'The old New Orleans is gone'  

EXPERT COMMENT/Penn faculty on the city’s future.

More than three weeks have passed since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, setting in motion a series of catastrophic events that left many dead and many more homeless. As the city begins to grapple with the daunting task of rebuilding, we asked professors across Penn for comments on what the disaster revealed and where the city should go from here.

“A smaller city”

One’s sense of the future of New Orleans changes from day to day, as the situation evolves, so it’s hard to be definitive. On the other hand, we know quite a lot about the aftermath of natural disasters, so one can make informed guesses.

There are two major differences in the case of the New Orleans flood. First, whereas post-disaster reconstruction usually starts within days of the event, New Orleans will remain vacant for an extended period of time. It’s unclear exactly how long, but probably months rather than weeks. Second, people have not been evacuated to tent cities at the edge of the disaster area, as usually happens, but hundreds of miles distant, to as far away as Michigan and Pennsylvania. Those with education, training, resources and drive will settle down and make new lives for themselves; those who are dependent on public assistance will likely find themselves better off in better equipped and organized cities.

Many, perhaps most, will not return to New Orleans. That means we are looking at a considerably smaller city, perhaps 200,000 people, perhaps even less. Something along the lines of Savannah (population 130,000), with a thriving historic district surrounded by small suburbs. This is not necessarily a “bad” thing. A successful downsized New Orleans could follow in the model of Charleston (population 96,000), which is a very attractive place to live, and has spawned new infill housing developments in and around the city. But the old New Orleans is gone.

—Witold Ribczynski, Martin & Margy Meyerson Professor of Urbanism, Professor of Real Estate, Wharton School

“Long-term impacts”

The environmental disaster resulting from the flooding of New Orleans is enormous and will have long-term impacts on the region. The water being pumped out of the city and into Lake Pontchartrain is contaminated with fecal colliform, lead, gasoline and a variety of chemicals. The lake in turn empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The fear is that the contaminated water will enter the Gulf and harm the shellfish, such as the oysters for which New Orleans is famous. Lake Pontchartrain will probably need at least a few years to recover. I don’t expect the lake’s water to meet the federal water quality drinkable or swimmable standards any time soon.

In rebuilding greater New Orleans a key decision will be how much to rely on levees to keep water out of settled areas and how much land to return to wetlands. About one million acres of wetlands in greater New Orleans have been developed over the years. Hence, the ability of the region to absorb floodwaters and storm surges has been greatly reduced.

—Thomas Daniels, Professor of City and Regional Planning

“Deep cultural values”

New Orleans is no stranger to disaster, especially from flood, fire, and disease, which has plagued its entire existence. Often these were delivered together. Loss of life and property have accompanied each assault but the city has recovered, rebuilt and reinvented itself using tradition as the blueprint.

With each reiteration, innovation as well as loss has occurred. As early as the late 19th century, New Orleaneans recognized the unique historical and cultural qualities of their city: the buildings of the French Quarter, the cemeteries, the food, the music and the language. It is no accident that one of the first large scale urban experiments in preservation occurred here in the Vieux Carre in the 1930s and later again in the 1970s with the successful defeat of a riverfront highway. What has changed since those times is preservation’s greater understanding of the deep cultural values embedded in vernacular buildings and landscapes such as those of the 9th Ward that were heavily damaged by this hurricane.

Throughout this country and across the world, local communities have found the voice to oppose often thoughtless and damaging redevelopment schemes imposed by experts and politicians in the name of progress and modernity. Let us hope that in rebuilding historic communities like the 9th Ward, more integrated thinking involving architectural, environmental and historical planning will occur.

—Frank Matero, Professor of Architecture, Chair, Program in Historic Preservation

“Underperforming for half a century”

What we know from the history of cities rebuilding after catastrophes is that the default mode is almost always that you rebuild more or less what you had. Only in a handful of places has that not happened—such as Galveston a century ago [after the 1900 hurricane], which came up with the bold plan to build a seawall and jack up the whole city on pilings. It’s very hard to have a serious conversation about anything except rebuilding the status quo when you’re in the recovery stage, but we know that unless you begin those discussions early you almost never succeed.

I would argue for a planning process that includes all stakeholders, not just the elite that wants to make all the decisions. This is a majority minority city with strong ethnic traditions. They need to be involved or you’ll just get the status quo rebuilt.

New Orleans has been underperforming for half a century at least, eclipsed by Houston, Atlanta and Miami. In fact the whole region, from the Florida panhandle to East Texas has been underperforming and something we’ve been working on at Penn is the idea of organizing our thinking around mega regions—networks of urban regions. One of these is the Gulf Coast from Pensacola to Houston. That way you connect hot and cold places, and create synergies in economies and infrastructure, strengthen research institutions, improve the quality of life and the whole region starts to perform better. That’s the kind of broad strategy that’s needed.

We’re starting to see a debate about how to manage a process like this. It’s going to take a lot of leadership, and it’s really hard because the place has been so traumatized. It would be terrible if we spent the kind of money this is going to take and continued the downward spiral. That’s the default mode unless we get creative.

—Robert Yaro, Professor of Practice, City and Regional Planning

“Exposed the fault lines”

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina tells us what we should have known —what social scientists as well as spokespersons for African-Americans have been saying all along. That is, despite the undeniable progress brought about by the Civil Rights Movement and affirmative action, segregation and poverty remain facts of life for a large fraction of African-Americans, and these not only circumscribe material well-being and economic opportunity; they also translate into inadequate and unequal public services and vulnerability to disease and premature death.

This tragedy exposed the fault lines in American society and, even more, the nation’s willful disregard of inequality and its consequences. It also exposed the destructive fantasies of those who believe that essential public functions can be left to the market, starved for money and administered by professionally unqualified recipients of political patronage. One could predict that renewed attention to poverty, inequality and the role of government may in time become positive outcomes. But that seems to me to diminish what happened. This is pure tragedy – although tragedy is too trite, banal and almost impersonal a term. This is hell—and it is the result of human indifference, incompetence, greed and failed ideology, as well as of nature.

—Michael Katz, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History

“Higher ground”

The reconstruction of New Orleans now advocated by local and federal authorities will not protect New Orleans from a fully predictable repetition of Katrina. The only rational and cost-effective solution to the Katrina aftermath is to allow the Mississippi River to follow its path of least resistance to the Gulf of Mexico via the Atchafalaya distributary, the shorter route to the Gulf that the Army Corps of Engineers has blocked, at great expense, for the last 150 years.

We might then undertake to relocate New Orleans on higher ground adjacent to the Atchafalaya. If such relocation is contemplated close to the Gulf of Mexico, it would have to be preceded by the construction of a mound that would elevate the base of the city high enough above sea level to be protected from predictable future subsidence and sea-level rise.

To provide the new New Orleans with the longest lease on its reincarnation, that reconstruction should be located upstream of the point where the Mississippi would enter the Atchafalaya. That configuration would require the Corps of Engineers to maintain a much longer channel open to the Gulf, but that responsibility would be child’s play compared to the growing challenge of protecting New Orleans from the consequences of 150 years of well-intended, but uninformed mismanagement of the Mississippi River.

—Robert Giegengack, Davidson Kennedy Professor, Earth and Environmental Science


Originally published on September 22, 2005