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Dreaming A New New Orleans, Version 1
Alan AtKisson, 2 Sep 05

NO_old.jpgThe full measure of the catastrophe in The Big Difficult has yet to be taken; indeed, the catastrophe is still worsening.

There will be, as soon as the city can be re-opened, many funerals. Mardi Gras -- should there even be one next year -- will undoubtedly have a special theme of mourning. I am in mourning already.

As one who has at various phases of life called the New Orleans region both "home" and "client," I have a special love for the place that has sometimes expressed itself irrationally. Helping people escape from rationality has always been one of the city's unique talents. One does things both in New Orleans, and for New Orleans, that one would be unlikely to do in, or for, other places. The city inspires a freedom of spirit, which in turn creates a fierce loyalty.

It is no wonder then that city leadership was already talking about rebuilding, even before the destruction was complete. Something like three-quarters of the city's residents are, after all, native-born. New Orleans is home, period, often over many generations. And those who are not native tend to quickly feel a similar sense of belonging there.

So take it for granted that New Orleans will be rebuilt. If the economics look daunting, if the physical challenge seems staggering, if the news reports of the day speak of chaos and disaster, if the idea of rebuilding a city in a basin placed in between a huge lake and big river seems foolish, count on emotion and passion to overwhelm these counter-arguments. And the United States, as a nation, is not likely to allow a major city -- especially one so strategically placed -- to be abandoned.

Massive resources will be mobilized, first to care for the victims, then to clean up ... then repair and rebuild. Where to begin with such a gargantuan task? How can it be done in such a way that something like this never happens again ... and in a way that helps lead the world toward a generally better future?

What follows are very preliminary thoughts on principles for eventually creating a "New New Orleans," one that is more environmentally secure, more economically successful, and more socially healthy and equitable, while retaining the culture that made it world famous. As the news reports continue to create a picture of the city's horrible descent into hell, such an exercise feels a bit foolhardy; but there is so much dreaming to be done, to restore this great and wondrous city, that the dreaming must begin now.

These thoughts build on the earlier work of a consortium of regional leaders, which I and my colleagues had the privilege of supporting over the last few years. The results of that work seem, in many ways, even more relevant and urgent now.

Background: The End of Fatalism

Beginning in 2001, my firm was engaged by a consortium of regional leaders in New Orleans to help them design and launch an ambitious regional initiative, called Top 10 by 2010. The sponsor was the regional Chamber of Commerce, now renamed Greater New Orleans, Inc. The co-chairs were very prominent businessmen, from distinctly different sides of the political aisle. The initiative's Steering Committee, Civic Leaders Panel, and Technical Expert Group were characterized by a remarkable diversity, one not previously seen in regional development initiatives. Local governments, banks, arts organizations, environmental advocates, universities, social justice campaigns, major property developers, leading minority business owners ... this extraordinary group worked together for a year and a half to craft a new foundation for regional progress. It was just in the process of re-forming and assessing progress so far when Katrina struck.

The Top 10 by 2010 vision was simple: dramatically raise the city's profile as a successful, special, and wonderful place to live, such that it would begin to make "Top 10" lists in the US by the year 2010. The strategy was also simple: to actually make the city a more successful, special and wonderful place, so that more businesses, families, and tourists would come.

But the strategy proposed was not to import the formulas of other places. By focusing on improving New Orleans on its own terms, we reasoned, the region would also rise in its standing on those terms valued by the rest of the country. Better education for all, a better dynamic link between the arts community and the economic development community, more capitalizing on the excellent universities as a source of intellectual capital, cleaning up basic environmental problems, preserving and highlighting cultural heritage, and addressing the entrenched inequities were just some of the strategic conclusions to emerge from an intensive process of polling, dialogue, indicator development, trend analysis, and vision development. (Some of the results of this process are available at this website.)

One of the most important, and surprising, conclusions of our initial research concerned an apparent lack of skill, on the part of regional residents, in envisioning a better future. Asked to name three things about their community that they thought would "get better" over the next ten years, only about a third of our 2,600 telephone respondents could, or would, do it. (This figure compares to 96% in a similar survey performed in northern California.)

Many of those on the Steering Committee were less surprised at this result than we were; they spoke often of a persistent regional fatalism, a sense that things "would always be this way." That attitude, some said, was the greatest hindrance to progress in fundamental challenge areas like cleaning up corruption or improving education -- steps that were necessary to improving the business climate generally. Indeed, the initiative's Steering Committee itself found it difficult to believe our finding, based on US Census data, that poverty had been significantly reduced during the 1990s, just as it had in many other cities around the country. It was hard for some to accept that anything was getting better, much less one of the city's worst and most visible problems.

Overcoming fatalism, helping people learn to dream, began to emerge as a critical first priority ... and something all participants could theoretically embrace as a common strategy, throughout the region, in every sector. "We have to market a message of hope to our own people," said a regional business leader in one of our final planning sessions.

But the creation of the Top 10 by 2010 initiative -- which used the development of indicators of sustainable development as a starting point for building regional collaboration and common strategy -- was itself an indicator that fatalism was on the wane, at least among the emerging regional leadership. Just as we were delivering our first major report, elements of that leadership were beginning a transformation. The new mayor had four department heads arrested for corruption and thrown in jail. A dynamic group of young business leaders won a new basketball franchise, reversing a series of business losses that had left the region with only one major corporate headquarters. Several top executives at the regional Chamber of Commerce were replaced, its name was changed, and the new crew was initially headed up by the same woman who was directing Top 10 by 2010.

These were just a few of the changes we observed first-hand, and countless others appeared also to be under way. There was hope stirring in the city. When we recently updated the indicators for Top 10 by 2010, we were ourselves amazed to discover that whatever was happening in New Orleans was quickly being noticed elsewhere. In just three years, on the Forbes/Milken list of Best Places for Business and Careers, the New Orleans region had climbed from number 194 (out of 200) to number 110, a jump of 84 places. Suddenly, cracking the Top 10 by the year 2010 -- a goal that looked wildly ambitious and unrealistic in 2001 -- actually seemed possible.

When the Worst Has Already Happened

A scenario like the one that played out with hurricane Katrina was certainly known to the region's leadership. Even National Geographic had recently written about the threat to New Orleans from a monster hurricane (October 2004 issue), and that was just one of the most visible in a torrent of similar articles, popular and scientific, both inside and outside the region.

Indeed, the very first indicator in the 2002 "Top 10 by 2010 Regional Indicators Report" is called "Coastal Erosion, Storm, and Flood Damage." It shows rising insurance costs over time, from more frequent flooding, caused by a combination of factors that included disappearing coastal lands and more frequent and intense hurricanes. (Framing the issue in terms of dollars ensured that it got everyone's attention.) The report notes that:

Taken together, these threats have raised serious, and difficult, questions about our long-term future. And the data from the last 10 years -- showing a steady increase, punctuated by the enormous spike in costs from the May 1995 flood -- confirm that the threat is not merely academic; it is economic, as well as social and environmental.

The 1995 "spike" of over half a billion dollars in damages now seems, of course, like nothing. But in retrospect, there was probably no way for the city to avoid the fate that has now befallen it. Yes, awareness of the problem was rising. Even very conservative business leaders had noted to me privately that they were worried about global warming and getting hit by "the big one"; they were just proscribed politically, they said, from talking very much about it. One went so far as to draw up plans for me, on the back of a napkin, showing his vision of a tremendous sea wall and causeway across the Gulf, complete with casinos and beach resorts.

But in the technical language of sustainability theorists, "respite time was shorter than response time." That is, the signals had come too late. Awareness of the threat had finally reached some key decision-makers in a convincing way ... but not in time for them to overcome various kinds of resistance -- economic, political, psychological -- and begin to respond. It turned out that the clock on the time-bomb, the amount of "respite time" left before irreversible catastrophe struck, had only a few years left on it. This was insufficient time to make, or even to convince people to start making, the massive investments that would have been required to avoid this catastrophe.

In other words: Even if the regional leadership, from the moment some of them had truly understood the nature of the threat, had begun mobilizing all of the available resources and willpower to try to protect the region from such a storm, and even if they had started a frantic process of rebuilding lost landscapes (which buffer the region from storm and storm surge), raising levees, redoubling the pumping infrastructure and the like, it would probably not have had time to avoid most of what Katrina has now done to New Orleans.

So, the worst has happened. The city has, in functional terms, been destroyed. Fatalism has had its ultimate day.

From here forward, New Orleans can choose its own fate.

Principles for Rebuilding a Bright, Green, Safe New Orleans

What follows is a first draft, tentative at best, of some ideas for what New Orleans might become, now that the choice of what to become is forced upon it.

1. Work with nature, and technology, to protect the city from future worst-case scenarios

Not since the fires and earthquakes of earlier centuries has the US been given the opportunity to rebuild a major city. Conditions are very different now, in terms of both what we can do, and what we must prepare for. The debate as to whether climate change additionally fueled Katrina's intensity began hours after the storm struck, and will continue for years. Whether or not global warming played a role in this catastrophe, it is absolutely the case that a new New Orleans must be built for much greater resilience in the face of a changing climate.

