Why Rebuild The Big Easy?

By Eugene Robinson (THE WASHINGTON POST, 01/09/06):

NEW ORLEANS — Before I try my very best to make you care about levees, floodwalls and wetlands, first let’s deal with a more engaging question: Why rebuild New Orleans at all?

After all they’ve been through, New Orleanians tend to just sputter and fume when asked whether their city hasn’t somehow forfeited its right to exist. I don’t blame them one bit — they don’t owe anyone an answer. But the question is out there, and ignoring it doesn’t make it go away: Why should taxpayers spend billions to reconstruct and safeguard a city that lies below sea level, wedged between the continent’s greatest river and a vast “lake” that’s really an estuarine arm of the nearby Gulf of Mexico? Inevitably, skeptics point out, another Katrina or Wilma will come along and destroy New Orleans again.

Things have changed, this argument goes. It’s not 1815, so we no longer need a garrison at the mouth of the Mississippi to guard against the British fleet. Before the flood, New Orleans was poor, crime-ridden and beset by all the urban pathologies you could list, a shrunken dowager trying to reverse years of decline, the Norma Desmond of American cities. Why not just start over again somewhere else?

Here’s why not. As far as I’m concerned, it’s enough to point out that if the essential duty of government is to protect its citizens — as President Bush is fond of reminding us concerning his “war on terrorism” — then our government grievously failed the people of New Orleans and has the absolute obligation not to fail them again. Then there’s the cultural argument — the fact that New Orleans is where jazz, America’s greatest contribution to music, was born. And I would also submit that the world’s richest, most powerful nation would be revealed as a paper tiger indeed if it couldn’t summon the will and the means to resurrect one of its own great cities.

Even for hard-nosed types willing to ignore all the intangibles, there’s no real choice here. Eighty percent of the city was flooded, but the most valuable real estate — the French Quarter, the downtown business district, the Garden District — basically remained high and dry. The Port of New Orleans is still the fifth-largest, by tonnage, in the country. To walk away from that much infrastructure would be economic insanity.

So the thing to do is rebuild, but for rebuilding to make sense you also have to protect. That’s why I spent an afternoon this week at the London Avenue Canal, listening as Col. Jeffrey Bedey of the Army Corps of Engineers described the additions and repairs to New Orleans’s manifestly inadequate flood-control system that crews are working around the clock to complete.

The London Avenue waterway is one of several canals that point like daggers from Lake Pontchartrain into the city. The canals were built so that when heavy rains threatened to flood the city, water could be pumped into them and ultimately into the lake. But Hurricane Katrina sent water from the lake surging the wrong way, back up the canals, whose flanking floodwalls gave way.

Now the Corps has installed massive temporary gates at the mouths of the canals that can be closed whenever a surge from the lake is expected. If the same hurricane happened again next week, much of the flooding that occurred a year ago could probably be prevented.

But not all of it. The dangers from other waterways — such as the Industrial Canal, where levee and floodwall failures destroyed the Lower Ninth Ward — are not so easily fixed. And, of course, the next major hurricane won’t be exactly like the last one.

What I believe to be the major issue hasn’t even been addressed yet. It will surprise you to learn that I am not a qualified hydrological engineer. Nonetheless, after plowing through hundreds of pages of official reports on the flood, I’m convinced the only way to really protect New Orleans is the way the Dutch protect Rotterdam — with giant outer-zone floodgate barriers that would block a storm surge before it got anywhere near the city.

That alone is an enormous engineering challenge and doubtless would cost much more than the $5.7 billion Congress has allotted for flood-control improvements. But it would be only half the job, because there also must be a massive project to restore the disappearing wetlands south of New Orleans, which would provide natural protection.

After the Netherlands suffered a devastating flood in 1953, Dutch engineers came to New Orleans to learn state-of-the-art flood control. In 2006 could we teach them anything except how to patch and pray?