What's Still Standing in a Ruined New Orleans
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
New Orleans is partly underwater still, but sections of the city are dry and relatively undamaged. Last week, the speaker of the House of Representatives questioned rebuilding the city. That now seems inevitable, though. NPR's Mike Pesca reports on what New Orleans has to work with and what strategy they might use to rebuild.
MIKE PESCA reporting:
In the dry, yawning-back-to-life French Quarter, some bars are open. A few mule-drawn carriages run through. Most of Royal Street's antiques remained unlooted. The occasional drag queen sweeps her doorway clean. For the hurricane to have destroyed the jazz landmark Preservation Hall wouldn't have taken much--the place is just normally two wood benches and an old stage--but it still stands. Close your eyes and you can almost hear the band break into an ode, "This Bucket's Got A Hole In It."
The French Quarter is the high ground, one of the reasons it's survived as the oldest part of New Orleans. Across Canal Street, among the stately homes of the Garden District, is Commanders Palace. This is one of the city's most famous restaurants, dedicated, as the plaque on the wall says, to dining in the fine manner. One pane of glass is broken but the doors are still double-bolted, and as you check inside because some of the boards that were put up have torn off but it looks like it's from below. So I'm going to guess--and this is a guess--that people tried to tear them off. But as you look inside, it looks like all the places on the tables are still set as if brunch can be served at any time.
The restaurant is indicative of the historic homes here. There is some flooding, but they're not underwater as in some other parts of New Orleans. They not leveled as in Biloxi. One last stop of this tour of the New Orleans that the outside world normally visits, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, America's fourth-largest, 1.1 million square feet, and now it seems every inch of it is strewn with garbage. A bulldozer has begun the cleanup. Inside, the damage done by thousands of people scavenging for any bit of drink or relief is severe.
This water that I'm sloshing through could have been created by the fact that everything in the refrigerator melted. In this hallway, huge roaches are underfoot. And every security camera is torn down off its--hanging by a cable. More smashed vending machines. Totally gone. Now we know why the roaches are here. There are a couple extra Butterfingers and granola bars on the ground.
A thorough reporter uses all his senses to get a lay of the land, but one step inside the fetid bathroom and one gag reflex later, I gave up on that part of the assignment, but looking around, you see surface damage, doors broken down, every security camera unmoored, but if they could clean up a crime scene, they could clean up this place. New Orleans as an idea going forward seems more than possible, even though this city never made much sense in the first place.
Professor SUSAN CUTTER (University of South Carolina): I think if you looked rationally at it, it's probably a city that should not exist given its location.
PESCA: Susan Cutter is a professor of geography at the University of South Carolina and director of its Hazards Research Lab. She recognizes that New Orleans has a rich history and she wants there to be a city but not just any city. She worries that in the rush to get everything back, buildings will be erected where they were before. Cutter says that unlike New York, which had enough economic muscle to orchestrate the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan with only some outside direction, New Orleans will be dependent on federal and private funding. This means that maybe rebuilding won't be chaotic. Maybe it'll be something like...
Prof. CUTTER: You know, the equivalent of a Marshall Plan for the area, and under that sort of Marshall Plan, I don't think that the locals are necessarily going to be the ones in the driver's seat.
PESCA: But state officials have already begun privately circulating a plan for economic redevelopment. They're considering using existing federal programs, often ones created without disasters in mind. For instance, requesting funding under the federal brownfields program, which gives grants based on environmental hazards, maybe requesting tax breaks for rebuilding in disaster areas and higher breaks for building historic homes. The job is to bring money in, to make sure that the rebuilding starts. When? The answer is as quickly as possible. Why? Because New Orleans can and must survive. How? Way too early to tell. Mike Pesca, NPR News, Baton Rouge.