The city was always one of the world's most vulnerable; that is what makes rebuilding it such an extraordinary opportunity for learning. If we can make New Orleans a secure place for the 21st century, we can make every coastal city secure.

Start with the basics. The system of levees built to protect New Orleans was, we now know, tragically inadequate. They were built to withstand a Category 3 storm, but we live in a time when Category 4 and 5 storms are becoming more common, and likely. Not only has the worst already happened to New Orleans; the worst could easily come again, and soon.

If there is to be a New Orleans, it must be first and foremost be made completely safe from flooding in any conceivable worst-case scenario. If it cannot withstand a Category 5 hurricane churning straight up the mouth of the Mississippi, few will dare to live there.

Is such a thing possible? The short answer is: it must be. But it will require assembling the smartest engineering minds on the planet. That is why the rebuilding effort should call in the Dutch.

There is no one in the world smarter at managing land and water than the water engineers of the Netherlands. They have a thousand years of cumulative experience. New Orleans' famous pumps, which worked adequately for many years, were actually of Dutch design, and early on in the Top 10 by 2010 process, I brought in a leading Dutch economist to try to strengthen the bonds between these geographically and even somewhat culturally similar regions. (It is not hard to think of New Orleans and Amsterdam in the same sentence.)

But pumps, levees, and high-tech sea walls are just the beginning. The other major partner for rebuilding a secure city must be Nature itself.

The science of living more sustainably on the Mississippi Delta is actually quite well developed. The mechanisms that were causing erosion of wetlands and coastal islands are understood, and can be reversed. The task involves rethinking the management of the entire river system. It involves restoring wetlands, the "land" part of which were being erased by lack of sedimentation from above, and getting sucked down under the water level from below, by subsidence caused by oil removal. It involves letting the river rebuild the intricate network of coastal islands and shoals that buffer the region from storm surges. It's about learning to work with the natural features of Southeastern Lousiana, rather than continuously fighting a pitched battle against them, or attempting to bend them to the will of vested economic interests.

A New New Orleans will likely depend on a combination of very large, very high-tech storm and flood protection systems (such as the Dutch and the British have recently built in the North Sea, to protect their polders and London respectively), and much more "natural" land and river management. Yes, this will change the face of the region, economically and geographically. But Katrina has already made that inevitable.

To those worried about the ecological impacts of building protective structures in the Gulf of Mexico: remember that significant parts of the areas to be affected are officially classified as a "dead zone" already. This effort would actually give us a chance to bring those parts of the Gulf back to life.

2. Use rebuilding to lift the poor to safer economic and social ground

It is a bitter thing to view the photographs and videos of the refugees left behind in New Orleans, and to see that most of them were obviously poor and black. An anonymous email from a rescue worker noted that those who did not evacuate were those who could not afford to evacuate: those who had no private car, no resources, no people to turn to. Katrina was not alone in her killing; her accomplice was terrible poverty. That poverty turned the city into a living hell of random shootings and suffering for the refugees still trapped there, days after the storm.

A New New Orleans must be a city dedicated to the genuine well-being of all her citizens. Poverty had been reduced in the 1990s; but pockets of terrible, entrenched poverty were still far too common in that city prior to its deluge. Those pockets are the one thing that must not be restored; instead, the city must charge into rebuilding with an eye to reducing poverty drastically, by reducing the conditions that create it. The now-destroyed, once-crumbling houses in the 9th Ward (the poorest section of the city) must be replaced with decent, modern, and yes green housing (see below). The people who live in New Orleans must be employed in rebuilding it, thereby gaining marketable skills in the process.

While simple morality should make this principle clear and sufficiently compelling, it also behooves the nation to rebuild the city in a way that uplifts even its poorest residents, for simple security reasons. The alternative is chaos, and the scenes of looting, shooting, armored vehicles and violence that followed eerily in the hurricane's wake are but a foreshadowing of what New Orleans could become, semi-permanently, if a truly visionary and socially just rebuilding does not occur.

The poor of New Orleans have suffered the worst of the worst, starting well before Katrina; the New New Orleans must promise them a much better life.

3. Create an economy of creativity

Another surprising finding of our initial research for Top 10 by 2010 was the lack of significant strategic contact between the region's economic development efforts and the arts community. New Orleans is known around the world for its music, food, and cultural life generally; but as in most US cities, artists and arts organizations had not been brought into serious discussions about the future of the region, until Top 10 by 2010 invited them. (This was also true of its environmental advocates, who had been trying, in measured tones, to awaken the leadership to the dangers of coastal erosion and storm threat.)

New economic visioning processes had, after Top 10 by 2010, resulted in the inclusion of arts and environment leaders in economic strategic planning. This is a trend that must be sharply strengthened. New Orleans cannot hope to revive as simply "a place to do business." It must again become something special, something truly wonderful; and that means embracing creativity in all its forms, with a passionate ferocity. It means envisioning the city as a whole as a work of art -- one that cannot be restored exactly as it was, but that can be recreated.

The arts are key here. New Orleans' music and cuisine, its festivals and gardens and galleries, and even its notoriously wild parties are the only thing that can hope to draw people back to a place whose inundation is now etched in the world's consciousness.

But the arts are hardly the whole story. We also learned that the region lagged other similar places in its ability to take the ideas being generated from its fine universities (I graduated from one of them, Tulane, which used to bill itself "the Harvard of the South") and turning them into economic assets in the form of patents and businesses. So "an economy of creativity" means embracing creativity in general as the only viable strategy for the city's long-term economic vitality. New Orleans has -- or rather, had, and must now reassemble -- most of the ingredients that tend to attract high-tech companies, including that ineffable quality of "character".

What's required now, in addition to fundamental gritty determination, is a new flood of creative people, who see the chance of rebuilding a city as the creative opportunity of a lifetime, whether they are businesspeople, architects, sculptors, technologists ... or some fascinating new combination. The New New Orleans must truly be new.

4. Become a clean, green showcase

Recreating a beautiful, vibrant, successful city will require a new environmental ethic as well. The environmental problems that plagued city in advance of the storm -- including exposure to toxic chemicals and even simple litter -- had already caused at least one major company to decide not to move there. The environmental damage caused by the storm and the flooding is now incomprehensible. The rebuilding process offers a once-in-lifetime opportunity to clean up the city, in every way imaginable.

But cleaning up the now-magnified problems is just a small piece of what can, and I believe must, be envisioned. Currently the City of New Orleans exists, in part, to service the oil and gas production and distribution infrastructure that now lies in tatters in the Gulf of Mexico. It is likely inevitable that this infrastructure will also be rebuilt -- massive economic and security interests will see to that.

But it would be nothing short of criminal to rebuild the city of New Orleans and not aspire to run the place on renewable energy. The sun shines mercilessly there; solar panels need big markets to push their development curve up and prices down; and so New Orleans (not to mention its sister cities like Biloxi or Mobile, also terribly affected by this storm) could provide a tremendous opportunity to spur the nation's energy independence.

Sustainability economist Herman Daly always noted that using non-renewable resources is not wrong, so long as you are investing some portion of them adequately in the development of their renewable replacements. New Orleans, sitting next to 30% of the nation's oil and gas production, could demonstrate this principle in an extraordinarily visible, powerful, and dare I say beautiful way.

New Orleans could become a living laboratory for solar roofs, mini hydro generators, architecture that creates cool buildings without air conditioning, electric and fuel cell vehicles ... the whole list of green dreams for technically sustainable world. These could become the basis of new industries to replace the gas and oil revenues, and be partly financed by them, as well as by the general reconstruction funds that are already on their way.

Massive amounts of money are going to be mobilized for this reconstruction. Massive purchasing creates massive buying power, and this opportunity to push the nation's markets forward in the development of 21st century technology -- by directing that money toward the greenest alternatives available -- must not be wasted.

5. Dare to dream

These are days of despair and sorrow for the great City of New Orleans. Those days will not end soon. And as anyone who has weathered the death of loved ones or the loss of a home knows, there is no way out of grief except through it.

But what pulls us through grief is the knowledge that, while what is permanently lost cannot be restored, new things can be created.

The people of New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf region will need tremendous amounts of practical help, money, and psychological support to come through this. But they will also need dreams -- and not just their own.

It takes courage to dream in the face of catastrophe. And courage often comes from being encouraged, with the thoughts, wishes, hopes, words, and yes, the dreams of others. We can all contribute to the recreation of New Orleans. We can all dream for her, and help her residents to dream. They have now lived through a nightmare -- one that many feared would one day become reality, and has. We can all now help her to dream a beautiful dream of recovery, restoration, and renewal, and to make that dream become real as well -- for herself, and for the world.


