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Rebuilding New Orleans

September 30, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: The floods that followed Hurricane Katrina hit hardest in the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, one of the poorest sections of the decimated crescent city. Just as it was finally drying out, a second hammer blow landed last weekend. Hastily-patched levees gave way once again as Hurricane Rita passed to the west.

This was the lower Ninth Ward yesterday, or what’s left of it — mostly dry, but still emptied of its people — eerily silent except for a plaintive bird’s call or buzz of a helicopter. Nearest the breach in the Industrial Canal levee nothing remains. Here, the scale of the destruction and the monumental task of rebuilding are most apparent.

But before any rebuilding can be done, the fatally breached levees must be repaired. The Army Corps of Engineers is studying how the levees can be made to withstand a Category 5 hurricane. Katrina was a four at landfall. For now, they are looking for a quick and reliable fix.

BRIG. GEN. ROBERT CREAR, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: It’s all we can do in that time frame But at the same time, we have done a study on bringing it to level five. So, what’s been done on that study to date will be a basis for looking at the higher level of protection.

KWAME HOLMAN: It will take nearly a year, officials say, to restore the levees even to withstand a category three hurricane, and years more to fortify them further against a larger storm. But once the levees are repaired, who will come back, and what will they return to? Some New Orleanians have been allowed to reenter sections of the city, but there are only rudimentary services available– spotty electricity and non-potable water.

They are returning to sectors that did not suffer heavy flooding. Areas like the French Quarter, the garden district and the uptown, and, across the river, Algiers, are on higher ground and comparatively were spared. In the French Quarter, there are signs of life and of the irrepressible spirit of the famously Bacchanalian district.

VAUGHN MORDENTI, Bourbon Street Shop Owner: The thing is, I miss the way the street was, the way it will be again, hopefully. But we had a great time last night. All the workers are here; they’re having a good time. They have gotta have some fun. I mean, they just can’t just work. So the bars are open, some of the shops are open, and we are going to continue to be open.

KWAME HOLMAN: That’s a sentiment Mayor Ray Nagin hopes will endure, and will inspire the members of a new commission charged with guiding the restoration process.

MAYOR RAY NAGIN: And after their jaws picked up from dropping and after they wiped their brow from sweating, they basically all collectively said, “We can do this.”

New Orleans is not asking for a hand-out; we’re asking for a hand up, and we’re asking for you to help us to create the right environment for us to be successful.

KWAME HOLMAN: Nagin called on the federal government to help New Orleans rebuild the levees, fund a new light rail system that would provide another means of evacuation, and grant tax credits to returning business owners and residents. Still, the mayor admitted some neighborhoods are too devastated to be rebuilt.

MARGARET WARNER: There’s no firm inventory yet of how many of New Orleans’ buildings have been fatally damaged or destroyed, but it’s clear that rebuilding the city is a huge task. How can New Orleans be successfully rebuilt? For that we turn to: Mary Comerio, professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley– she’s written widely on urban recovery after disasters; John Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee– he is now the president for the Congress of the New Urbanism, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization; and Paris Rutherford, director of planning and urban design at RTKL Associates, a private Dallas-based planning and architecture firm. RTKL has been hired by FEMA to design a temporary village for evacuees in Baton Rouge.

Welcome to you all. Mary Comerio, how do you begin a task of this magnitude after a disaster of such magnitude?

MARY COMERIO: Well, obviously the first part is the restoring of the services. After that, there’s a wonderful opportunity for the city to plan for the city to look at local architects, to look at the environmental issues. And it is that piece that will happen simultaneous with entrepreneurs coming in, businesses coming in, et cetera.

MARGARET WARNER: Paris Rutherford, what do you think are the biggest challenges that this commission, this mayor face as they embark on this project?

PARIS RUTHERFORD: Well, I think it’s looking towards the future and understanding what the city’s going to be within its context, within its region, as an employment area and over time. Certainly we can look at structural issues, how to rebuild infrastructure of the levees, the coastal marshlands, et cetera.

