New Orleans school district since neither the city or the state seems to be able to provide schools even close to the minimum requirements.

Joel Garreau: We Americans are good at building things. we are not so good at maintaining them.

Or thinking and funding long-term, for that matter.


Washington, D.C.: What will happen to the colleges and universities in NOLA? Tulane is one of our nation's better universities, its students are now scattered all over and many presumably will not return, when the school does open (who knows when that will be...). Similarly, there are HBCUs in NOLA that play a significant role in the South. Will there be entire colleges or universities that are lost?

Joel Garreau: Loyola and Tulane are on the relatively high crescent. I fear Xavier is not, but I'm not sure.

Can imagine universities and colleges being a good mix in the future of New Orleans.


To those who are saying this was good...: As I noted in my post (which you chose not to answer), we spend far more than NO is going to cost subsidizing Edge Cities yearly. Subsidized energy (oil). Subsidized roads which serve no purpose economically outside of the Edge Cities. Subsidized infrastructure.

If folks in the ex-urbs had to pay the real costs for their area/lifestyle they'd go broke (just look at the howling an extra buck for a gallon of gas has caused).

So watch out about throwing those stones, when you live in a heavily subsidized glass house.

Joel Garreau: My editor tells me that I  didn't see your previous question because she didn't forward it to me.Sorry.

But yes, in a democracy, things get subsidized based on the political power of the subsidized. There are far more people living outside the old 19th-century downtowns then not.

We haven't built an old downtown from scratch in this country since the one millionth model T rolled off the assembly line in 1915. Calgary, Alberta, Canada, was the last railroad town.


Abandoned Cities: Jackson and Bagby, California are just two (OK they were towns) which were flooded during the era of big dam-building. Expect there are many others.

Joel Garreau: is there anything now in tombstone, the town allegedly "too tough to die"?


Arlington, Va.: Great discussion. Possible future scenarios for rebuilding and repopulating New Orleans bring to the front so many aspects of what Americans feel they (we) are entitled to including the right to live where we choose and build what and where we want - I am slightly nervous of how these play out in our democracy. On a different note, who controls the levees? A co-worker stated that they are controlled and maintained by the localities (analogous to the acequia systems in Northern New Mexico). That didn't seem right to me. I thought that the Corps of Engineers had authority over the whole system.

Joel Garreau: That's right. The north store of moral certitudes in this country is that you can not remove from a person the value of that person's land without due process of law.

Will be interesting to see if this changes any attitudes about that.

(Don't know about the levees. Sorry.)


Joel Garreau: Okay, thanks for playing, folks.

What great and thoughtful questions.


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