Rebuilding New Orleans
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SPENCER MICHELS: There were small signs of renewed life on a few of the downtown streets of New Orleans, mostly Army troops unloading and sorting donated supplies and clothing, people cleaning windows, and repair trucks tentatively attacking the overwhelming problems of the central business district. In the French Quarter, which escaped heavy damage, a few denizens who managed to stay behind during the evacuation of this city of 450,000 started cleaning up.
SPOKESPERSON: You know, it’s quite a mess.
SPENCER MICHELS: And others hung out at one of a few bars that have remained open. But while power was coming back on line downtown and repairs were getting underway, the CEO of Entergy New Orleans, the local gas and electric company, predicted the rest of the recovery would not be easy.
DAN PACKER, CEO, Entergy New Orleans: If it’s strictly dependent on the electrical system, it’s almost ready to resume trade. But there are a lot of pieces that have to go together. Pretty soon, electricity will be the least of your problems in starting commerce in this city.
SPENCER MICHELS: Like many New Orleanians, Dan Packer wanted to hear hope from President Bush tonight.
DAN PACKER: If Dan Packer were president of the United States, I would say that I’m going to band behind New Orleans. I’m going to do whatever it takes to make it a shinning city that it should be.
SPENCER MICHELS: Whatever the president says about New Orleans, most of its citizens won’t be sitting in their homes listening to him on TV, for many parts of this city are deserted and eerie, with military and civilian workers and the media practically the only signs of life.
The air in the city was declared acceptable according to the mayor, and much of the water has receded. But many streets are still inundated with smelly, putrid, noxious water. Rescues of stranded residents are now rare, as are body recoveries, but this animal lover risked the pollution to save a stranded cat.
Jimmy Morris is one of very few New Orleans residents who has remained here, living off military rations amid the strangeness of a deserted town.
JIMMY MORRIS: I’m trying to protect my neighborhood, keep it clean. When folks come home, they’ll have something nice to come home to. Clean. Cause you know, I clean the porches with bleach and cleansers and stuff like that so the neighborhood will smell good.
SPENCER MICHELS: Things are dramatically better than when the water was seven feet deep, looting was commonplace and thousands of the dispossessed were abandoned at shelters and on roofs. But it’s not the same town it was.
The fabled New Orleans music scene is tacit. Some of the few local musicians still around decided that the music should never stop. So in a dark auditorium that was flooded just a week ago, they serenaded a handful of National Guardsmen from Oregon — (music in background) — in a bittersweet effort to keep up the morale of the troops and themselves.
JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner has more on the rebuilding of New Orleans.
MARGARET WARNER: Tonight, President Bush will lay out his vision for rebuilding after Katrina, but how feasible is it to rebuild the city of New Orleans? And what has to be taken into account in doing that? Those questions are sure to be part of a national dialogue for months to come.
We start our own tonight with three views: Ari Kelman is a professor of history at the University of California at Davis — he’s the author of “A River and Its City: The Environmental History of New Orleans;” Joel Garreau has written several books on the geographic and political forces that transform communities. He is also a reporter and editor at the Washington Post; and Christopher Edley, Jr. was a senior budget official in the Clinton administration, overseeing many domestic agencies, including FEMA — he’s now dean of the Berkeley Law School. Welcome to you all.
Ari Kelman, is there any doubt in your mind first of all that New Orleans should be rebuilt?
ARI KELMAN: No, there’s no doubt at all in my mind. For social reasons I would start off by saying that the people of New Orleans have suffered enough. Right now many of them are displaced and they want nothing more than to get home.
For cultural reasons New Orleans remains one of our historically richest cities. It’s got an extraordinary mixture of French and Spanish and Anglo-American and West African cultures, out of which emerges jazz, one of the only art forms that we can truly say is our own, an extraordinary culinary culture, fantastic architecture, and if none of those reasons are good enough, the city remains important economically.
Thomas Jefferson understood that the 15,000 plus miles of the Mississippi River system were going to bring goods from the center of the United States into New Orleans. That remains true today. Geography still matters. Many of those goods have a very high weight to value ratio; in other words, they’re very heavy but they’re inexpensive and the only economically viable way to get them to market is via the river systems.
Without those I think that our economy would take a very, very serious hit. So for all of those reasons I think we do have to rebuild.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Joel Garreau, what’s your view? The president apparently is going to say tonight, this great city will rise again.
JOEL GARREAU: Well, Margaret, I really hope that’s true. What I’m about to say is hard headed, but I don’t mean to it be hard hearted, because I really am pulling for this city.
But when I started fact checking some of these claims about the importance of rebuilding, I found that the tourist crescent of New Orleans from the French Quarter to the Garden District is important but it’s less than 10 percent of the city of New Orleans. It’s not the same thing. And the port is less than 20 percent of the port of the lower Mississippi, which stretches for 172 miles on both sides of that river. And the downtown of New Orleans is not the same thing as the New Orleans metro area, which has twice as many people.
When you start looking at where this money is going to come from, you start asking yourself, are the insurance companies ever going to reinsure this place after they pay off? Are the grain companies going to kick in? Are the oil companies going to kick in — how about the commercial real estate companies? Increasingly, you just don’t see too many commercial or business or hard headed reasons why we need a city here. A tourist center like Key West, yes, that’s going to get rebuilt. But the question is: Do we want to spend a couple of hundred billion dollars on creating a new Key West?
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Edley, I won’t ask to you settle this argument, but do you think it’s just a pipe dream to rebuild New Orleans as a really economically viable city?
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY, JR.: No, not at all. There are a number of things to bear in mine. One is who really gets to make this decision. These are not disposable communities, they’re not disposable families. And I do have some concern that the people most immediately affected have a strong voice in the outcome of this debate.
