The Details of Rebuilding New Orleans

It will take billions of dollars to rebuild New Orleans, and Congress is willing to spend the money. But questions remain on how best to rehabilitate the flooded city.

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President Bush headed back to Washington this afternoon after another tour of the Gulf Coast. While on the coast, he assured leaders of federal help rebuilding what Hurricane Katrina destroyed. Members of Congress have pledged similar support. Some experts question whether such reconstruction is feasible or even advisable. NPR's David Welna has more.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

In making his offer of federal help today, President Bush insisted it was up to the locals to decide how to rebuild.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The people of New Orleans can lay out what New Orleans ought to look like in the future, and the federal government will help. The people of Louisiana can lay out their vision of what Louisiana will look like, and the federal government can help. I think that the best policy is one in which the federal government doesn't come down and say, `Here's what your city will look like.'

WELNA: And some in Louisiana are already thinking big in terms of reconstruction. Mary Landrieu is that state's Democratic senator.

Senator MARY LANDRIEU (Democrat, Louisiana): We're going to rebuild our shipping industry, we're going to rebuild our maritime industry, and we are going to rebuild this great Gulf Coast of the United States.

WELNA: But some experts say Landrieu's hometown of New Orleans could be enormously expensive to rebuild for a city that's below sea level and sinking further; that's now coated with toxic sludge and that is no longer the kind of port it once was. Joel Garreau writes about cities for The Washington Post. He doubts the money will be there to rebuild New Orleans.

Mr. JOEL GARREAU (The Washington Post): If you think that you're going to see billions and billions of federal dollars going into a Democratic town in a Democratic state, then you can imagine that kind of reconstruction. But otherwise you have to ask yourself, `Is it going to come from the state of Louisiana? Is it going to come from the oil industry or the grain industry?' I just don't see it. I don't understand where the money's coming from.

WELNA: One of the few politicians who's questioned whether it's worth rebuilding New Orleans is the Republican speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert. His published comments ignited a firestorm of criticism, though, and Hastert now says it's not if but how that city should be rebuilt.

Representative J. DENNIS HASTERT (Republican, Illinois; House Speaker): With the dollars that we've put into rebuilding homes in New Orleans, we need to make sure that those people aren't safe, that--or they are safe and they're not put in jeopardy if we have another Class 5 hurricane that hits the city directly.

WELNA: And hurricane experts say there is a definite trend in hurricanes becoming increasingly powerful. Kerry Emanuel is one such expert with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Mr. KERRY EMANUEL (Hurricane Expert, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): I think it's a safe bet that the next hundred years are going to have more Cat 4 and 5 hurricane strikes in the US than the last hundred years. But we're not used to thinking on those time scales, and that's part of the problem.

WELNA: Katrina seems to have shaken the all-American reflex to rebuild, at least for some. Republican Senator Trent Lott lost his 150-year-old house on the Gulf shore of Pascagoula, Mississippi.

Senator TRENT LOTT (Republican, Mississippi): You know, we'll have to think about where we rebuild. I got to think about it myself. Right now, though, we're not thinking about that.

WELNA: But retired Duke University Earth scientist Orrin Pilkey says much more thinking should go into rebuilding.

Mr. ORRIN PILKEY (Earth Scientist, Duke University; Retired): And this doesn't mean we have to wipe out all of New Orleans, but I think we might do some selective thinking about where we're going to rebuild. We might do what Galveston did after the 1900 hurricane, and that is raise the elevation portions of the city. You know, there are many ways to skin this cat, but I think to just rebuild exactly as it was is kind of a form of societal madness.

WELNA: Still, Pilkey says storm-prone Americans have built and rebuilt in the past and will likely do so again. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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