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Sunday, October 9, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Putting away New Orleans

Los Angeles Times

NEW ORLEANS — On a weekday morning not long ago, two state engineers left Baton Rouge, the state capital, to go hunting for places to deposit the remains of half a city. Before the ruined portions of New Orleans can be reconstructed, they must first be deconstructed and hauled away — an estimated 22 million tons of debris, an amount 15 times greater than what was generated by the World Trade Center collapse.

About 40 miles from New Orleans, 48-year-old Bijan Sharafkhani and 31-year-old Jason Meyers began to pass billboards erected after Hurricane Katrina.

"NO MATTER WHAT," vowed one, sponsored by a construction company, "we are moving back to our city NEW ORLEANS."

"Hey Louisiana," shouted another, placed by a potato-chip maker, "let's build it back EVEN BETTER!"

These defiantly upbeat messages echoed the rhetorical flourishes swirling about New Orleans in the past month. Even as the last evacuees were being pulled from rooftops, there was spirited talk of rebuilding New Orleans as a so-called "shining new city," if not on a hill, at least on a swamp with improved levee protection.

Face to face

What Sharafkhani and Meyers were to witness — as it happened, it was the day before Hurricane Rita came ashore — would be a sobering counterpoint to the gospel of renewal. Driving through the freshly drained eastern portions of the city, they received a ground-level introduction to just how arduous the task ahead will be.

"Watching the news," Meyers would say at the end of the tour, his voice soft, almost disbelieving, "you don't realize how big this is. We drove around for — what, two hours? — and saw nothing but destruction, nothing."

The process of rebuilding New Orleans has barely begun, yet it is possible to detect emerging fault lines beneath the effort that will, in large measure, determine its outcome. One early point of friction is how fast to move with demolition.

The day before Sharafkhani and Meyers went dump-hunting, the city's politically potent historic preservationists had convened in a ballroom of Baton Rouge's Old Governor's Mansion, a monument to the late Huey P. Long. They had come to beat the drum for going slow, for working house by house to make sure that every structure of historical value that can be saved will be saved.

A defiant stance

They warned against "the bulldozer approach" and challenged any notion that health and environmental concerns, not to mention sheer logistics, demand a more rapid deconstruction. Individual property rights, the preservationists said, would be their battle cry.

"Don't let government use government as an excuse not to save your house," declared New Orleans City Councilwoman Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, whose district includes the French Quarter and, just across the river, Algiers.

She made reference to the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control: "Don't let government from outside the city come and say: 'You have an EPA problem. You have a CDC problem. We have to demolish your home.' That's an old way. Don't let them get away with it."

Whether undertaken house by house or street by street, with or without input from preservationists, the demolition of much of the city's eastern neighborhoods is inevitable, and some people have begun trying to gaze beyond the coming debris piles and burn pits to imagine what might arise from the ruins.

One is J. Stephen Perry, president of the convention bureau, a member of several civic boards, former chief of staff of a previous governor — in short, a player. He sat one recent morning in the lobby of the Capitol Annex in Baton Rouge and talked about what many are calling the "new New Orleans."

With a brisk shake of his head, he dismissed the idea of a willy-nilly demolition: "You need to be careful before you start tearing things down. The easiest approach is to bulldoze a neighborhood. That is not going to happen here."

At the same time, he continued, the badly damaged neighborhoods to the east are what will allow New Orleans "to literally develop a living template of urban reform, something that we never before had an opportunity to even dream about in the United States."

It is a point made often by people who contemplate rebuilding New Orleans. Spared by Katrina, for the most part, were the city's most viable portions: the French Quarter, which brings in the tourists; the hotels, which put them up; the older, architecturally refined neighborhoods that attract a core of urban professionals — and give the tourists something to do beyond trolling Bourbon Street — the Central Business District; and the port and its shipping construction. These will provide a starting block for renewal.

A blank canvas

Lost, in the main, but not exclusively, were poorer neighborhoods where visitors rarely ventured. And these, once cleared, will offer a canvas on which the urban visionaries can paint. In this view, what Katrina and the floods accomplished, albeit in a brutal way, was something no politician, no matter how popular, could ever suggest: Take the poorest, most crime-ridden portions of a city, more or less sweep them clean, and start anew.

