New Orleans: Dead and Gone?

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dead nola

Lower 9th Ward, 8 months post-Katrina. [Eric Harvey Brown/ Flickr]

There’s been a lot of news from New Orleans this week – about the dismal state of the levees, about the fact that New Orleans is sinking at a rate of almost an inch a year – and despite the promises and the optimism, not to mention the fanfare of Nagin’s inauguration, this many months after Katrina it seems like New Orleans is still a really hard place to live. Huge patches of the city are uninhabited. More than half residents haven’t come back. Only 17 of 122 public schools have reopened. There is still debris everywhere…junked out cars and twisted metal street signs, even in front of the Superdome. Did we mention last Thursday was the start of hurricane season and that there are 17 named storms forecast for this year?

After a catastrophe we have the urge to rebuild: the tower is going to be 1776 ft tall, etc. But is it time to recognize that New Orleans just isn’t coming back? After reading the latest about the levees and the sinking ground, Joel Garreau, who was on one of the first shows we did after Katrina, had this reaction:

I looked at it and I thought, I think I got it right back in September, meaning [New Orleans] is not going to be rebuilt. It is not going to be rebuilt…And I don’t take any particular pleasure in this. It’s just one more nail in the coffin. I wish it weren’t that way, but I think it’s going to become Key West. You’ll have the tourist crescent, and that’s going to be what’s functional. It’s not one of America’s top 50 cities anymore.

Joel Garreau of the Washington Post, in a conversation with Open Source, 6/2/06

So has the task become too difficult? Despite everyone’s hope against hope, has the daily grind of dealing with FEMA become too much, even for the city’s most enterprising souls? Is New Orleans slowly bleeding to death? Is it already dead?

Or are we judging the long road to recovery too hastily?

Jon Donley


Oliver Thomas

New Orleans City Council President

Marion LeGard

President & blogger, ERACE

semi-retired New Orleans public school teacher

Jeff Clary

New Orleans property owner, real-estate investor and roofer

Co-owner, Bourgeoise-Clary Construction

Extra Credit Reading

Troy Gilburg, Forced to Become Pirates. Gulfsails, May 29, 2006

Christy Hardin Smith, It’s Hurricane season, do you know where your levee is? firedoglake, June 1, 2006

Coleman Warner, Census Tallies Katrina Changes, Times Picayune, June 7, 2006

Chris Rose, Very Scary Summer, Times Picayune, May 30, 2006

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  • Simon Winchester had some excellent insights about New Orleans and what conditions are necessary for a city to recover from disaster on Studio 360. I think he’d be an excellent person to talk to — he also mentions how cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix are at risk for similar catastrophes for different reasons (loss of electricity, in their cases).

  • hurley

    Harry Schearer, who lives part of the year in new Orleans, has been doing some excellent commentary on the situation there on his radio show, Le Show (archives available online). He’s smart, funny, impassioned, and would likely make an excellent guest.

  • jarch

    *I hope you will talk about how the people who want to be there can’t get mortages to rebuild because they can’t get insurance, and the insurance companies won’t insure without guaranteed levees – thus Army Corp of Engineers, FEMA, and general US gov. non-action. It doesn’t seem to matter what indiividuals or communities might want.

    *also I hope you will cover the mental health of the people struggling to remain and remake lives – I found such depression and anger, despair – quiet , but pervasive.

    *and friends have mentioned blue tarps in Ft. Lauderdale – hurricane damage from 2 years ago still not repaired . Have we given up on more than New Orleans, Louisiana, and Mississippi?

  • avecfrites

    If Al Gore is correct, than in a few years losing one city per year will be seen as the good old days.

    I suspect that we’ve reached a point where, combining cultural indifference to others, budget difficulties, and worsening climate, the only cities rebuilt from now on will be those populated by white people in electoral battleground states. Are we ready for waves of modern day “Okies” ( their homes in search of work and life in other parts of the country?

  • mcasemo

    The most important thing for people outside of N.O. to understand is the reason why N.O. flooded. Federally funded, designed, and constructed levees failed under conditions that they were designed for (Katrina was a weak Cat 3 or 2 in N.O.). Everyone would have been able to walk up to their houses and resume their lives if the levees performed as advertised. The Army Corp has admitted responsibility to the largest disaster in America.

    This is how N.O. Flooded

    Competent levees are not a something that is in the realm of science fiction. Wetland restoration is something that is achievable. Infrastructure designed to protect a huge national asset should be a priority.

