What Can Be Expected in a Rebuilt New Orleans

Steve Inskeep talks to Craig Colten, a professor of geography and anthropology at Louisiana State University, about what a newly rebuilt New Orleans might be like. Colten says there is a need to take some of the city's lowest ground and let it serve as a flood retention base.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

This week on MORNING EDITION, we've heard state and federal officials say that New Orleans will be rebuilt as a different city following the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. They've been less specific about exactly what that might mean. To learn more about what's being discussed and what is possible, we're going to Craig Colten. He's a professor of geography and anthropology at Louisiana State University.

Welcome to the program.

Professor CRAIG COLTEN (Louisiana State University): It's my pleasure.

INSKEEP: You know, from an outsider's perspective, it's hard to imagine building New Orleans exactly as it was, putting up houses in all the same places that there were houses were before, for example. What's the perspective from inside the city, though?

Prof. COLTEN: Well, I think there's a real mixed perspective. You have a lot of people who have deep attachments to their neighborhoods and their old homes who would like to be able to return, but at the same time, I think there's a common sense within the city that putting the most vulnerable back in harm's way doesn't make good sense at all. And I think we've seen communities in New Orleans seek to move away from hazards in the past, and I think we need to kind of use that motivation to try to relocate perhaps some of the people from the lowest areas, let them transplant themselves to higher ground.

INSKEEP: How did it happen that parts of New Orleans got built in areas below sea level?

Prof. COLTEN: Well, when those areas were developed, it was basically right at sea level. The city and the parish and the levee board built giant levees along the lakefront. They drained the water, lowered the water table, and in doing so, that caused the soil, these marsh soils which are--have high peat content--and actually the water held them up--when the water was removed, they compressed and so you had much of the city sink 12, 15 feet over the years.

INSKEEP: Now we heard this week from a state official who mentioned the possibility of clearing out parts of New Orleans that might become park land or revert back to swamp land and, in fact, become buffers for water. Does anybody that you've heard in Louisiana take those proposals seriously?

Prof. COLTEN: I certainly hope so. I think there's a real need to take some of that lowest ground and let it serve a function as a flood retention basin. And actually these ideas have been advanced in New Orleans over the last 10 or 15 years, at least for parts of the city, maybe not as much as we're talking about now. But the lowest ground probably should be turned over to a wetland function and let it absorb excessive floods when they do come again.

INSKEEP: How would that move be complicated by the fact that you would then be telling poor residents of New Orleans, `You can't come back to your homes. Those are the neighborhoods that are the lowest'?

Prof. COLTEN: Well, there's actually some very middle-class to upper-class neighborhoods in the lake-view area as well that have been completely awash the last several days that are also very low. So we're dealing with the full spectrum of the economic categories found in New Orleans. And I think if we make decisions based on vulnerabilities to flooding rather than vulnerability of population--that is, take those areas that are ill-suited for residential areas out of residential land uses, help those communities that are in the low grounds transplant to higher ground--I think we could find a compromise position.

INSKEEP: City and state officials have said they want everyone in New Orleans to return when the weather permits and when the water permits. Is that compatible with the idea of destroying some neighborhoods permanently?

Prof. COLTEN: Well, I simply don't think we'll see 100 percent population return. New Orleans' population has been declining since 1960 and I think an event like this will just accelerate what would have transpired over the next 10 or 15 years. And I think with a modest increase in density on the highest areas in the less flood-prone areas, you can accommodate those that will return.

INSKEEP: Get more people per square mile on the...

Prof. COLTEN: Yes. Yes. I think if we follow the basic building traditions of New Orleans but maybe make all the buildings two stories instead of one, you can compress population into a smaller area without making it uncomfortable and without really destroying the architectural feel of the city.

INSKEEP: Whatever decisions get made, can you see a way that the people of the affected neighborhoods will actually have a voice, given that they're scattered all over the place right now?

Prof. COLTEN: Well, I certainly hope they have a voice and I've been encouraging officials of FEMA to make sure that they do have a voice. One of the remarkable things about New Orleans, particularly in the black community, is they have incredibly tight networks. There are various social organizations that do the Mardi Gras functions. Those networks are already re-established via cell phone even though the communities are dispersed, and I think if we work within those existing communities, you can allow a voice from the residents of New Orleans.

INSKEEP: We've been talking to Craig Colten. He's the author of "Wresting New Orleans from Nature."

Thanks very much.

Prof. COLTEN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: If you're wondering where all the rebuilding money is going to come from, consider China. NPR Washington editor Ron Elving writes about the dangers of that policy in his weekly column at npr.org.

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