This article is called "Version 1" because I expect to take it through many revisions over time. Your comments are more than welcome ... or perhaps this will inspire you to dream your own dream for the recovery of New Orleans. The city will need all the dreams we can give it.

-- Alan AtKisson

(For more about Katrina, New Orleans, and the lessons we can learn from this tragedy, see New Orleans: Everything Has Changed or type "Katrina" into the search box at the top of this page.)

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Thank you, Alan. This is even better than I had dared hope it would be. Thank you.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 2 Sep 05

The science of living more sustainably on the Mississippi Delta is actually quite well developed.

Citations and links, please? How can this be accomplished while simultaneously upgrading the levee system to Cat 5 resistance? Has anyone designed or modeled this?

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on 2 Sep 05

yes good call, the people will rebuild/resettle, out of love for their place or not knowing where else to go, so they need hlep to envision a new future. No doubt yr suggestion will be attacked by people who say clear out, shouldn't live there, but it we need to get smarter about protecting our many vulnerable settlements across the world from more severe and unpredictable weather, be it storms or drought, and be they 1st or 3rd world settlements. Many people don't have a reasonable option to abandon, be they in New Orleans, the Netherlands, venice or Bangladesh.

I mentioned the Dutch approach in another comment on worldchanging today and I also mentioned areas where I grew up that were subject to flooding & storms, so houses were built with living areas high above the normal flood zone and people and businesses got used to ripping up carpets etc moving stuff to higher ground & clearing out occasionally. Im imaging buildings with deep rammed pole supports (Dutch style) that allow the floods to wash under them now and then (bring in Dutch engineers, definitely, and perhaps some builders of their traditonal pole houses, but not the architects of their dehumanising modern buildings, erk).

It seems New Orleans needs to restore some recently developed wetlands, and perhaps give back some land, ie rezone recently occupied city areas as green zones for leisure and inundation, & consequently extend some areas of the city furthre back from the water zone?

Posted by: Dendrobium alderwildtianum on 2 Sep 05

Thank you for your vision and work. Yes. It is time to dream and dream those dreams into reality! I like your principles and feel that there is a real opportunity to unleash the group genius that lies dormant. It is time to engage from the bottom up and create a world more to the liking of all New Orleans citizens! There are many simple things that can be done to create a new living, breathing, vital city.

Posted by: gail taylor on 2 Sep 05

We built to category 3, and now we live in category 4 and 5 environments. So, will we build to category 5? I am reminded of that famous line "This one goes to 11." Will they design to category 6 or 7? Sound strange? Nature has a way of reclaiming what nature wants. When the entirety of the worldchanging portal is about accounting for resources, conservation, and, maybe, right thinking, why are we so willing to endorse rebuilding in a flood plain? Are we asking the right questions?

Posted by: Jack Park on 2 Sep 05

As tempting as it is to focus on the fact that the city is built on a flood plain, one of the effects of an increasingly unstable climate is that it makes finding a "safe" place to build difficult. We talk about New Orleans because it's big and mythic, but cities across the Gulf Coast region were damaged as badly or worse (some smaller towns are said to have been wiped completely off the map).

Adding non-climate potential disasters such as earthquakes, it makes it even harder to find acceptable locations (and I'm not just talking about SF or LA; remember that the New Madrid zone runs up the midwest, is the source of one of the biggest earthquakes in North American history, and is still considered 'active').

The upshot is that we're going to need to get a lot better at building in "unsafe" areas, because we're going to see a lot more places declared "unsafe" in years to come.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 2 Sep 05

Put another way, in an age of climate change, we're all in the flood plain, one way or another...

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 2 Sep 05

In some sense, I agree with the points Jamaiss Cascio and Alex Steffen make. At the same time, I cannot escape the thought that, even given that we are "all in the flood plain," we should consider a rethink of historical actions given klieg lights illuminating a new reality today. Is this hurricane the butterfly flapping the wings of enlightened thinking?

Posted by: Jack Park on 2 Sep 05

We built the Alaska Pipeline. Why can't a pipeline be built to quench the western plains while reducing water levels from eastern lakes that threaten populations?

Posted by: G. Bruce Ward on 2 Sep 05

"respite time was shorter than response time."

Or, as a military strategist might say, "Mother Nature got inside their OODA loop."

Posted by: Brock on 2 Sep 05

Thanks Alex. A really thoughtful and inspiring post.

Obviously the immediate focus needs to be figuring out what to do to help the 1+ million people in the New Orleans metro area get back on their feet, but I agree that New Orleans needs to be able to imagine a brighter future for itself that may look quite different from its immediate past. And I agree that New Orleans is worth saving; it is a real place, with a fascinating history and a vibrant local culture, and, considering that the US is becoming such a crudscape of homogenized non-places, great and distinct places like New Orleans are valuable to us in uncounted ways.

But what about the longer term? A few years back, I read John Mc Phee's "The Control of Nature", which had a chapter on the almost 200-year effort to keep the Mississippi in its channel, and, more recently, to keep its distributary the Atchafalaya River from "capturing" the river. According to Mc Phee, all of the engineering efforts to date have only pushed the date of the river's capture by the Atchafalaya into the future.

The engineering efforts to keep the Mississippi from shifting course have been successful to date, but the next century looks like it will hold much wierd weather, which could undo the Army Corps' work; what if a Category five hurricane hits west of New Orleans, landing a direct hit the Atchafalaya basin and the levees and the Old River Control Structure that permit no more than a third of the Mississippi to flow into the Atchafalaya? Even without a catastrophic failure, it may be inevitable in the long term that the Mississippi will change course; it's what rivers do, after all.

So what if, looking out two decades or more, New Orleans' dependence on river traffic and its "cancer alley" petrochemical industries aren' sustainable? A bright green future for New Orleans should look for what will sustain the city if, and likely when, these industries start to go away.

Also, a bright green future for New Orleans should build upon the city's gracious urbanist tradition, and the compact and walkable scale of its historic neighborhoods. A sustainable New Orleans means a truly sustainable transport strategy, which means shifting from a city designed primarily for cars, even hybrid and electric ones, towards a city designed to for the convenience of walking, cycling, and public transport. With sea levels rising, it may make sense to try to house folks in the highest and dryest portions of the city, and pull development back from some of the more low-lying and storm-vulnerable areas, which means a more compact and intelligently-planned city. Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown coined the term "Elegant density", and what better place to demonstrate that than urbane New Orleans?

The city has already made a successful start towards a sustainable transportation future with the revival of its streetcar lines, and had plans for expanding the system before the disaster struck. The streetcar lines built to date have a retro look, but New Orleans could also showcase sleek, lightweight, air-conditioned, and low-floor streetcar designs like those favored in European cities (and it would be great to see some public transit vehicles showcased here on Worldchanging; maybe "This week in sustainable vehicles" could add some truly green bicycles, buses, streetcars, and trains to the mix).

Posted by: Tom Radulovich on 2 Sep 05

(To clarify, Alan AtKisson wrote the post.)

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 2 Sep 05

While rebuilding New Orleans is a very admiral goal, the city is still below sea level. And it’s still sinking, one inch every 3 years. At some point we will have to abandon it, just like Atlantis. With much of the city destroyed by the flood, it might just be the right time to throw in the towel and tear down the levees.

I believe the costs to do anything else will in the long term not be the best use of the taxpayers money. Of course we need to help all those poor people out, but lets put them on a good (above sea level) foundation.

Posted by: Tom N. on 2 Sep 05

All river deltas are sinking; the sediment compacts, and the organic material oxidizes. Natural deltas are replenished as new sediments are deposited by the river. The levees along the Mississippi have prevented this natural process from happening; the river, unable to spread over its former floodplain during high water, currently shoots all of its sediment out the end of the Balize Delta, into the deep waters at the edge of the continental shelf, rather than let any of the sediment replenish the bottomlands on either side.

The restoration plans created some years back, which involve letting the sediment-rich Mississippi to replenish the wetlands and barrier islands, could help the delta stop sinking.

The challenge becomes what to do with the city; it is rather impractical to allow the river to flood the city each year and deposit a layer of sediment. Cities also tend to increase in height over time; many of the oldest cities in the middle east are up on mounds, built up as new buildings are built on the foundations of the old.

After the Galveston Hurricane in the early 20th century, the entire city was raised by a few feet by pumping earth from the bottom of Galveston Bay. If some New Orleans neighborhoods are a total write off from sitting in water for too long, the soil level could be raised, although that means replacing the streets, sidewalks, and water and sewer infrastructure as well. This is obviously pretty expensive, so as I mentioned before, a compact city is probably more practical than a sprawling one. One couldn't do this to the oldest parts of the city, like the Garden District and French Quarter, without destroying a lot of wonderful buildings, but these are the highest parts at present, and could continue to be protected by levees.

All bets are off, however, if global warming causes a significant and sudden sea level rise; in that event, New Orleans, along with Galveston, Miami, New York, Amsterdam, Bombay, Calcutta, Shanghai, and a long list of other cities, probably couldn't be saved.

