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Gustav revives question: Is New Orleans worth it?

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LARA JAKES JORDAN
September 2, 2008
— Those who love New Orleans say Hurricane Gustav is proof that the billions of dollars spent to protect the city and bring it back to life after the devastating 2005 storm season was worth it.

But what if Gustav had been stronger, a category 4 instead of a 2, and hit the city directly instead of 70 miles to the west? Even Gustav's glancing blow put the city at brink of inundation, waves splashing over the tops of its levees. Would it be worth the cost to rebuild New Orleans again if the storm were worse?


"That's a question that was there before and after (Hurricane) Katrina, and I think is going to come to the forefront again," said Don Powell, who oversaw the Bush administration's effort to rebuild the Gulf Coast in 2005.


"There's a lot of reasons to continue," Powell said Monday, his voice trailing off. "That's a debate we will continue to have."


Despite fizzling out shortly after it made landfall Monday, Gustav spurred the government into action, probably costing millions of dollars, and put a nation angered by the bungled response to Katrina three years ago back on alert.


Since Katrina ripped through New Orleans three years ago, the federal government has devoted at least $133 billion in emergency funds and tax credits for Gulf Coast disaster relief. Much of it went to rebuilding and better protecting New Orleans from future storms. How much more will be needed after Gustav or Hurricane Hanna, as that storm creeps up Florida's eastern coast is unclear.


Former GOP House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., infuriated Louisiana lawmakers when he suggested in 2005 that a lot of New Orleans "could be bulldozed" after Katrina and questioned the wisdom of rebuilding it. More dispassionate observers note that no matter how much is spent, New Orleans will continue to swallow federal dollars with each gulp of the Gulf or Lake Pontchartrain.


"New Orleans didn't rise up in the ground from where they were before," Harvey E. Johnson, deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said shortly before Gustav's landfall. "They're still below sea level. So you're still going to get water inside of New Orleans. And they know that."


A study last month by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, concluded that 72 percent of the city's households that fled Katrina returned to New Orleans, as did 90 percent of its sales tax revenues. However, as many as 65,000 blighted properties or empty lots still mar the city, and house rents are up 46 percent.


To die-hard residents and other devotees of the Big Easy, the money poured into the Gulf Coast to continue oil production, preserve local culture and, most importantly, strengthen levees showed that New Orleans could withstand another battering by Mother Nature.


"This will actually be good news, because this makes clear that the historic city can be protected," said Walter Isaacson, former vice chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority during the administration of ex-Gov. Kathleen Blanco. "New Orleans rebuilt itself because people love the place, and we're all heartened that the new levee system seems strong, and the city seems safe.


"The worst has passed."


Some observers aren't so sure.


"It's a soup bowl and it's not safe," said Beverly Cigler, a public policy professor at Penn State University, referring to the city's cup-shaped geography.


Local political eagerness to develop property in New Orleans instead of protecting wetlands, which serve as a natural storm buffer, has hampered safety, said Cigler, co-chair of a Katrina task force set up by the American Society for Public Administration. Levees, meanwhile, are still three years away from being fully strengthened. And since there are differing levels of elevation throughout the city, "some places are safer than others."


"My own personal opinion is that you shouldn't rebuild in areas unless you can make them safe," she said. "And nobody's had the willingness to confront these kinds of issues."


Yet abandoning New Orleans hardly seems an option either.


The Gulf Coast is home to nearly half the nation's refining capacity, 25 percent of offshore domestic oil production and 15 percent of natural gas output. Tens of thousands of construction workers, hoteliers, nurses and other service employees who flocked to New Orleans in Katrina's aftermath have helped keep local unemployment low. Not to mention that giving up would, essentially, mean spending all those billions of dollars for naught.


"It's clear that a lot of the money was spent well even if it's far too early to declare victory," said Don Kettl, University of Pennsylvania public policy professor and co-editor of "On Risk and Disaster: Lessons From Hurricane Katrina."


"If you walk away, you are condemning the city to tremendous suffering," Kettl said. "As serious as the suffering was the last time, it didn't completely destroy the city. The real challenge is deciding what kind of city you want."



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