    Harry Shearer said “A broken New Orleans is better than most other cities intact.� He is right. Come see if you don’t believe it. This is why people will return. But N.O. can be fixed a whole lot quicker if America realized that rebuilding New Orleans would be Justice, not charity.

  • mirella

    I find it quite extraordinary that we consider the future of New Orleans while we’ve not yet investigated or buried the crimes that brought it to its current ambivalent status.

    What’s happening now repeats the history of building levees on unstable ground, and of not repairing them despite thirty years of warning from Louisiana representatives, environmentalists, and journalists, who warned just a few years before the hurricane that a disaster would cover the city with a toxic soup and strand/kill the 100,000 who couldn’t get out.

    And now we learn that the water breached through the levees, that it didn’t top them, and that by the time the hurricane reached the city it was a category 1.

    And what about the tax dollars flowing into the coffers of the same old same old contractors, who begin to be omnipresent at global disasters, Mssrs. Halliburton, Kellogg, brown, & root and their subcontractors.

    A couple of weeks after the hurricane, the former head of Fema, (I recall that he was an immunologist, forgot his name) from 1987 to sometime in the nineties was interviewed for an hour on NPR, and said this (I paraphrase, but correctly): the government won’t tell the the truth to the people going back to build the city– that no one should ever go back again to live in New Orleans.

    He said that the chemical combinations with new bacteria and viruses growing in the muck would produce particulates that people would be breathing, and that in a decade, if not less, we’d see newdiseases in the city that no one could diagnose because no one will know what new viruses and chemicals were created that they were breathing. ( He pointed out that there’s no reportage on the people who, told it was safe, went back to their neighborhoods and apartments after 9/11,who are now sick and dying.)

    I’d like to hear a well researched hour on the health hazards in New Orleans that no one’s talking about.

    I’d like to hear another hour on the abdication by the media of their responsibility to protect the public by reporting what they know, let alone what they seem unwilling to investigate.

    New Orleans: A city that was regarded as one of the jewels in the crown of planetary cities, ignored for five days, while it sank in a soup from hell, by the president and the agencies set up to deal with disasters. Even Lewis Carroll and George Orwell combined wouldn’t have risked their reputations writing, as fiction, such a story.

  • VolcanoDan

    New Orleans is DOOMED! DOOMED!

    It sits on the detritus eroded from the mid-continent from the Appalachians to the Rockys and carried to the sea by the great rivers. This load is causing the crust to sink. That’s the way the world works. N.O. is on an elevator going DOWN. It cannot be stopped.

    As this is happening, the sea is rising in accordance with Al Gore. The water is going UP, the land is going DOWN. There isn’t enough money to save New Orleans in the entire universe.

    Everything else is wishful thinking.

  • Chanutin

    New Orleans has a problem to the north as well as the south. What nobody is discussing in all this debate is the Atchafalaya River, which comes within a few miles of the Mississippi about 300 miles north of N.O. The Miss has changed paths many times since the last ice age. Silt builds up, raising the elevation of the lower end of the river till it finds a steeper and faster route to the Gulf. Back in the 1930’s it started to flow down the Atchafalaya. When 30% of the flow was going down the Atch, the Army Corps built the Old River Project to stop it. Everyone in the Corps admits that it is just a holding action. Nature always wins. Someday within the next few decades N.O. will have a silted up mud flat instead of the Mississippi. No port, no barge traffic, no riverside industry. Just a little tourist section.

  • tbrucia

    New Orleans little ‘sister city’ is Galveston, Texas, devastated back in 1900 by a hurricane… Massive reconstruction recreated the city, but Galveston never came back as the city it once was (even with legalized gambling for quite some time). The port of Houston, Texas took over. Bit by bit, Galveston’s few remaining industries left. The port became moribund — even more so after Todd Shipyards closed in the aftermath of the oil busts of the 1980s. And now — after spending $27 million dollars to evacuate last year, one of the only remaining large employers, the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) is in serious financial trouble. What’s left? Spring break on a few remaining beaches, a few cruise lines using it as a loading/unloading dock, and neighborhoods ridden with gangs and crime. Those who want to see the future of New Orleans need look no further than 370 miles west. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned, but I think the primary lesson from Texas’s history is that Baton Rouge has a great opportunity to dominate southern Louisiana, displacing its older sister…

  • mcasemo

    New Orleans is not like Galveston. Galveston was devastated by a hurricane, New Orleans was flooded by flawed levees. Galveston is on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans is not. Houston is just as vulnerable as N.O. to a Hurricane. Go to Baton Rouge, then New Orleans. You will want to stay in New Orleans, even now.

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