Hurricane Katrina hit the Louisiana and Mississippi coast on Aug., 29, 2005 as a Category 4 storm churning with 140 mph winds. It overwhelmed the levees built to hold back Lake Pontchartrain and flooded thousands of homes and businesses in and around New Orleans.
Weeks later, Hurricane Rita, on its charge toward the Texas coast, raised fears that New Orleans' already weakened levees would trigger another flood. A lighter than expected rainfall spared much of the battered city, but a storm surge of 6 to 9 feet breached at least one of the Katrina-damaged levees, allowing water to once again flow into deserted parts of town.
By the end of September, much of the water had been pumped out of New Orleans and residents began returning to parts of the recovering city. Officials started to assess the vast damage and embark on the long planning process to rebuild the Crescent City, once populated by 450,000.
The historic French Quarter and Garden District were on higher ground and escaped much of the damage. But low-lying areas, such as the Ninth Ward, a poorer part of the city, took several more weeks to drain and were left with layers of heavy dried mud and massive piles of debris.
While few argue that the beloved, music-infused city will survive, urban planners have various views on what the city may eventually become, from a primarily entertainment center to a resurrection of its former self.
Andres Duany, co-founder of the architectural firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., which is participating in the rebuilding of coastal Mississippi communities following Hurricane Katrina, said the cleanup, demolition of buildings and remediation of New Orleans will be a huge undertaking and might take so long that many residents might decide to permanently move to Baton Rouge to the north.
The migration of skilled workers to the north may result in New Orleans and Baton Rouge becoming twin cities like Miami and Havana, operating in tandem with different purposes -- New Orleans as the entertainment hub and Baton Rouge as the business center, Duany said.
The key, he said, is to establish a transit line connecting the two, "and the two cities can start operating as one."
Although it's not a popular notion, tourism will likely become New Orleans' mainstay, Duany said. People often bemoan the thought of tourism becoming the main source of jobs in an area, he explained, but the quality of life of those performing tourism-related work is often higher than those in the industrial or agricultural field, which tend to wear people out faster, he said.
In addition, "there will be fewer and fewer places of character as the world becomes more globalized," Duany said, making people crave cities with a unique flavor like New Orleans all the more, and firmly establishing them as tourist hotspots.
But former New Orleans city planner Kristina Ford said the thought of New Orleans becoming a tourist-centric, middle class town "scares me a lot," and she expressed optimism that the city will eventually return to its original "jumble" of economic classes, races and cultures.
The tolerance people had for one another and knowledge that living in New Orleans means living with the risk of a natural disaster set the city apart, she said. "You know if you live there, you're living provisionally."
Getting the city back on its feet will take some doing, she continued, but the devastation from the hurricanes might help bring long-term improvements that previously got little attention.
Ford, who directed the city's planning commission from 1992-2000, said if she had touted a plan prior to the storms to temporarily move homes in the lower Ninth Ward and bring in fill to elevate the area to the level of the French Quarter, she would have been laughed out of the room.
Such ideas were given little heed because although New Orleans' now infamous bowl shape made it vulnerable to flooding, in recent years the city had escaped direct hits from hurricanes. "Everybody got used to not experiencing severe hurricanes," said Ford, now an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Bowdoin College in Maine.
Exactly how New Orleans will be rebuilt will be up to local and state officials, with the federal government lending support, President Bush said in a Sept. 15, 2005 address from Jackson Square in the heart of the French Quarter.
"The federal government will be fully engaged in the mission, but [Mississippi] Governor [Haley] Barbour, [Louisiana] Governor [Kathleen] Blanco, [New Orleans] Mayor [Ray] Nagin and other state and local leaders will have the primary role in planning for their own future," the president said.
On Sept. 30, Nagin announced the creation of a commission of civic leaders to help devise a plan to rebuild New Orleans by the end of the year.
Ford said she hopes the federal government assigns someone to harness the willing participants and coordinate New Orleans' rebuilding -- someone not necessarily with ties to the area but with bipartisan appeal and broad respect, such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell or former Sen. John Breaux, D-La., she added.
She cautioned that if rebuilding takes place too rapidly and without the participation of a local workforce, the city may lose some of its character. "What I care about the most is the importance of using and training the people who are from New Orleans" to help in electrical and plumbing work and recreating the buildings' historical touches, she said.