Monday, September 12, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Above the water, plans float for rebuilding city

Los Angeles Times

NEW ORLEANS — Even with much of the city still covered by tainted waters and its population dispersed, even with the power still out, the communication systems in shambles and soldiers and police officers posted on seemingly every corner, a precaution against looters and potshot artists, the work began.

So monumental was the task ahead that those who would rebuild New Orleans could not wait until the last drop of the floodwater unleashed by Hurricane Katrina was pumped back into Lake Pontchartrain. Almost as soon as the catastrophic dimensions of the damage became clear, some government and business leaders began to contemplate just how the city might be rebuilt.

"It's all very, very preliminary at this point," Mayor Ray Nagin said. "We have been designing organizational charts, talking about concepts of rebuilding."

The mayor, briefing a handful of reporters last week in a hotel lounge called the Mint Julep, said his plan was to address first the sectors of the city that did not flood — the center core of high-rises, the tourist-friendly French Quarter, the historic Garden District and the western suburbs. They conceivably could be repaired and reopened within several weeks.

Just when residents would be allowed to return, however, remained unclear.

The damage in these sectors seemed comparable to what might occur after a bad windstorm or a moderate to strong earthquake — trees knocked into houses, roofs hurled into the street, brick buildings crumbled, high-rise windows blown out. Not quite postcard imagery but repairable.

The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau reported on its Web site Saturday that while many French Quarter hotels could be running in "pristine condition" within a month, they would house recovery workers, not tourists, through the fall.

The bureau also announced that all major conventions booked through March 31 had been canceled.

Although there was optimism for the higher and drier parts of New Orleans, rebuilding the vast swath overrun by serious depths of water appeared to be an altogether different proposition. By all estimates, it would require an epic effort unlike any in the modern American experience.

Historical comparisons have been made to Hiroshima, Japan, which took 20 years to rebuild after the atomic bomb fell — not a happy starting point from which to begin charting a road to recovery.

Nagin said he'd asked a Federal Emergency Management Agency official how long he expected to remain in New Orleans.

"For the duration," the FEMA man said.

"And how long is the duration?" Nagin pressed.

"And he told me, 'We think it will take 10 years to finish the job.' "

Conflicts loom

Beyond the sheer scale of the enterprise, rebuilding these portions of New Orleans will be fraught with complications and conflicts, said government officials and private-sector people who have begun, tentatively, to work the question.

How the rebuilding unfolds will depend to some degree on who leads the effort, with federal, state and local authorities likely to bring varying political sensitivities to the task.

Politicians and bureaucrats at all levels of government, the city's power elite, bankers, insurance companies, historical preservationists, architects, environmentalists, the Army Corps of Engineers, residents whose homes were spared (generally, a well-to-do minority), residents who lost everything (generally, an impoverished or working-poor majority) — all of them and more will have their own demands and designs.

Questions raised by the challenge of reconstruction are easier to catalog than to answer: Who will pay for it? How does a city function when more than half of it has been turned into a public-works project of Hoover Dam proportions? Where will the workers to do this rebuilding live? Who will those workers be?

Can the loose charm of New Orleans, organically created over three centuries, be recreated, or is much of the City That Care Forgot doomed to a future of tiled-roof housing tracts and fashion malls?

How much of the low-lying city should be rebuilt? Can the defenses against future hurricanes be shored up; will American taxpayers support the rebuilding if they are not?

What say will individual property owners have in the face of widespread demolition?

And, in the end, will the displaced — not just the evacuees but also the companies and professional firms that have relocated, at least temporarily, in Baton Rouge and other Southern cities — even return? Or will they settle down and adapt to new lives?

While academicians have offered lessons from other urban catastrophes, and while virtually every elected official in southern Louisiana has at some point since Katrina stepped before cameras to roar, "We will rebuild!", a ground-level glimpse of just how difficult that job will be could be gained Wednesday in Baton Rouge.

