Let’s face it, New Orleans was a dying city before Hurricane Katrina devastated it last year, and the death now is almost complete. Instead of spending many billions of taxpayer dollars to restore the city to its pre-Katrina configuration, the time has come to start developing a plan for the city that embraces nature rather than fights it. Because of the vast amount of federal funding involved, this should be a national debate, rather than just a local one.
The New Orleans of today will remain a potential disaster area no matter what the nation does. Its location near the mouth of the Mississippi River, which drains middle America, guarantees that. Much of the city is 1 ft to 10 ft below sea level and parts are sinking 1 in. per year due to overdevelopment, loss of protective marshlands, seismic shifts and tremendous oil and gas pro- duction in the region.
Besides location, New Orleans has a couple of other strikes against it. The local government machine historically has been corrupt and moribund, leading to costly inefficiencies and service short-comings. And the city’s poverty and crime rates were a national disgrace. The bankrupt city now is almost $1 billion in debt, with little revenue coming in.
Even before Katrina’s devastation, people were voting with their feet. Over the past 40 years, the population declined to 484,000 from a peak of 627,525. Nine months after Katrina, only 40% of displaced residents have returned and half of the businesses remain closed. A good proportion of the New Orleans refugees have nothing to come back to and they are rebuilding their lives in new places, with better services, schools, housing and job opportunities. It is highly likely that they will not be coming back.
With this shaky foundation, there may still be a future for parts of New Orleans—the port, French Quarter, parts of the downtown business district and residential areas on higher ground. Only absolutely vital facilities in low-lying areas should be repaired or rebuilt. This core would preserve the city’s rich cultural history and economic lifeblood. Some say that this would transform the city into a kind of Disneyland. But that is a better business model than none at all.
Dead and dying parts of the city should be cut away. Those areas could be reborn as a nature preserve, agricultural land or open space. Buying out property owners in high-risk areas will be much cheaper than paying in installments after each hurricane. The American people are generous in helping other Americans recover from disasters, but they balk at paying for the same thing over and over.
There needs to be a well-thought-out, coordinated regional plan for survival and even rejuvenation and property owners in high-risk areas who choose to rebuild on their own should be left that way.