But what kind of job growth is going to occur there over time and how that is going to be strategized, I think that’s probably the biggest challenge. Clearly tourism alone won’t be the only thing that drives that economy.

MARGARET WARNER: And John Norquist, what’s your initial take on some of the biggest challenges that this new commission faces?

JOHN NORQUIST: Well, you really need to know where before you need to know what to see what kind of flood control systems go in, what land can to be reopened. That can tell you what you can do. One of the things that I think is really important is to understand that New Orleans has a strong, strong urban form and it has culture attached to that. I mean, any city that has plays named after its streets, after its districts like Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee William and Vaquera and so forth, it has a strong, strong presence in the mind of Americans and you really need to build on that.

And it’s also a much more diverse economy than it’s gotten credit for lately. The Port of New Orleans is actually big. It’s one of the biggest ports in North America and the diversity of the economy, I think, is something they need to emphasize and build on, talk about the diversity of it now, because it is more diverse than it gets credit for. It’s not just a tourism town.

And then finally I think it’s really important to look it as a regional issue — the poverty in New Orleans was not caused by the physical form of the city; it was caused by the form of the region where you had people with money isolating themselves from the poor.

New Orleans’ poor wards were the few places where poor people were allowed to live in the region. So it’s important to look at it from a regional standpoint and change some of the… I think the mayor’s idea of a light rail system extending out into the metropolitan area would be a good thing and help create more job access for the people in the city.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s take each of those issues individually and Mary Comerio, back to you. Let’s take preserving the special character of New Orleans. How do you balance between — how do you make the decision between preserving and shoring up existing buildings versus bulldozing and start again? What has to be taken into account there?

MARY COMERIO: Well, there are obviously structural issues and technical issues building by building. But largely it’s going to be a decision made by each individual property owner, perhaps with some pressure put on them by the city itself. But I think New Orleans is lucky that they have several higher-end districts: The French Quarter, Algiers, the Garden District, et cetera, which were not really devastated. And that’s where they will start and they will build on the quality of the architecture in that place.

MARGARET WARNER: And staying with you for a minute, of course this commission is tasked with coming up with a master plan within 90 days, and you talked about the interest of individual property owners. Isn’t that going to be another tension point between individual property owners who may want to get back and start rebuilding right away and the city’s desire to have a master plan that may change the use of certain neighborhoods?

MARY COMERIO: Yes, it is. It has been in past disasters as well. Often property owners have been frustrated by city’s planning efforts. But I think in this case, the benefit to the larger community by taking a few months to do some planning will be fantastic in the long run.

MARGARET WARNER: Paris Rutherford, how feasible do you think this idea of a master plan is and how particularly can it address the question of preserving distinctive architecture and a distinctive flavor of New Orleans?

PARIS RUTHERFORD: Well, I think it’s something that needs to be done and will be done. The question is what kind of detail will it get into? From a strategy standpoint, clearly preserving the quality and character of the city where it existing strongly now is very important: It’s important to put the city back into its position between new economy, addressing issues of lifestyle, why people would want to come and live in invest in New Orleans in the first place.

I think it has a lot to do with the physical form, as John mentioned earlier. But when you look at the overall land use patterns of the city and realize that the historic core is just a small portion of the larger city and presumably likely there are patterns out there that could take some re-shifting and refocusing to help frankly try and recreate the kind – or create the kind of environment that the historic forefathers were able to make in the first place. So I think thinking about things strategically, about the quality of a physical form that is rebuilt is critical to their future success.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Mr. Rutherford, how would you advise this commission? Let’s take the issue John Norquist put on the table of not recreating the concentration of urban poverty that was so bad in New Orleans. How do they do that?

PARIS RUTHERFORD: Well, that has a lot to do with programming and I think that’s a much longer-term strategy to look at; it’s certainly not something that’s going to happen in 90 days. Ninety days is about getting the city back on its feet and looking at areas that ought to be rebuilt more quickly than others and over the long-term, say over the rebuilding process– whether that’s two years, three years, however long that takes– start imagining a new New Orleans work force that combines all the diversity that they have currently with new forms of employment that may not exist. And I think those things need to be explored at all levels – regional, statewide, and even national.