Posted by: tom Radulovich on 2 Sep 05

I see I'm not the only one thinking along these lines; Alan has already written much of what I'd only begun to write.  Or maybe he read my mind because I forgot to wear my tinfoil hat this week. -)

Something I don't see is a proposal to go one beyond levees.  Maybe I can write about that.

Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 2 Sep 05

I am impressed you have produced such a comprehensive draft blueprint while we are all still horrified by the enormity of the problem. I am an architect by training and a senior project manager with a firm of "mission critical" engineers which has been involved in many infrastructure projects - involving alternative power and independent (non-grid power sources. I feel sure that we should talk about these for New Orleans and we are ready for the challenge.

I am sure there will be many consortia formed to use up development funds but those in the private sector that care about New Orleans should demand a role in the development of new energy policies for the area.

Put me on the list.

Posted by: Andrew Golland on 2 Sep 05

What a wonderful article and wonderful dream for New Orleans. But from I can see, the major problem was a lack of responsibility on the part of the mayor of New Orleans as well as the Governor. According to the mayor, he "was waiting for help to come". That's not a leader. A leader would have acted: example, PEOPLE NEEDED FOOD AND WATER RIGHT AWAY He should have requested a list of top 500 grocery manufacturers, distributors, etc., with locations and phone numbers. Get 100 staff together to hit the phones (in another city) and start asking for help. Give them directions so their trucks can be processed through security points.

To tell people to go to the superdome and have NO water and NO food is download unbelievable to me. I wouldn't schedule an office meeting without water, let alone a refugee shelter. Let's vote incompetence out.

Posted by: Maddie Jones on 2 Sep 05

The obvious thing is to construct buildings in New Orleans on big posts, with clamping mechanisms and jacks that allow one to raise and level the building every decade or so. Ground level would be for parking and storage of stuff that can either get wet or be quickly moved. Perhaps also cooking and laundry...

Coastal people in many areas of the world build their houses on stilts for protection against hurricanes and flooding -- it's a no-brainer. And they usually use reinforced concrete and steel, not sticks. The added height also promotes natural convection and places occupants above insects, varmints, snakes, etc.

It also appears that some good old-fashioned heavy-duty shutters are called for...

Why were so many on-grade frame buildings constructed in New Orleans in the first place? If you look at the photos, the concrete and steel structures are still standing, while frame homes have been converted into huge piles of sticks drifted against bridges, dikes, etc.

Posted by: Hans Noeldner on 2 Sep 05

Responding to Laurence Aurbach, about sources: there are so many. For a summary, the New York Times actually has an excellent op-ed written by a Scientific American contributor, describing the scientific, engineering, and political process that could have protected the city from the worst, but did not get implemented. You can read it here. The National Geographic piece cited at the beginning of the article reports on an extensive related research project. In Version 2, I'll include more on this topic; thanks for the nudge.

Posted by: Alan AtKisson on 3 Sep 05

"eventually creating a "New New Orleans," one that is more environmentally secure"

I am not sure this is realistic. Global warming is real and these storms will increase in severity and frequency. We can not afford to rebuild entire cities that we will have to rebuild again and again. Better to plow the whole thing under and then rebuild New Orleans in a different location.

Posted by: alzare extagen extenze on 3 Sep 05

Scanning this, there is some excellent thinking in both the article and the comments, and while global warming gets a lot of mentions, the post-petroleum era gets few if any. Any rebuilding of New Orleans must attempt to factor in a future in which further, additional rebuildings will be more difficult, if not impossible because of a lack of resources. I suspect we’ve pretty much got one shot at this; and it might also be appropriate to address, at this time, the macro issues of rebuilding and maintaining cities in a post-Peak Oil future.
I recommend a reading of James Howard Kunstler's book, "The Long Emergency," when looking at rebuilding not only the city, but also the auto-dependent suburban sprawl.

Posted by: Rick Ostrander on 3 Sep 05

"Better to plow the whole thing under and then rebuild New Orleans in a different location."

On the moon, perhaps.

Posted by: Dendrobium alderwildtianum on 3 Sep 05

Thanks for the link, Alan. The Coast 2050 website is currently offline, but some of it can be viewed via the Internet Archive version. In the meantime, the Coast 2050 report itself is available from Columbia Earthscape at (free registration required).

Coast 2050 is an ambitious, extremely well-considered plan to restore the coastal areas of Louisiana. That will certainly help to protect New Orleans from future storms. However, for the city itself, it seems the prescriptions are the usual ones we've been hearing about -- higher, stronger levees and floodgates. Has anyone thought about ways the system could be designed to fail gracefully, in ways that would minimize death and destruction? Does Katrina provide opportunities for thinking about this in ways that weren't possible or conceivable before the storm struck?

Also, to put this discussion into context, it should be mentioned that the rebuilding of New Orleans is neither optional nor negotiable. This article by George Friedman is the best history and explanation of that factor that I've seen.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on 3 Sep 05

Alan, thank you for a thoughtful and hopeful piece. I think that next, you should encourage people to write an actual "Pattern Language" for a rebuilt New Orleans, modeled on the "Pattern Language" of Christopher Alexander and his colleagues. This would move from descriptive principles to generative guidelines.

New Orleans, as it existed, was the "emergent" result of a system of rules, or Patterns, largely unarticulated and unexamined. Organisms can evolve from simple genetic and ecological rules, without the intervention of a "Grand Designer". Cities usually result from simple rules operating at multiple scales, usually without much effective shaping by Grand Planners. (They're usually Reactors, not Planners, and they're often beside the point). When the rules, or Patterns, are inappropriate, the resulting structure reflects that. Often, huge effort is spent combating the dumb results of dumb rules, instead of revising the rules. Sound familiar?

What do you think was the system of rules, or Pattern Language, that created New Orleans? What better Pattern Language would follow from your 5 principles? Can people begin to articulate that? A open-source, peer-reviewed, "wiki"-like web site could host a collaborative effort to write a sustainable Pattern Language. Hurricane Katrina has given us a reason to start now.

Posted by: David Foley on 3 Sep 05

Don't you people ever learn anything? The reasons, within human control, that this happened, aside from global warming, are the overpopulation that sucked so much water out of the ground that the city sank below sea level, and the levees that unnaturally held back water where it should be flowing. The latter resulted in, among other things, major destruction of wetlands that would have greatly mitigated the damage. Instead of recognizing what was done wrong to begin with, we get the following baloney:

"The system of levees built to protect New Orleans was ... tragically inadequate." No, the system was totally unnatural and never should have been built. The only reason it was built was to make developers rich by destroying (i.e., developing) areas that should have been left alone.

"[P]umps, levees, and high-tech sea walls are just the beginning. The other major partner for rebuilding a secure city must be Nature itself." How nice, this guy has allowed nature some consideration. Can he spare it? The statement that, "it's about learning to work with the natural features of Southeastern Lousiana, rather than continuously fighting a pitched battle against them, or attempting to bend them to the will of vested economic interests" stands in stark contradiction to the idea of rebuilding levees. Instead of rebuilding levees, why not just leave those areas naturally under water? THAT would be "learning to work with the natural features of Southeastern Lousiana."

Posted by: Jeff Hoffman on 3 Sep 05

Jeff Hoffman, you make some good points, but they're obscured by the angry way you make them. Re-read your post and ask yourself if you'd take it seriously were someone else to address you that way.

The entire nation of the Netherlands relies on dikes, polders, levees and seawalls to maintain itself. It's also very densely populated. Are you also saying that the Netherlands should not exist?

Hundreds of thousands of people along the Gulf Coast are homeless, impoverished, stripped of everything, having lost spouses, children, parents, siblings and other loved ones. How useful is it to tell them, "You never should have been there in the first place, and you shouldn't be allowed to go back"?

The way I read Alan's post, he is indeed assuming that New Orleans will be rebuilt, and asking how best to do that. If New Orleans is rebuilt, and it will be, then the question remains: how? Stupidly, as before? Or wisely? What mistakes in New Orleans' past should NOT be repeated in its future? You argue that the mistake was to build there at all. Perhaps - but how useful is that argument to the tasks at hand? Whom can you convince?

I agree with you that this is a chance to learn to live within limits, respecting nature. Wetlands, barrier islands, riparian buffers and deltas are superior to levees, dikes and pumps - but those will be needed too. The poverty and prejudice spurring the flight of the well-off to sprawling suburbs has to end. People will need to live close by each other. They'll have to adapt.

We're all in the same boat. There's a strong likelihood that storms like Katrina will become more frequent and more severe with climate change. We, all of us, caused that. People living in New Orleans, Bangladesh, the Netherlands, some Pacific Islands - they're the hostages of climate change, dependent on the rest of us to change our behavior. That includes how we talk to each other.

Posted by: David Foley on 4 Sep 05

Perhaps it would be best if New Orleans study Venice, Italy as to how best to manage the water situation.

Good luck! I look foreward to visiting when New Orleans is back.

