December 11, 2005
New Orleans Is Not Ready to Think Small, or Even Medium
By CLIFFORD J. LEVY
THREE more bodies were found here last week, hidden away in forsaken homes where mold had crawled over the walls in a Jackson Pollock splatter. One hundred days after the hurricane, these belated discoveries seem to be one more sign of how far New Orleans has fallen. Even the dead are not yet at peace.
But if the listless recovery has raised doubts about whether the city can reclaim its former self anytime soon, the political culture here won't listen to them. It has become almost taboo to discuss any proposal more modest than an immediate and total rebuilding: for example, directing the money and energy toward getting less-damaged neighborhoods up and running.
Suggest that New Orleans needs to consider repopulating only elevated areas, leaving especially flood-prone ones to lie fallow, and you will be shouted down. Gingerly point out that Hurricane Katrina was probably more than a meteorological fluke, and you will be scolded that it is un-American to bar people from returning to their homes.
Perhaps it is unfair to say that a kind of denial has taken root. After all, the city has not shaken off its shock at the catastrophe's scope, and it is only natural that politicians and residents alike would react with ardent vows that the city's landscape, not to mention its rollicking spirit, will be made whole. "I want you all to come back, and we can work this out," Mayor C. Ray Nagin told evacuees the other day.
Still, the city's difficulties in coming to terms with a dismal situation may at a minimum be hindering the chances of winning approval of a sweeping federal aid package, which has been bogged down for weeks. Some members of Congress are questioning whether money should be used for rebuilding neighborhoods that might be wiped out in a future hurricane. The city and state already faced credibility problems in Washington because of their reputation, deserved or not, for corruption.
"The local administration has sort of blinders on, saying, 'Let's just charge ahead with redevelopment,' without really thinking about how to maneuver within this precarious site to minimize risk in the future," said Craig E. Colten, a professor at Louisiana State University and author of "An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans From Nature," published this year before the hurricane.
The facts on the ground are sobering. Power and other utilities have not been restored in many places. The city government has laid off much of its work force, and nearly all the public schools remain closed. On Thursday, Tulane University, the city's largest employer, announced major budget cuts.
It is unclear when the levees will be repaired, and it will probably take years and tens of billions of dollars to fortify them. Without assurances about the levees, many exiles do not want to move back. The longer the uncertainty lasts, the more likely it is that they will put down roots elsewhere.
More than 75 percent of the city's population of 460,000 is gone, by some estimates, and it would appear to make little sense to spend enormous sums revitalizing areas if they are to be sparsely populated.
Elected officials are often not candid even in the best of times, obviously, but natural disasters create their own warped politics. Leaders in New Orleans may fear that highlighting problems will worsen them. They do not want to touch off a new round of flight by spooking the people and businesses that remain. They desperately want exiles to return to bolster the tax base.
The city could also be caught in a trap in its dealings with Congress. If it acknowledges that it must pare its ambitions, as some in Washington suggest it do, lawmakers might respond that it does not need as much aid.
And so the city recoils at the idea of retrenchment. Soon after the flooding, Mayor Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back commission asked the Urban Land Institute, a prominent research group in Washington, to put together a report on the recovery. It was thought that the mayor might use the report as political cover to push through unpopular plans.
The institute called on the city to phase in rebuilding, starting with less-damaged areas. It warned that haphazard redevelopment would lead to what it termed a jack-o'-lantern effect - patches of homes in abandoned areas - that would be ruinous.
Some local officials and residents said the recommendation was a stake through the heart of the Lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly and other devastated areas. Mr. Nagin, who is facing re-election next year, all but disavowed it.
Carl Weisbrod, who worked on the Urban Land report and led a business improvement group in Lower Manhattan before and after the Sept. 11 attacks, said, "There is always for politicians or leaders a fine line to be walked between what the reality is, and how do you mobilize public opinion." He added: "It's especially hard when you are putting yourself up to the approval of voters. The most votes win, not necessarily the right answer."
Officials here and in Baton Rouge also seem reluctant to acknowledge that their image is impeding efforts to obtain aid.
Despite the crisis, the Louisiana Legislature has refused to overhaul the local boards managing the levees, which have been criticized as inept. That fueled suspicion in Congress that state and local officials would mishandle the rebuilding, and the federal aid that goes with it.
"There are two levels of denial going on here," said Philip Hart, a real estate executive in California who worked on the Urban Land report. "One is related to the effects of the natural disaster. The other is denying the fact that the negative perception of Louisiana and New Orleans is hindering the rebuilding process."
One danger is that residents, already skeptical about all levels of government because of the response to the hurricane, might come to believe that politicians are not being straight with them about the fate of the city, and grow even more cynical.
"There is a part of me that wants to trust them," said Michael Grosch, who was standing last week in his gutted home in the Lakeview neighborhood, which he wants to rebuild, though it is not far from a ruptured levee. "But I don't anymore."
Asked, then, why he was rebuilding, he threw up his hands and said, "No one knows what is going to happen next."
In the 1880's, Currier & Ives, the printmaking company that was the Google Maps of its day, dispatched an artist to record a panoramic vista of New Orleans. The drawing shows a thriving port city - steamboats, church spires and all - whose populace clung to the elevated areas near the Mississippi.
There were few settlements in the flood-prone lowlands to the north. The swamps to the east were not deemed worthy of illustrating.
It is not easy to broach the idea of such a smaller-scale city. The people here have long defied the perils of this place, whether that meant the yellow fever outbreaks of the 1800's or Hurricane Betsy in 1965.
"New Orleans has survived for 300 years," said Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell.
But for much of that time, wasn't the city settled largely on the elevated areas?
"You are underestimating the intelligence of the people of New Orleans," Ms. Hedge-Morrell replied. "They know what they are doing."