Of course, social engineering on such a grand scale will create tensions beyond the friction over demolition: Who will control the effort, who will land the contracts, who will be hired to do the work, how much to rebuild and how much to leave as open space, how to negotiate the racial divide, how extensively to fix the city's levee system — these issues have surfaced as potential battle lines.

It has been only in the past week or so, Perry said, as shock subsided and cellphone coverage improved, that he and other business leaders, holed up in Baton Rouge for the most part, had begun to meet in small groups to explore just how this do-over might unfold. Mayor Ray Nagin joined the discussion on Sept. 30 through his announcement of a 17-member Bring Back New Orleans Commission.

Dumping capacity

Sharafkhani and Meyers did not appear to be part of any bureaucratic "them" conspiring to destroy the century-and-a-half-old shotgun houses — wooden structures so narrow that, it's said, a shotgun blast through the front door would exit through the back and blow a hole in every room — that are an architectural presence in some flooded neighborhoods.

They were just a couple of midlevel scouts from the state Department of Environmental Quality, looking for dumping capacity.

They made stops just outside the city, visiting two huge landfill sites that were receiving 400 truckloads, or roughly five times the normal amount, of debris a day — brush, tree limbs, construction material, refrigerators, all of it mainly from the less damaged suburbs on the west bank of the Mississippi.

Then they crossed over the river, passed through Central Business District and dropped into the eastern sectors of the city, following surface streets through the Lower 9th Ward and toward St. Bernard's Parish. It was here that the rhetoric of rebuilding was confronted by a reality of how much hard work must be done before the first new foundation is laid.

For a long time, they simply rode in silence, as if trying to comprehend what they saw. For block after block, neighborhood after neighborhood, mile after square mile, the imagery of ruin was the same: Power lines and trees tangled across yards, cars and boats cast about in the street at strange angles, houses uniformly marked near their rooflines with brown muddy lines indicating the high point of floodwaters — a death sentence, in the view of many construction experts.

Many of the houses had small escape hatches crudely hacked in their rooftops.

They all bore cryptic messages that had been spray-painted by search and rescue crews, marking in uniform hieroglyphics the date of search, the units involved, the number of bodies, if any, found, the number of people, and in some cases, pets, rescued.

What created the most powerful impression, however, was not the degree of damage. Many of the houses, in fact, seemed intact, except for the tell-tale muddy lines. Rather, it was the scale. It just went on and on and on, to an extent that television footage, or satellite photography, or statistics or even words cannot convey.

Making it all the more strange was the utter absence of animation. There might be a sentry posted here, a frazzled cat skulking about there, but mostly there was nothing moving at all: If it hadn't been for Rita's early winds stirring the half-fallen power lines and crippled trees, this might have been a still-life portrait.

Near the water, they stopped to investigate a closed dump site located on what since has been designated a natural preserve. A sunburned person in a hardhat was directing a crew as it worked to buttress a broken levee.

Sharafkhani asked a few questions about the site, which like most of the places scouted that day seemed to offer no real answer to the challenge ahead. Then they fell to talking casually about the scale of destruction. Sharafkhani said it looked to him like nine out of 10 houses in the flood zones would have to come down.

"It's a bulldoze job," the man in the hardhat concluded, "that's for sure."

200,000 truckloads

Back on the road, Sharafkhani started to work a math problem out loud. He figured, quite conservatively, that there were 100,000 houses that would have to come down in Orleans Parish alone. This number left out St. Bernard and other parishes in greater New Orleans, and also all the cars and boats and commercial structures that would need to be disposed of somewhere.

Each house, he said, would produce two or three truckloads of debris. That would add up to 200,000 to 300,000 truckloads, and the major landfills he'd visited earlier were straining to accommodate 400 or so trucks daily.

He did not bother to divide the number of truckloads by the number of days, or weeks, or months it would take to handle them all. Instead, he took a shortcut and reduced the sum of his mathematical musings to a single word: "Years. We are talking years."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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