MARGARET WARNER: And that’s what you meant by programming, that longer-range planning?

PARIS RUTHERFORD: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

John Norquist, answer your own question. How do you preserve the character, and as you said so often it is in the more upscale districts, but at the same time avoid recreating these whole areas of concentrated poverty?

JOHN NORQUIST: Well, I mean, the physical form of New Orleans throughout the city is strong. It has a good street grid; they should try to keep the street grid; they should respect property rights and property lines that exist in New Orleans. The problem isn’t the physical form of the city – I mean, the flood protection is a big problem, they need to do something about that, but in terms of the economy, I think that they need to be creative in creating a better connection throughout the metropolitan area so that the poor aren’t so isolated in the city. The mayor’s idea is good on that.

I think the President of the United States, he injected the idea of school choice for the damaged regions of the Gulf; that could really help New Orleans where people need better options for schools. That’s a creative idea that ought to be followed up that I think conservatives would like.

I think the opportunity is there in the short run and the long run to build a stronger New Orleans and one of the things that’s driving it is that the American people, who are familiar with New Orleans love it; it’s just a wonderful place.

MARGARET WARNER: Paris Rutherford, back to you. When we looked at the commission — we don’t have all the names of them yet — but a great many were the big business interests. There were some community leaders as well. But how much tension is there going to be between those two groups and how — how much of a chance do ordinary New Orleanians — more than 50 percent of whom were renters in the first place — how much of a chance do they have to really have a voice in this?

PARIS RUTHERFORD: Well, they definitely have a chance to have a strong voice in this. I think it really comes down to how that process is organized and how it’s facilitated and sort of who’s driving the train, if you will, from — if you think about the kind of a process, you realize that that there’s different phases to it.

There’s this initial phase and probably the larger interests are going to have some strong influence in that just to — whether they’re governmental or private or even community — to help shape what that direction is going to be as they move forward, that direction being the communication program.

But as this goes on, it’s not just a 90-day effort; this is going to take quite a while to get into the level of detail that constitutes the city itself. It’s a detailed organism. And as you move into those details, I expect that the community will have a lot of say, and they should have a lot of say in what happens to their neighborhoods, areas that are rebuilt, areas that shouldn’t be.

After all, there are people that own homes, have value on land that needs to be thought about. And if we are saying that they can’t rebuild their home, then how are they repaid? How do they get that asset back?

MARGARET WARNER: Do you have an answer to that, John Norquist?

JOHN NORQUIST: Well, it’s really important to include the public in the — the general public, the citizens of New Orleans in this process. Right now our organization is working with the state of Mississippi and the governor there with people in the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. And it’s really an effort to reach out and have inclusive planning so that people can plan their own efforts. And we’re going to be doing that the week of Oct. 11-18.

I think similar things are happening in New Orleans. The American Planning Association has already opened an office at the old – at the Hyatt Hotel in the French Quarter in Louisiana — in New Orleans and there’s a lot of groups like that that are trying to help in New Orleans that know a lot about planning and inclusive planning, including people in the process and it’s really important to do that for it to be strong, genuine, and long lasting.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Mary Comerio, finally back to you. Are there any models for rebuilding like this on this scale?

MARY COMERIO: Yes, there are. We actually had 15 neighborhoods destroyed in the Northridge Earthquake in Los Angeles in 1994; they were called ghost towns, they were empty and fenced. And HUD funding came into the city and the city used that to work with the private owners to rebuild that rental housing. And I think this is a really important component. Otherwise we’ll see a New Orleans that’s gentrified.

MARGARET WARNER: And what about overseas — in Mexico City?

MARY COMERIO: In Mexico City, the government-funded housing reconstructions and they did a rather brilliant thing; they gave thousands of contracts to thousands of architects and gave them each a site. And so what we had was a rich and beautiful kind of reconstruction program that really helped the city. It happened very quickly and it was done incrementally at the small scale.

MARGARET WARNER: Mary Comerio and gentlemen – I’m sorry, we have to leave it there. But thank you all very much.