First step

There, in a windowless, second-floor conference room of the state Department of Environmental Quality building, 15 or so members of a task force formed to figure out how to dispose of the debris caused by Katrina — a first step before any rebuilding can begin — had gathered for an 8:30 a.m. briefing.

On one wall was a satellite photograph that showed flooding in the central and eastern portion of the city.

The working assumption in the room was that nearly everything under the filthy water — houses, abandoned cars, shipping containers, freight trains, sunken barges, schools, businesses — would need to be torn down and disposed of, somewhere and somehow, whether it be buried, burned, hauled away, sunk in the sea or ground to bits and recycled.

Leading the session was Chuck Brown, assistant secretary of the Office of Environmental Services. A former college football player, still close to game shape at age 46, Brown moved briskly through an agenda that seemed banal enough on the surface but was staggering in its implications.

On the table, as Brown put it, was everything from the disposal of the uncounted corpses of farm animals and pets — "Right now we are saying they are going to be burned, not buried," Brown instructed his charges — to what to do with an estimated 20 million tons of debris that must be removed after the flood recedes.

"We have ocean dumping on the table," he said at one point, sending a few eyebrows skyward. "It's drastic, but when you are looking at 20 million tons of debris, you have to look at all the options on the table. We also have barges. We also have rail cars."

Numbers were kicked around. In Orleans Parish alone, Brown said, there were an estimated 150,000 houses to be demolished.

Within those houses were an even greater number of so-called "white goods," refrigerators, stoves, freezers and the like. For environmental purposes, these must be separated from the other materials before disposal.

There were 163,000 vehicles, 93,000 sunken boats — numbers, Brown said, that would only go "up and up and up" as the city drained and more accurate counting commenced.

Oil would need to be drained from every vehicle before it went to the scrap heap; the mercury switches yanked. Also, Brown said, each car and truck represented at least four tires and a spare, all of which must be hauled away or turned into recycling material.

"We will not be burning any tires," he announced.

Beyond the numbers, Brown said, there were some delicate complications to be overcome before any wholesale disposal could begin. Waivers were needed to allow for a more rapid removal of certain hazardous materials, such as asbestos.

The preservation factor

Preservationists, a politically powerful force in a city that markets its history, would need to be consulted to ensure treasures were not unnecessarily demolished.

There were potentially onerous legal questions to consider, lest property-rights lawsuits stalled the effort even before it could be launched.

"We are going to be very conscious of private-property rights," Brown said. "All these cars and houses and boats still belong to somebody, and we can't go in and mass destroy all of them without some kind of order from the governor or the president."

FEMA early in the crisis assembled a "Housing Area Command" to create plans for a series of small trailer-park towns clustered as near to the city as feasible.

Preparations also were being made for the construction of temporary cities to house the armies of workers needed to rip down and rebuild ruined neighborhoods.

The idea, spokesman James McIntyre said, is "to move people from shelters that they are in now to some kind of temporary housing, until we can work out some kind of long-term housing solutions."

The long-term fixes, he conceded, "are not so easy."

State Sen. Ann Duplessis, a New Orleans Democrat, reported at a state legislative hearing Friday that she'd been told by several officials that water damage and contamination would mean her east-side district, which contains some of the poorest and hardest-hit neighborhoods, "will never be rebuilt. They'll just clean it, level it and — I don't know — maybe build an airport there. My district is gone. It has turned into a wetland, a marsh."

"The city," she told her colleagues in Baton Rouge, "is probably going to be a smaller city and go vertical."

Dan Packer would agree. The head of New Orleans' power company, Entergy New Orleans, was at the mayor's side last week, troubleshooting problems that arose as crews began trying to relight portions of the city.

"I think we will end up with a smaller population," said Packer, 58, who has lived in New Orleans since he was a young boy. "I think the city will be viable as a tourist attraction, and who knows? We may find ourselves with other businesses," lessening the city's economic reliance on port trade and tourism.