The second question of course is who bears the cost. There is state and local but especially federal responsibility in a disaster of this magnitude. Let’s remember that while the governors request that the federal government pay 100 percent of the costs of recovery may sound extreme to many, the huge hit that the state and local governments have taken in revenue as a result of this disaster means that they are really ill equipped to shoulder a tremendous amount of the near-term burden of recovery.
There are of course both public and private investments available, and those are all going to be critical. But the third piece of it I think is that as everyone struggles to rebuild a New Orleans, you certainly want to preserve and restore that which was positive about the past. But it’s also an opportunity to build a shining New Orleans that takes advantage of what we’ve learned from the last generation about how to make economic growth real in our hard pressed cities.
So we can create more opportunity, better opportunity for the people in that metropolitan area if we rebuild the right way.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, continuing with this theme of challenges, I’ll go back to you, Professor Kelman, what are the big questions that really have to be addressed before embarking on this? Just talk to us about your field of expertise, the basic geological, environmental, the physical issues.
ARI KELMAN: Well, New Orleans is a city that’s about as precariously placed as any in the United States. A good portion of the city sits below sea level. Over time the city has built up the levees surrounding it so that it’s effectively a walled city. It has a Mississippi River that flows in front of it that’s well above the level of the downtown, and Lake Pontchartrain, which has been sitting in the city’s center for quite sometime now, also is higher than the level of downtown. These make for extraordinarily complicated environmental dilemmas.
There are going to be serious questions raised about whether or not a portion of New Orleans should be allowed to return to sort of a wetland state. There are also going to be equally complicated questions asked about how the levees actually can be improved.
At this point the levees, while their failure wasn’t just predictable, it was predicted. Those levees were built to withstand a Category 3 storm. This was a Category 4. To improve those levees is going to create serious land use questions and, as some of the other guests have suggested, real questions about where the financing is going to come from.
Having said that, I think that if the political will is there, it’s not a particularly complicated engineering problem. The infrastructural investment is already in place, it’s just a matter of improving that infrastructure in a way that it hasn’t been for some time now.
MARGARET WARNER: Joel Garreau, this could really be a city planner’s dream. Are there creative, innovative ways, both with the physical layout and also sort of socially, to recreate the city so it’s a better city, a more viable city?
JOEL GARREAU: There’s quite a few suggestions along that line, Margaret. The trouble is that what these suggestions boil down to is creating a yuppie heaven with a desire swamp around it.
MARGARET WARNER: That’s what you mean about the wetlands — in other words people are talking about, well, we have to restore these wetlands.
JOEL GARREAU: Yeah. I mean, what I’m interested in — when you talk city, I’m interested in where are we going to put the cops and the teachers and the nurses, you know, where are we going to put the people who were the heart and soul of this place, the 90 percent of this city that made it a city?
You know, what we’re talking about now is that New Orleans is not destined to ever again be another top 50 American city. It’s going to be a lot more like Venice, a place that’s loved and cherished and visited by a lot of tourists, but not necessarily a driver of global trade or change.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, are you suggesting, for instance, that folks who are living in the low-lying areas, who are predominantly poor and minority, that they should be moved, or that’s going to have to happen, or are you saying it’s a mistake to try to rebuild those areas?
JOEL GARREAU: I’m not talking about what should be. I’m a reporter. I’m just looking at what the driving forces are. I’m asking questions like, okay, affordable housing in this country today means trailers and double-wides. Let’s say that we lock up the entire market for the next five years on double-wides. Are we really going to put that in a place that’s 25 feet below sea level and going to be threatened by another storm? I’m asking practical questions like that, not theoretical ones.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get Professor Edley’s comment on this, because Professor Edley, we’re told that the president is also going to at least refer to the severe racial segregation and poverty that existed in New Orleans. Pick upon what everyone else has said. Do you think there’s a way to preserve the city as a viable city that also doesn’t recreate those conditions?
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY, JR.: Look, this is a moment for being hopeful and I think there’s a way to be both hopeful and pragmatic. We can learn lessons about the importance of desegregating poverty and desegregating race to make New Orleans a far more vibrant city than it was just a few months ago. This is an opportunity to do all of that, but, look, I’d have to say that when I went to work for the Clinton White House back in 1993, with FEMA in my portfolio a couple of weeks into the job, the director of FEMA, James Lee Witt, came over and briefed me on some of the major catastrophes for which they were doing contingency planning, and a Category 4 or 5 hurricane hitting New Orleans was right at the top of the list, and he explained why.
This scenario was knowable, and it is preventable to a large extent if we have the right engineering solutions with respect to levees and the treatment of wetlands and so forth; we can build New Orleans back in a way that will be safer, that will be more sound environmentally, and that will create more opportunity for the residents there. It’s a time for being hopeful.
MARGARET WARNER: And Ari Kelman, you have the last word. You spent a number of years living in New Orleans while you researched your book. From the people you got to know there, do you think a lot of people – do you think most New Orleanians will come back?
ARI KELMAN: Well, New Orleans is an unusual city in the United States in that approximately nine out of ten people who live in Orleans Parish were born there. Many of these people don’t know anywhere else. I think that they badly want to come back. I think they’ve suffered a severe trauma, and I think that they want home.
On that point I’d like to address just a couple of earlier comments that were made –
MARGARET WARNER: Briefly if I may ask – just fairly briefly.
ARI KELMAN: — about fact checking — very quickly, the areas that he’s talking about as the tourist center of New Orleans haven’t been destroyed. The French Quarter and the Garden District and Fauxbourg Marine are on relatively high ground and they took a hit, but it wasn’t that severe. And at the same time, the city is precariously placed, but let’s not exaggerate it. It’s not twenty-five feet below sea level — five to ten in most cases at the most.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. As we said, it’s part of a long-term dialogue and thank you three for beginning it for us.