The Task of Rebuilding New Orleans Kristina Ford, former city planner for New Orleans, and Paul Farmer, CEO of the American Planning Association, discuss the prospect of rebuilding the largest city damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

The Task of Rebuilding New Orleans

The Task of Rebuilding New Orleans

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Kristina Ford, former city planner for New Orleans, and Paul Farmer, CEO of the American Planning Association, discuss the prospect of rebuilding the largest city damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya in for Ed Gordon.

In the region Hurricane Katrina struck eight days ago, the hard work continues. Yesterday, for the first time, the US Army Corps of Engineers began pumping water out of New Orleans. It could take more than three weeks before the city is completely drained. National Guard troops and law enforcement officers continue to recover bodies. The city's mayor projected that as many as 10,000 people may have died there. Federal Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff declined to confirm a death toll at what he called an early stage in a grim process.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Security): We're going to have that count until we've not only counted those whose remains have become visible and that we've now collected, but we're going to have to go house by house. We're going to map the area and go into houses and see if there are people in houses that didn't escape from the flood. That may take a while. So I caution against speculating or guessing. It's going to be an unhappy number.

CHIDEYA: And President Bush, who returned to the region for another visit yesterday, this time to Baton Rouge, praised volunteer relief efforts large and small.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: America can be proud of the efforts of the churches and synagogues and mosques and community organizations that are helping these people and this is a long-term project to help these people. And this country's going to be committed to doing what it takes to help people get back on their feet.

CHIDEYA: As hundreds of thousands of storm evacuees are being relocated around the country, the focus on the region they've left is shifting towards rebuilding. Earlier, two urban planners considered what the future may hold for New Orleans.

Ms. KRISTINA FORD (Former City Planner, New Orleans): It feels like somebody's taken my heart and just pulled it out of me.

CHIDEYA: Kristina Ford is the former city planner for New Orleans. Before she started teaching at Bowdoin College in Maine, she helped preside over a growth period in the Crescent City.

Ms. FORD: Probably the most exhilarating professional part of my life was that I worked for Mayor Marc Morial who is the most recent mayor who wanted--his phrase was, `Rebuild New Orleans,' when the oil industry, you know, it left in the late '80s and just ruined our economy for a long time. And under his leadership, he brought a deteriorated city back to being something that you were proud of and felt safe in and the economy was rising.

CHIDEYA: But today, New Orleans faces billions of dollars and decades of rebuilding. As the humanitarian crisis eases, government officials and private citizens will ask the question: How do we bring the city back? As CEO of the American Planning Association, Paul Farmer knows well what it takes to build or rebuild a city.

Mr. PAUL FARMER (CEO, American Planning Association): There are parts of New Orleans that will come back and be restored much as they were before, the French Quarter, and there are--some areas of the Garden District escaped in a way that they can come back. There are other areas of the Ninth Ward up toward Lake Pontchartrain and out to the west through Metairie, where there's been far more significant damage and so those areas I think are the ones that you're going to see a sort of new New Orleans come back.

CHIDEYA: The first impulse after a disaster is often to reconstruct exactly as before, but major disasters can prompt improvements in building codes and public safety.

Mr. FARMER: You go back to the Chicago fire, where Chicago emerged as a stone city and not a wood city, and the old style of building bridges and roads and overpasses in this country has been to make them quite rigid. If airplane wings were rigidly attached to the body of the aircraft, they would simply break off in turbulence and I think we've learned the same thing in engineering many of our bridges these days.

CHIDEYA: But former New Orleans city planner Kristina Ford hopes the degree of devastation could eventually make the city stronger.

Ms. FORD: When I was the head of city planning, there were many things that you could think about, but one of the ones you probably couldn't have thought of was: Why don't we move all these people out, put in a lot of fill where their houses and put their houses back so that they are up higher? I mean, it just was unthinkable. From that devastation could be opportunities to change things that we didn't know how to change in the past because people were living there that maybe we can remake the whole city better.

CHIDEYA: Right now, that process seems painfully far away for people who've evacuated their city.

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