Posted by: Curt Manwaring on 4 Sep 05

Actually Venice is a bad model to emulate: the city continues to progressively sink, the flooding is getting worse and despite years of talk and proposed plans (drawing on Dutch expertise), little is done, the well-known cause being bureaucracy and budget fights. Wave action from motorised boats is causing further damage, as well as marginalising the traditional gondolas as mere pricey tourist attractions. They're now rebuilding the water front outside St Marks/the doges palace, but a huge water management system is needed. So the process and the actions in Venice are not a good example. Also very saddening as this beautiful city is deteriorating further each year.

3 cheers to Dave Foley's posts btw.

Posted by: Dendrobium alderwildtianum on 4 Sep 05

It does make sense to ask if we should allow people to return to the deeply-sunken parts of New Orleans.  We could spend $25 billion to clean up and rebuild, and another storm could wipe out all of that effort the next year.  That would be beyond carelessness, it would be idiotic.

Entire sections of the city should probably be condemned.  They should be razed, usable materials salvaged, and then filled to well above sea level.  Raising two square miles of area from 16 feet below sea level to 22 feet above (the level of the worst expected storm surges) would take just 49,000 acre-feet of fill.  The Corps has to dredge silt out of channels anyway; taking such of this material as is uncontaminated and using it for fill would kill two problems at once.

I understand that dredged silt is usually transported on barges.  Unloading this silt with buckets carried on a tram system going from piers to the area to be filled would be a clean and relatively simple way to accomplish this.  If each tram bucket carries 1 cubic yard and the tram system runs at 20 buckets a minute for 80 hours a week, the required material (7.85 million cubic yards) could be moved in less than 16 years.

Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 4 Sep 05

I hate to be pessimistic, but after working for ten years at an environmental consulting company, I think it quite likely that after the waters recede, all parts of the city that were under the flooded waters may not be inhabitable, even if the remaining structures are razed to the ground and rebuilt. The place has the potential for being a major Superfund site. If it is toxic, the remediation costs would be so enormous I believe it will be simply left vacant.

Perhaps I am being too pessimistic.

Posted by: Marrena Lindberg on 4 Sep 05

This is a great thing to consider, and I appreciate the author's effort. I have many of the same environmental concerns as those who have posted before.
The place is (was) a home to many people, but those people were most connected not to the geography of the place, but to the buildings and businesses and neighborhoods built on that specific piece of land.
Therefore, re-location of the city (or parts of the city) wouldn't neccessarily make the place feel not like home to many of the residents that might wish to come back... but even then, it going to be a number of years. New Orleans is a changed place. The culture that inhabits the future New Orleans may be very little like the one that existed before. Perhaps parts of what made New Orleans culturally unique will start to emerge in the places where refugees have made their new homes.

Posted by: David Lucas on 4 Sep 05

Great to hear the thoughts of urban planners as they dream great dreams to rebuild my city.

My two cents: You cannot make New Orleans a 'walking' city. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes outside during a New Orleans summer will tell you so. Temperatures regularly soar above 100 degrees, the humidity is oppressive, and you can set your clock by the afternoon thunderstorms.

This is precisely the reason the only 'walkers' in New Orleans are the tourists.

We must hold onto the idea of having functional public (and air conditioned) transportation - buses, rail, boats, ferries, streetcars, etc. The people of New Orleans wouldn't stand to have to schlep around in the heat all day.

Posted by: Monique Beadle on 4 Sep 05

Nice to see someone imagining a rebuilt city in a way that could redeem this tragedy.

Here's a question: the Mississippi, as I understand it, is "trying" to leap its banks and change course. The levees are holding it back but they are in a war with nature that they must inevitably lose. What happens to New Orleans then? Or can the river be channelled past the city in its present course indefinitely?

Posted by: mtraven on 4 Sep 05

Thank you for starting this discussion. And David Foley is right: idealism must be tempered with pragmatism and practical realities. Nearly all cities have problems. People need water and have hence historically settled along floodplains. A waterless city such as Los Angeles is as unsustainable as New Orleans. That said, rebuilding a Green, Safe New Orleans will require actions extending well beyond the city amd encompassing much of the lower Mississippi delta and the Gulf coast. The entire strategy of flood control along the Mississippi will have to be revisited. Many other communities (even outside of New Orleans and Louisiana) may have to be sacrificed to the river to allow it to revert to a more natural flow and to recreate its wetlands. Building dikes and levees everywhere is simply an invitation for more of the same; we will have to choose our battles along the path of least resistance from Nature. Is there the political and popular will for this rethinking?

Posted by: N. Sukumar on 4 Sep 05

What a wonderful world it would be. That song comes to mind when reading this.

I'm a former New Orleans resident and photography artist. Who can I contact to lend my creativity to? I would absolutely love to help build this city you envision here. I would start by putting trash cans on the street corners! Just basic common sense things I noticed living there that most cities had, but not New Orleans.

And the projects driving on Louisiana towards Clairborne... I have never in my life seen such poverty in the United States in any other city. It is inexcusable that this type of poverty is allowed to exist in America. New Orleans must make fighting poverty its number ONE goal before this city is going to be anywhere near the top 10. Which brings me to the oil companies...

Huey P. Long started making the oil companies help with the education of Louisiana residents and he was assissinated for it. I don't think since Kingfish, has there been another one willing to stand up to the oil companies and force them to give back to the communities that they ruin by drilling for the earth's blood. These oil companies should even help with the recovery process... they are sure making a killing after this... what opportunity for them to be able to hike up gas prices throughout the country as much as they have. Well... Louisiana has to make them more responisble to it's state.

I could go on and on and on and on... but I'll leave this for someone else to discuss. I just can't wait to get back to New Orleans... I left a part of myself there.


Posted by: Zoe Wiseman on 5 Sep 05

I live in New Orleans and am currently displaced and staying with Friends & Family in Texas. The only thing keeping me semi-sane and optimistic are ideas like the ones presented here. This is the kind of daring thinking that can elevate New Orleans back to a sustainable, viable and safe place of esteem. I'm lucky enough to work for a corporation that is committed to New Orleans and I still hav e my job. I was thinking about relocating but as a lifelong resident of the region I feel that I have no choice but to participate in the rebuilding and resurgence of the city. Thanks Alan!

Posted by: Jonah Langenbeck on 5 Sep 05

The time has come to concede to reality. The effects of global warming and the continued misuse and abuse to the ecosystem by mankind is making it self apparent. Just as Venice will never recover from the continuing and unstoppable rise of the water level of our oceans, New Orleans will continue to fall victim to the ravages of nature. Therefore the only sensible thing to do is to get out of her way. If the city is to be rebuilt then it needs to be relocated to higher ground, to a sensible position of defense. I also believe that it is the #1 responsiblity of every public official from the bottom heap to the top, to put the welfare of our ecosystem and the welfare of our people first. Until we are stable environmentally, fiscally, socially, physically and spiritually, we have no business investing our time, money and the lives of our citizens in foreign venues. The threat of terroism doesn't even come close to the immediate threats we face here in our country. Threats from a decaying infrastructure, from urban unrest, from the distrust and distain of the uneducated, the poor, the elderly. Thousands of forgotten citizens who struggle every day just to get by. It is time to put this challenge to those who represent you in government, and if they can't rise to this challenge they need to step aside.

Posted by: kfs on 5 Sep 05

I've been thinking a lot about this topic lately and I was pleased to find this discussion thread and see that others are as well. I grieve for all those who have been lost, but I don’t think it’s too early to talk about ways in preventing another monumental tragedy. I was hoping someone would connect to the redevelopment issues not only to New Orleans and Miss. River but to the entire Gulf Bioregion. I can envision a much larger, long term coastal project considering the predicted effects of global warming. The beginning of the reinvention of our economy, rivaling that of the “The New Deal.”

My interests are not so much architectural or engineering technicalities, rather it’s the policy practicality. Not to burst anybody’s bubble, but a green undertaking on any scale is historically improbable.

I see a captured system. At the federal level, those sitting at “the table,” guiding the redevelopment policy will inevitably be those representing the multi-billion dollar financial services companies, insurance companies, national developers, etc… (Former International Arabian Horse Association Commisioners) We need to devise strategies from the bottom and top to compete with these institutional interests.

How to we as green advocates influence policy at all levels of government who will have jurisdictional control or how do we gain some of that control? How to penetrate this policy making process and demand that these decision making processes are open to the public?

In my opinion, the solutions will only be found in harnessing the intellectual and creative power of many professionals from diverse backgrounds. I’d like to see further exploration into David Foley’s comment that an “open-source, peer-reviewed, "wiki"-like web site could host a collaborative effort to write a sustainable Pattern Language.” This is an excellent idea not just for architectural and engineering logistics, but also for formulating policy strategies.