"But," he added, "a good deal of the city will be empty for a long time."

Not everybody sees the likely shrinking of the city as a bad thing. There is something about the prospect of scraping half a metropolis clean and starting fresh — especially a portion dominated by rundown neighborhoods — that unleashes creative juices of those who would devise a better city.

Some of these visionary sorts have expressed hope the flood might force a social reordering of the city. Perhaps the dispersed will do better in the larger cities to which they have fled.

Maybe the pattern of largely white enclaves of wealth set on high ground above vast tracts of poorer black neighborhoods will be broken and replaced by a more invigorating mix.

"If, coming out of this," said Jack Davis, a former resident of New Orleans and now publisher of the Hartford Courant, "New Orleans gets to lessen the burden of the social problems that its city and state government are supposed to solve, that would be amazing."

Put people to work

He endorsed a notion that appears to have at least received lip service from many politicians: deploying displaced residents in a sort of Depression-era public-works project to do the actual work of reconstruction.

"If you can employ people in New Orleans," Davis said, "who were previously not employed, and it's for this worthy cause, that is great. You could actually have a flood-recovery economy in New Orleans for a number of years. And it could bring a better racial balance — integrating white neighborhoods, thinning out the concentrated poverty in black neighborhoods, creating jobs and opportunities for people who didn't have them before."

Who will lead the recovery still looms as a crucial unknown. Given the vast amounts of federal tax dollars to be spent, FEMA would appear the logical choice. Yet people around here might not be too keen on assigning the future to an agency that so badly bungled the initial rescue efforts.

For his part, Mayor Nagin said he wanted to put at the top of his organizational chart "two kick-ass people who can get stuff done." He did not elaborate on whom he had in mind.

There also have been calls for a Katrina "czar," but the czar approach has a spotty track record. While names such as Colin Powell have been mentioned, the true leaders of the effort might turn out to be less than household names.

"Leaders who aren't on the radar will emerge," said Peter Ueberroth, who himself was a virtually unknown travel executive when Los Angeles tapped him to put its lagging preparations for the 1984 Olympics on track. "If the city is going to recover, they must emerge."

While several great cities across history have recovered from huge, Katrina-like hits — San Francisco after its great earthquake and fire, to name one — any wholesale rebuilding project in New Orleans must navigate two uniquely difficult straits.

One is the city's historic-reservation movement, which expatriates like Davis credit with guiding New Orleans to recovery in the 1960s and 1970s after its petrochemical industry diminished. It revived its economy around cuisine and music and Mardi Gras and a carefully preserved architecture.

Troubled topography

The second is topography: Almost every proclamation that New Orleans must be rebuilt has carried a disclaimer: provided that its defenses of hurricanes and floods can be improved enough to sharply reduce odds for another Katrina-scaled event.

There are two competing schools of thought on how to better buttress the sinking city. One is to build even higher levees and design more creative flood-control systems: to essentially pour more concrete. The other is to work with nature, not against it, finding ways to let the river run a bit more freely, and in the process replenish the vanishing coastal wetlands that are vital buffers against hurricanes and storm surges.

"I firmly believe it is very doable to fix the coast," said Ivor van Heerdon, deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, an advocate of a more natural approach to improving New Orleans' chances against hurricanes. "It's also doable to fix New Orleans, and to create a lot of public-works jobs in the process."

Chuck Brown, the state official charged with disposing of the wreckage Katrina left behind, has ideas of his own about how to protect the city — spreading amounts of recycled debris across its floor to raise its lowlands a few feet, employing various categories of the waste to build up the wetlands buffer zone.

But first, there are those 20 million tons of debris to be removed, 150,000 houses, 163,000 vehicles and so on down his long list. Much of the work must wait until the pumps finish draining the city. Given the long haul ahead, Brown is eager to begin.

"Once we get cleared," he said, "we are going to move very fast."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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