[Paleopsych] Slate: Jack Shafer: Don't Refloat - The case against rebuilding the sunken city of New Orleans.

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Jack Shafer: Don't Refloat - The case against rebuilding the sunken city of New 

    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
    [24]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 [25]New York
    Times map, which illustrates how the hurricane's floodwaters inundated
    80 percent of the city, with this demographic [26]map from the Greater
    New Orleans Community Data Center, which shows where the black
    population lives, and [27]this one that shows where the poverty cases
    live, it's transparent whom Katrina hit the hardest.

    New Orleans' [28]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 [29]25 percent of adults have no
    high-school diploma.

    The police inspire so little trust that witnesses often [32]refuse to
    testify in court. University researchers enlisted the police in an
    [33]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 [34]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
    [35]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 [36]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 [37]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
    [38]Time this week. "A city should never have been built there in the
    first place," he said to the [39]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 20^th 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 [40]1798
    with this one from [41]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 [42]cypress
    swamp, and by 1950 it was only half developed, according to the
    Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. Even such "high" land as
    [43]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 [44]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 [45]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 [46]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.


    Apologies to Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Ernie K-Doe, Allen
    Toussaint, Tipitina's, Dr. John, Clarence "Frogman" Henry, Jelly Roll
    Morton, Jessie Hill, Lee Dorsey, the Meters, Robert Parker, Alvin
    Robinson, Joe "King" Oliver, Kid Stormy Weather, Huey "Piano" Smith,
    Aaron Neville and his brothers (falsetto is the highest expression of
    male emotion), Frankie Ford, Chris Kenner, Professor Longhair, Wynton
    Marsalis and family, Sidney Bechet, and Marshall Faulk. I await your
    hate mail at . (E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates

    Related in Slate

    Click [47]here for a full roster of Slate's Katrina coverage. Find out
    how New Orleans ended up below sea level in the first place by reading
    this [48]Explainer. Earlier this year, Timothy Noah looked at the
    history of Dennis Hastert's attempts to [49]claim his independence.
    For those looking for a new place to live, David Plotz weighed the
    pros and cons of [50]online city guides in 1997. And who can forget
    when Hastert speculated that George Soros got his money from drug
    dealers, as Jack Shafer [51]wrote up in "Press Box."

    Jack Shafer is Slate's editor at large.

    What did you think of this article?
    Join the Fray, our reader discussion forum

    Remarks from the Fray:

    Despite all arguments, however reasonable, for not rebuilding New
    Orleans, it will be rebuilt.
    Why? Because it is not an arrangement, an idea, a rational proposal
    for housing its inhabitants. It is a three-hundred-year-old American
    city, a place whose long, haunting, and instructive history is borne
    into the future in the personal lives of the people who live there
    currently, people for many of whom the deep associations of place
    constitute meaning.
    And besides, the renaissance of New Orleans will be not just a
    boondoggle, but the Mother of All Boondoggles.
    Despite visionary notions already being floated -- New Orleans as an
    estuarine green space, a lovely green park at the mouth of the
    Mississippi, a restored and imaginatively engineered coastal wetlands,
    bulwark against the fury of Gulf storms -- nothing of the kind will
    What will happen has already been rehearsed in lower Manhattan. If you
    followed closely the intricate waltz of the players in the
    reconstruction of the World Trade Center, the brutal back-room knife
    fights, the posturing and politics and deal-making and, in the end,
    the inevitable triumph of the dollar and its result -- the
    preposterous mediocrity well on its way toward construction -- well,
    now imagine the hustlers down south as the Really Big Dig gets under
    And who will win? I'm just guessing -- the oil guys, the petrochemical
    guys, the lumber guys, the developers and their protectors within the
    political Big Top. For these folks it really is The Big Easy. Y'all
    book early and come on down.
    (To reply, click [61]here)
    Perhaps those who return to New Orleans, a smaller, sparser New
    Orleans to be sure, can re-envision our city. Re-development should be
    encouraged in the topographically highest points, rubble from the
    destruction should be "greened" and then pulverized for landfill to
    help raise lots. Neighborhoods should be re-platted to encourage mixed
    use, mixed SES, pedestrian and streetcar friendly "old-fashioned"
    neighborhoods anchored by green spaces and shiny new public schools.
    Builders should be encouraged to incorporate salvaged architectural
    elements and traditional "Creole" design--like raised cottages with
    dormer windows and functional window shutters--that will help the city
    retain its unique visual charm, and withstand potential future
    hurricanes better than more modern styles (like slab foundation ranch
    homes) which are hopelessly ill suited to the climate.
    Restoration of the coastal wetlands is an imperative project, the
    continued neglect of which will have ongoing catastrophic
    repercussions for the entire nation. The successful restoration of
    this frail and gorgeous eco-system could make the city of New Orleans
    and the entire Gulf region safer in the future, and fuel the
    renaissance of tourism. Eco-tourism in Louisiana? Who'dve thunk it?
    (To reply, click [62]here)
    ...You point out that New Orleans is uniquely vulnerable to hurricane
    damage. That is undisputed. But are not also any other cities on the
    Gulf Coast? Biloxi is not situated in a bowl, but it has been
    destroyed nonetheless. Do you advocate abandoning Biloxi? Would you
    advocate against rebuilding any city within striking distance of the
    hurricane breeding grounds? It is also undisputed that much of coastal
    California is uniquely vulnerable to earthquake damage. Would you
    advocate against rebuilding San Francisco when the next Big One hits?
    I don't think you would. The inevitability of another large earthquake
    in the San Francisco Bay Area is what spurs people to retrofit
    existing structures to withstand earthquakes. Similarly, if another
    big hurricane hit on New Orleans is inevitable, then this means not
    that New Orleans should be abandoned but that serious attention ought
    to be given to levee protection and coastal restoration - the issues
    that local officials have screaming about for years.
    (To reply, click [63]here)
    Why would anyone not want a newer home, with better infrastructure, in
    an area with better schools, away from assumptions and expectations
    that encourage failure? This is an opportunity for a great social
    experiment--allow people to choose where they want to go, free of
    cultural and economic restraints, and see how they make out.
    It's also an opportunity to restore the Mississippi delta by letting
    the river loose. The environmental benefits would be enormous.
    Why would the Left find this an offensive idea? ...
    (To reply, click [64]here)


   24. http://www.gnocdc.org/orleans/income.html
   27. http://www.gnocdc.org/mapping/docs/Poverty.pdf
   28. http://www.gnocdc.org/orleans/education.html
   29. http://www.gnocdc.org/orleans/edattainment.html
   30. http://www.slate.com/?id=2125810&nav=tap1/#ContinueArticle
   33. http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/05233/556827.stm
   34. http://www.gnocdc.org/orleans/housing.html
   35. http://www.dailyherald.com/search/searchstory.asp?id=89670
   36. http://www.slate.com/id/2125810/sidebar/2125827/
   38. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1101565,00.html
   39. http://www.ajc.com/news/content/news/stories/0805/31natkatlevees.html
   40. http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/new_orleans_1798.jpg
   41. http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/united_states/new_orleans_1908.jpg
   42. http://www.gnocdc.org/orleans/8/22/snapshot.html
   43. http://gnocdc.org/orleans/5/44/snapshot.html
   45. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/07/national/nationalspecial/07barbara.html
   47. http://www.slate.com/id/2125448/
   48. http://www.slate.com/id/2125229/nav/tap2/
   49. http://www.slate.com/id/2111723/
   50. http://www.slate.com/id/3331/
   51. http://www.slate.com/id/2106176/

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