To compete with the entrenched power and profit interests of multi-national corporations is daunting. But collectively we have the answers to all of these questions. One possibility is a broad coalition of civil society groups, green architects, city planners, engineers, community builders, green advocates, and progressive policy makers joining forces to create a "green bloc." Building broad public support will require reinventing campaign tactics. Sophisticated communication strategies in order to put this on the agenda of the mainstream media channels.

What is required is nothing less than a complete paradigm shift from disaster relief. The energy, talent and technology exists to lead the world in the sustainable solutions, but organizing ourselves to confront antiquated and resistive social, economic, and political structures will likely serve as our paramount challenge.

Does such a coalition already exist? Is anybody interested in helping to form one? Can somebody start a list serve? Anybody know “wiki” web programming?

Posted by: Joshua Arthur on 5 Sep 05

Alan: Once again you have crafted a good set of initial ways to respond to this tragedy. Many of us have been thinking about forming a "cultural diverse" (reflecting the cities diversity) team that would bring expertise and the capacity to engage to this tragic opportunity. There are at least 4 of us here in Portland who would welcome the opportunity to work with you, make the contact and get to work. Thanks for putting the idea out there... now lets organize !

Anthony Harris

Posted by: Anthony Harris on 5 Sep 05

Let me add another note of thanks to Alan for so effectively articulating a plan for making the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast a demonstration project for sustainable redevelopment.

After we have grieved for the lives lost and as the politicians play the blame game, let us all "assemble our forces" in this region and take advantage of the golden opportunity we have to rebuild.

Framing the language of the reconstruction project is critical and I look forward to future posts on how we "build a big tent" so that we can muster the significant resources necessary for such a complex undertaking. As a big, big fan of pattern languages, I wholeheartedly endorse the suggestion that we find some practicle way of sharing and collaborating.

Posted by: Roy King III on 5 Sep 05

Something that puzzles me is that the news, and no one for that matter, seems to bring up that at the time the bush would not pay for the supplies to keep building the levess, he began to pay for 1,600 miles of walls between US&Mexico. The cost is estimated (lowest) at $2million per mile to build and $1million per mile per year to maintain and patrol.

It seems too that is part of our same illness in this country... building defenses against imaginary enemies and ignoring real threats.

Anyone knowing these statistics can easily tell that the current administration is not able to protect our country, if they are in fact, not purposely trying to destroy this country, which I think they are.

Posted by: Glenna on 6 Sep 05

Fascinating and essential reading. Thanks for having this site.

What would happen if the Mississippi were rerouted to pass through Lake Pontchartrain just west of New Orleans, near the St. John the Baptist/St. Charles parish line? If one problem is the dumping of surge waters from Lake Pontchartrain into the New Orleans bowl, funneling the river through the lake would allow sediment to raise the lake level and eliminate this threat. That approach would also lower the Mississippi River below that point, facilitating the drainage of currently-flooded New Orleans. It would then enable city planners the elbow room to redesign New Orleans for the 22nd century.



Posted by: Walter Jenny on 6 Sep 05

Glenna repectfully your wrong.

The crime wave hitting the southwest has been nasty lately and as a result a push was made to build a wall to control and contain as much as possible the entry points that existed. This had NOTHING to do with katrina money it was a tiny little thing to deal with a great big problem. It cost very little.

The fact is bickering and infighting and to be blunt environmentalists derailed the flood control measures far more so then the bush admin. By the time they had appeased all the differing bloated junk they needed to add into a simple flood control plan to appease enviros and all the other special interest groups the flood control plan had blossomed into a 14 BILLION dollar plan. Oh and one that no one was realy all that happy with either. So no one realy pushed for it and it died quickly.

If they had just stuck to putting a bigger better levee around new orleans new orleans itself could have afforded the damn thing but NOOO they had to add and expand the thing into a nightmare.

There is a very simple reason poor people dont get the services rich do. Local projects are 1000x as likely to be bloat free and 1000x as likely to actauly make it and 1000x less costly and vastly quicker to do AND they involve far less anoying special interest groups and general meetings and blah blah blah. Rich people tend to live in rich places that can fund and in fact general are forced to fund most everything localy.

New orleans died because too many buricrats and special interests made for a process that should have taken a year instead taking more then a lifetime... litteraly.

Bush didnt tank the flood control plan the fact that no one was fighting the fight for it while soo many politicians were fighting for soo much else is what killed it.

Tell me 1 month ago how many of us even gave a damn about new orleans or even knew exactly where it was much less anything about its levees? I knew some but ONLY because I like to read up on potential natural disasters not because I gave a flying aardvark about the city or even that entire coastline.

Posted by: wintermane on 6 Sep 05

Inspiring post and thread. But I wonder about who will run this effort. A big time plan for New Orleans will require big time leadership. A czar, perhaps. But then there's the enabling legislation and the regulations that will govern the process. The Mayor and the Governor won't want to relinquish control. Nor will politicians in the surrounding parishes. The lobbyists will exploit their divisions to tweak the plan. The lawyers will find the inevitable loopholes. The corporate sector (and the well-off areas of town) will take over. The poor will get shut out again.

This is not the way it should be or has to be. But I wonder if Alan or anyone else who reads this has any thoughts about how city-building/rebuilding could be a truly inclusive, public, and transparent process. Thanks.

Posted by: rob neuwirth on 6 Sep 05

1. What about the cost of gas that is already in the ground at the pump?
2. Has anyone thought about that?
3. The chain of supply is right out the window here when the news airs something going on in the world.

The chains of supply are the same for the oil companies as they are for the rest of the business world.

First you have to pump the oil out of the ground then ship to a refinery then refine and store that gas then sell it to a gas station and then ship it to the station where the gas station owner has purchased the gas at a fixed wholesale price. This all takes several months for the gas to get from the ground to the pump.

Yet when something happens in the news the price of gas jumps up in the same day. WHY does it do that. The reason is only GREED. There is no magic that puts the oil that will cost more in a few days or weeks all the way over into the pumps in the ground at the gas stations the same day. The only reason is to make money from the gullible public that just saying well what are you going to do, you have to buy gas to get to work to make some money to buy even more expensive gas.

I guess I seem to be the only one that says HAY WAIT A MINUTE the gas that this station purchased this month does not cost the station owner anymore today than it did when he bought it. The station should not be raising prices until the higher cost gas actually reaches his pumps. That can take several months. Now the gas station owners don’t mind the price increase because they can sell the gas they bought at a much lower price last week and make a lot more off the same gas. I hear people all over saying the same thing “WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO YOU NEED THE GAS”

Now we also here the lame story about Katrina and the refineries being hit and so much oil has been lost, first the oil/gas in the tanks in those refineries is still good it is just being delayed in delivery due to flooding. The tanks are sealed unless a tank was blown apart the gas is still good. Then we have the recovery costs that supposedly the higher gas prices will help pay for. Well I don’t know about you but I don’t trust the oil companies to give much if any to the rebuilding of New Orleans, I don’t trust them any more than the government. Sure they will collect the insurance money and then still rebuild their refineries at you expense of higher gas prices but they have insurance and an already healthy profit margin for that now, so why do we need to pay them more for the gas that has not been lost, it was just delayed in getting used. Then we also have the fact that there are refineries all over the country that can take up the slack of a few being offline for a while. In the they act like that refinery was the only one that supplied all the USA. In fact many states are not even supplied with gas from the gulf ports like Texas, Wyoming and Colorado where most of the gas is pumped out of the ground in those states, refined there and then sold to the local stations. The only gas that is being lost is what is in the ground at the pumps in the gas stations in New Orleans ONLY and no other place. That gas is now flooded with water getting into the ground storage pumps because the tanks are vented in or very close to the ground so water can get in easily, the refineries do not vent at the ground they vent at the top of their tanks and refinery structures.

I would rather give my donations to someone I know will help the recovery efforts and not pocket 90% of the money like the red cross and salvation army does. To prove that you can look on the internet for news stories about the salvation army and the red cross profits that was run by NBC News in the last year.

Posted by: JC on 6 Sep 05

George Bush declares war on Mother Nature!

"She's killed more of those people...uhm a Americans
then that Obswamy fella and when my President uh uhm my Vice President returns from vacation heads are gonna roll!"

Posted by: ralph del pozzo on 6 Sep 05

Any plan for New Orleans must accept that water will eventually go where it "wants" and in the amount that it "wants" to, ie the level of the sea/lake.

St Petersburg in Russia is good example for us. A city built on a swamp that flooded EVERY YEAR. They dealt with it by building the ground level up above the flood level. In many cases, city blocks were built on raised areas with canals in between.

