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September 1, 2005
Katrina: Will We See A New New Orleans?

Today's Washington Post looks at the catastrophe that Katrina has created in New Orleans and the prognosis for its recovery -- and the message appears relentlessly negative. It bolsters the President's warning yesterday that the recovery will take years and a great deal of national effort to accomplish, and calls for a debate on exactly how to rebuild New Orleans:

First they have to pump the flooded city dry, and that will take a minimum of 30 days. Then they will have to flush the drinking water system, making sure they don't recycle the contaminants. Figure another month for that.

The electricians will have to watch out for snakes in the water, wild animals and feral dogs. It will be a good idea to wear hip boots and take care of cuts and scrapes before the toxic slush turns them into festering sores. The power grid might be up in a few weeks, but many months will elapse before everybody's lights come back on.

By that time, a lot of people won't care because they will have taken the insurance money and moved away -- forever. Home rebuilding, as opposed to repairs, won't start for a year and will last for years after that.

Even then, there may be nothing normal about New Orleans, because the floodwater, spiked with tons of contaminants ranging from heavy metals and hydrocarbons to industrial waste, human feces and the decayed remains of humans and animals, will linger nearby in the Gulf of Mexico for a decade.

"This is the worst case," Hugh B. Kaufman, a senior policy analyst at the Environmental Protection Agency, said of the toxic stew that contaminates New Orleans. "There is not enough money in the gross national product of the United States to dispose of the amount of hazardous material in the area."

Without a doubt, Katrina gave us the worst natural disaster in a century, perhaps ever once the final death toll becomes known. Galveston nearly got wiped off the map by a similar hurricane in 1900 and remains our deadliest natural disaster for the moment, but didn't face the same obstacles for its rebuilding. Most of the problems that the Post reports come from two topographical features of the city that make New Orleans unique: its site in a bowl-shaped basin and the below-sea level position in which that places the city.

For rebuilding, the first priority will be pumping the water out, but where will it go? The water flooding the city has so many contaminants now that pumping it anywhere will lead to another ecological disaster. Its residue will still leave a dry toxic-waste site in the New Orleans basin once the water gets removed, and all of that will remain in every building that got flooded in any fashion, let alone submerged. And before anyone starts rebuilding, the problem of surviving another "big one" will require some rethinking of the levee system holding back Lake Pontchartrain and the ability to drain water from the basin in a more expeditious manner.

Small wonder that around the nation, watercooler talk openly questions the idea of rebuilding The Big Easy at all, especially since the trend in disasters like Katrina sees residents taking the insurance money and relocating elsewhere. Those disasters, like Hurricane Andrew, took weeks for recovery to begin. This recovery will take months before decisions even get made on whether to salvage anything in the stricken areas.

However, Americans don't do pessimism, not as policy and not as part of our national character. We grew into the nation we know through an unbridled optimism about the kind of people we are and the kind of people we could become. Jimmy Carter found that out when he decided to tell Americans that we had come as far as we could go in his infamous "malaise" speech, and that we needed to know our limits. Rarely has an elected leader so misunderstood the people he led. We put men on the moon less than a decade after the notion occurred to us as a real possibility. We don't do limits.

How we take care of New Orleans will say something about our national character and whether it remains as tough and optimistic as our history, for all its flaws, amply demonstrates. Will we walk away from a tough fight? Will America shrug its shoulders and tell the city that we don't want to take on difficult tasks? Make no mistake; our response to New Orleans will say just as much about our staying power as a cut-and-run from Iraq would, and to much the same audience. Believe me, some of those who plan our destruction have cheered the scenes shown on television around the world of Katrina's devastation in New Orleans, and they're watching to see what we do.

And so New Orleans must be rebuilt, in some manner, right where it is now. No leader will get up and say, We give up. Katrina beat us. Let's move on. That message will not resonate with the vast majority of Americans on either side of the political divide, which will bring a political consensus to ensure that we produce some kind of recovery for New Orleans. We can and will debate the how and the what, but not the whether. We're Americans, and we don't run from a fight.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at September 1, 2005 5:27 AM

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» Can New Orleans Ever Be Rebuilt? from Tapscott's Copy Desk
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