Surely barges and trucks bringing gravel into New Orleans from every available angle would not take 16 years. The lowest areas would surely take the longest to raise. Why not (at first) raise the HIGHEST levels of New Orleans first and begin reconstruction only there? The HIGHEST areas would take months, not years, to raise to considerably safer levels. While people move back into these necessarily more-compact, carefully-planned areas, work can go on raising up the level of the NEXT highest area, and so on. For the lowest areas, perhaps filling in ALL the ground requires too much material. Perhaps entire blocks could be built on piled earth/gravel with a concrete retaining wall around it. In the case of a category 4 storm, let the streets and parks turn into canals temporarily. If the city has built and planned for this, it will be an inconvenience, not a disaster. As the LAST area to be developed, it would be the ONLY one requiring pumps. Until they decide to redevelop the worst areas, just let them flood. There won't be any people there to care. Afterwards, they will be the only areas requiring pumps and, being built for this scenerio, only involves the residents waiting a day or two in relative comfort for the pumps to catch up.

A building code that requires a little 20 gallon cistern for every residence in the city (per expected resident in the building) would prevent problems with getting fresh water during a flood. This is essentially what your hot water heater is, it sits between the city water supply and your faucet holding quite a bit of water. Building codes requiring hot water heaters to be placed in the home above sea level would guarantee residents access to this water in the case of an emergency. Checking mine, which is fairly small as I live in a single bedroom condo, it holds 40 gallons. That's enough to keep me from going thirsty for 80 days if I ration carefully and 20 even if I'm a little wasteful. In any case a simple plastic or metal tank holding 40-80 gallons of water connected to the city water supply on one end and your house plumbing on the other is an extremely cheap measure for helping to prevent casualties in the next storm. If the city builds a few storm-proof warehouses above surge level and fills them with crates of MRE's, it's only a matter of sending boats out to ask who needs more food to get through the next few days. Hospitals should have generators ABOVE the highest expected water level and enough fuel to last them long enough to get through the aftermath of a hurricane. Hospitals and other essential buildings should be built in such a way (stilts, embankments, etc) that a flood will not affect their functioning.

Cinder blocks filled with rebar and concrete are fairly cheap as far as building materials go. Hurricane strips for the 2/8's in your roof are even cheaper. There should NEVER be a frame wood house built in New Orleans ever again. Basic rule of thumb for the rebuilding of New Orleans: If it couldn't make it through a hurricane, don't build it. If it would be below the level of a storm surge, don't build it. As a taxpayer I am willing to shoulder the burden of rebuilding homes and businesses in New Orleans. It's worth it. New Orleans is too important culturally, politically, strategically, economically, to NOT rebuild. Outer defenses ie levees, wetlands, barrier islands, etc are well and good and it would be foolish to let the ocean border directly on the levees, but if the actual city is rebuilt based on denial of the essential problem, that occasionally nature WILL put the water where it thinks it belongs, I'd rather not have it rebuilt at all.

The city should be rebuilt in such a way that even if NOBODY evacuates, loss of life and property will be close to nil. It could be costly to do so, but if you consider the costs of the current disaster in terms of search/rescue, caring for refugees, rebuilding costs, gas prices, effects on exports that go down the missisipi and out through new orleans, risk of a national recession etc, it doesn't look like such a bad investment. the only New Orleans that should be rebuilt is one that is "flood-adapted" without resigning itself to becoming like Venice.

Posted by: Jeff on 6 Sep 05

oh yeah, and the PUMPS... should be placed ABOVE the level of any expected flood along with their power supply, that way they don't get knocked out by the very thing they're built to combat.... that made me furious to hear of pumps going out of comission.... DUE TO FLOODING.

Posted by: jeff on 6 Sep 05

I was a tad surprised a pump that deals with floods could flood.... But then they arnt flood control pumps they are rain control pumps... Still its one of a great many things in new orleans that just make me glad im not there.

Posted by: wintermane on 6 Sep 05

Drownproofing New Orleans

Some of you have summarized a plan that is called Coast 2050 and is described in an article by Mark Fischetti in a Scientific American article, "Drowning New Orleans," in the October 2001 issue. That plan has 2 major elements: restoring marshes by adding gates to certain river dikes to let floodwaters deposit sediment in the marshes, and enhancing the levee system to withstand a category 5 storm surge.

As a meteorologist who is involved in a project to renovate my sister's historic Uptown house, I was already aware of the hurricane and flood risk. I now believe the city is more vulnerable than this author describes. I can imagine two cases where the amount of flooding we have experienced could have occurred even without a strong hurricane:

* First, if a relatively weak hurricane on a path similar to Betsy causes dike failures, and

* Second, if an exceptionally heavy rain occurs directly over the city.

The second scenario needs some calculations to support this assertion. From the detailed aerial photos on the NOAA web site, which were taken Wednesday evening at about the time of high water, I compute that the high water mark was 3 to 3.5 feet (At St. Charles and Louisiana, the neutral grounds were just above water and the street was wet). Using a topographic map, I compute that the East Bank (west of the Industrial Canal) is a basin with 40.1 square miles, of which 20.1 square miles are below sea level (average elevation -2.7 feet) and 8.0 square miles are between 0 and 2 feet. (The Geological Survey maps have a contour interval of 5 feet, so I am estimating.) With no drainage, pumping, or soaking in, a rainstorm over the 40.1 square miles with the following average rainfall in a short period would flood the city to the following depths:
16.4 inches - Everything up to sea level would be flooded.
23.0 inches - Flooding to 1 foot elevation.
30.8 inches - Flooding to 2 foot elevation.
39.7 inches - Flooding to 3 foot elevation.
44.3 inches - Flooding to 3.5 foot elevation.
For comparison, 43.0 inches of rain was recorded in less than 24 hours near Alvin, Texas (a suburb of Houston) on July 25 to 26, 1979. Also, a few weeks ago on July 27, Mumbai, India (also called Bombay) had 37.64 inches in 24 hours and 25.55 inches in 6 hours. It is possible for New Orleans to have such a large rainstorm, and even with the pumps working, the highest water level would not be reduced much. I don't have accurate figures for the May 8, 1995 rainstorm, but if it averaged 15 to 18 inches of rain, it would have flooded up to sea level until the pumps could remove the water.

While it would be nearly impossible to protect the city completely against a 30 or 40-inch rain, I think it is feasible to protect the city from rains up to 2 feet in a few hours, although temporary street flooding will be severe during the heaviest rain.

To protect from rainfall flooding, the Coast 2050 plan needs a third element, which is to build New Orleans up to around 2 feet above sea level. The remaining flooding risk for New Orleans would then have the same nature as in other cities, which is that the water would drain away from the higher land, instead of continuing to rise after a storm ends. Raising the city is suggested in a similar way by Engineer-Poet, except I think we need to raise around 40 square miles slightly instead of raising 2 square miles by around 20 feet.

How much fill is needed to build up the city? To fill in all areas to 2 feet, I compute about 106 million cubic yards of sand is needed. However, making a large part of the city completely flat means that a 2-foot rainstorm would cause 2 feet of flooding everywhere. So, about a quarter of the area should not be built up (or even should be dug out a little) for retention areas. Also, a few percent of the land area should be elevated several feet higher, on which "important" facilities would be built, such as hospitals, police stations, utility and pump stations, and buildings which could be used as shelters. This revises the amount of sand to be moved to roughly 80 million cubic yards. I did not make calculations for the West Bank, East New Orleans, Metairie, and other areas that similarly need to be raised, but including those areas might raise this estimate to around 140 million cubic yards. For comparison, 720 million cubic yards were moved initially (by 1869) to build the Suez Canal.

As for cost, the Wall Street Journal last Wednesday (Scott McCartney, "As busy airports try to add runways, many hurdles loom," August 31, 2005, page 1) states that to build a new runway at the Atlanta Airport, 27 million cubic yards of soil are being moved using a 4-mile conveyor at a cost of $360 million. That is $13.33 per cubic yard. Assuming that the cost rises to $20 per cubic yard, 140 million cubic yards could be moved for $2.8 billion. If the area to be built up is about 40 square miles (75 percent of the 28.1 square miles in the East Bank under 2 feet, plus a very rough guess of the area under 2 feet in other areas), that works out to $109,000 per acre, not an unreasonable amount for urban land. Of course, that is a fraction of the cost needed to raise utilities and build new roads. By the way, more than one conveyor could be used, and based on construction times to build artificial islands for airports, it should take only a few years (not 16) to raise the land.

Of course, with most of the buildings condemned and torn down, and with the roads buried, it would seem that area is a clean slate for many inappropriate urban renewal proposals. Hopefully, the current road structure would be retained except for eliminating the worst bottlenecks (and not all roads would continue across the retention areas), and most major facilities such as hospitals and schools would be repaired or rebuilt in their present locations. In some cases, the second floor of a large building would become the first floor because of raising the land level. City Park could be left unchanged as a large retention basin, and the other retention basin areas could similarly be parks. The main situation where eminent domain is required is when a salvageable building is in a retention basin. Considering the number of houses and other buildings already abandoned before the flood, the owner of such a building should be able to find a suitable site within a few blocks. Most salvageable houses should only need to be raised, as when Galveston Island was built up after the 1900 hurricane.

A few other steps need to be taken:

1. The best way to raise the freeways is probably to build elevated freeways above the existing freeways, and continue to use the existing freeways when they are not flooded. Cities such as San Antonio have built elevated freeways over existing freeways to increase traffic capacity without taking more land, not to prevent flooding.

2. Provide emergency electrical service by building a compact power plant close to downtown, with power lines attached to the underside of the elevated freeway bridges for distribution to the hospitals, shelters, and other essential facilities. Communication facilities such as cell phone antennas also could be attached to the bridges.

3. With a raised land elevation, and with reinforced buildings on even higher land, it should be feasible to establish neighborhood shelters, and preposition the National Guard, along with supplies and equipment. Those steps were not taken in this storm because no safe local shelters were available. With neighborhood shelters, people should be more willing to go, and they could be taken there using neighborhood resources. If the storm turns away and causes severe damage elsewhere, the National Guard should be able to redeploy from New Orleans as easily as they now do from areas distant from the forecasted landfall.

4. Try to stop the sinking of the land by pumping water deep underground (This is proposed for Venice), and drain water out as much as possible by pumping from ponds in the retention areas instead of sucking it out of the soil.

5. Housing in the newly built-up land will not be nearly as affordable as before, but hopefully Habitat for Humanity can develop appropriate designs for New Orleans. In the long run, if projects are gradually replaced by houses which people own, the same people take more responsibility in their lives, and they realize they are not stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder.

These are just a few ideas, and hopefully the people in each neighborhood will be able to make the final decisions about what they want their neighborhood to be like. People do want certain suburban-style amenities, such as good-quality grocery stores, but neighborhoods should be able to preserve their distinctive character at the same time.

Posted by: Steve Schroeder on 6 Sep 05

First of all: You all have great ideas and if you become a group deciding to build a community
let me know I would join most of you anytime.
Your intellegence outshines so many and maybe that is because it shows that you care about people and our environment as do I.
As a resident of a major city I have noticed that
when the redevelopers get to work it rarely includes the poor returning back to the same location that they were dislocated from especially since the tax value will increase and
they will not be able to afford the rent being that it will probably range between $900.00 and 1200.00 per month. So we can bet they are not included in this plan. And you may see condos popping up every where if not more highrises as we do here. So for every one there or returning, be prepared. Read the business section from various states. keep up with which corporations are attempting to buy land. Read the internet and see what senator is voting for what change that could have been bought by some foriegn interest, but not concidering yours. You already have major sources from along the gulf shore looking to see who can easily loose property due to tax issues. If you are interested in selling your property, research what other prices are in other states that have redeveloped. Make sure your post office has received a change of address card. read notices posted in the classified and read updates online from your county or parish. stay intouch with others that have been relocated color will not matter you will all need each others support soon.
Do you have an idea what major hotels and casinos make compared to what they paid for the land? I know that some of your property values are already in the 200's and 500's but they are reaching for those whow can and will pay in the 700's to 3.5 mil., can you afford that? will they pay you fairly.
You might just want to jump in there and purchase
during this boom cause the coast line will come back and they will be counting all of our pennies as they make the plans. Mr Trump probably has a ariel map out as we type.
This is about business not about the city, that is secondary. And as long as you think of our fellow man or our environment you are thinking like a democrat (for which I am) Know if you want to think that the powers that be will take the time to consider global options to help the world change then you need to do a follow up search on the internet for which our presidents
remarks during the Euro Scotland meeting last July. I think we all have heard it alot these last fews horrindus day, " We are expecting our Government to save us but..." I know we are paying for the assistance, just don't expect it.

Posted by: Tawana on 6 Sep 05

We as a nation cannot move forward in terms of mankind's relationship with nature until our religious leaders take on the Christian religious right within in the U.S. Environmentalists have been underestimating the moral bankruptcy of the religious right for decades. This zealous branch of Christian theology practices the same biblical fundamentalism as James Watts, secretary of the interior under the Reagan administration, that we have no biblical mandate from God to be stewards of the earth because the end of the world is prophesized. This belief questions the necessity of rationing the earth's resources for the next generation when rapture, and the second coming of Christ is immiment.

Indeed, these fundamentalists have combined effectively with those who favor manifest destiny, a covenent between God and Americans in which God will continue to bless America with military superiority as long as Americans remain vigilant and remove all sinners from within its shores.

As long as the religious right promotes a apocalyptic interpretation of the Bible in order to advance its pro-life agenda, and as long as the pro-choice advocates refuse to budge one iota on this issue, the religious right will combine forces with war profiteers who will help them advance their pack the supreme court agenda as long as they continue to send their children as cannon fodder and their parish votes. Anyone trying to obtain support for rebuilding New Orleans, let alone in a sustainable and equitable manner will be operating within the confines of a moral vacuum without the dynamic support of the religious right.

Environmentalists fail to realize that greed alone isn't the cause of irresponsible development. Corrupt political leaders have been joining forces with religious extremists in order to justify policies which penalize the poor and to avoid being seen as uncompassionate, using this alliance to develop an ad-hoc theology which teaches that to be poor is to be sinful. If world development efforts in third world countries have taught us one thing about mankind and the environment, there needs to be local control at the grassroots level in order to effectively develop sustainable economies. One can simply not discuss the creation of a sustainable economy without addressing the need for economic justice. But with the pro life agenda blocking the path to all compromises between two vastly different interpretations of the Bible, then progressive efforts to provide sustenance to the poor will always fall short of their mark and the disparity of wealth will continue to widen with the Christian leaders asleep at the wheel.

Posted by: Sarah Smith on 6 Sep 05


Thank you for writing this article. It was truly inspirational, and the powers-that-be would do well to heed your advice. How would big oil companies react? For example, would they allow the creation of electric and fuel cell vehicles to take place?

If the changes you wrote about are to occur, this will require the cooperation of governnment officials who are, imo, more interested in damage
control after Katrina. I just hope they won't, as usual, drag their feet.

Posted by: Diana Manwaring on 7 Sep 05

Side note -- feel free to keep up the great conversation here, but if folks are interested, you can also discuss these issues over on Omidyar.Net:

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 7 Sep 05

Hope you haven't had this on the blog before. It's making the rounds. Article in National Geographic published in Oct. 2004 describing the current scenario accurately. Doesn't pay to destroy coastal wetlands and ignore global warming, as we're finding out.

Posted by: Donna Turman on 7 Sep 05

Katrina and the Need for Right-Brain Thinkers

There are many systemic problems which are now coming to light as a result of how our government dealt with Hurricane Katrina. Yet, these problems can be reversed by a simple understanding of the way in which organizations "think." There is also a need for more "right brain" thinkers in key government positions. I'm trying very hard to get the word out about this in light of current problems. Your help is greatly appreciated.

Here is the link:

Posted by: Lee L. Chazen, M.A. on 7 Sep 05

Thanks for the timely and insightful comments. After the 1900 Galveston hurricane, the town was raised a number of feet with soil, rubble and foundation pilings. Perhaps hard rubble, concrete bricks, etc. can fill in some of the lower places, prior to reconstruction, and architecturally significant and sound structures could be raised up.

Posted by: J. Secrist on 7 Sep 05

The wrong strategy,

As a democrat, I am saddened and ashamed that our
democratic reps continue to put out rhetoric of no
ideas, but of hatred and high-octane emotions. Please,
please.... let's beat the other side by announcing
better ideas for our country. Let's rescue our
American brother and sisters from Katrina - as one
nation, one people. We can then formulate our critique
of where the feds failed during the operations. As a
fellow democrat. I’ll be honest with you, if I had
relatives stuck in New Orleans right now, the last
thing I would want to hear is the race thing, the bush
thing, the Iraq thing, etc. Help make the situation
more bearable by going down there, putting our best
foot forward with ideas, so that we can show that
democrats are smart too. Right now, I'm afraid that no
matter how much we criticize Bush, the fact is that
even to democrats like me, it seems pretty obvious
that the state and local government of Louisiana did
failed its people (i.e., Major had buses available and
did not make use of them to evacuate our poor black
brothers and sisters. The governor waited 3 days to
declare an actual emergency. To make matters worst,
today she and the Major can't even agree on whether
they should force an evacuation of New Orleans!

Florida had 4 straight hurricanes. Katrina hit
Mississippi and other gulf cost areas. Yet, you did
not here blacks and Hispanics in Florida cry foul on
racism, against their government. Please, let's cut
out the rhetoric that in my opinion lost us the last
election; many Americans got tired of our bad mouthing
the other side without us offering substance. Katrina
demolished homes without discrimination against
gender, race or nationality. So, despite the % of
blacks in New Orleans, most of my democratic friends
don't see the race card as an effective strategy
against the other side. Why? . Well, it seems that
most of Katrina victims themselves are not seeing it
this way. Finally, I have relatives in the military
and although we may not agree with everything about
the current admin, the fact is that my relatives are
down in New Orleans giving help to everyone and anyone
who needs help; not just to whites. For that reason,
many democrats like me are insulted by the choice to
play the race card. Forget about the republicans for a
moment; our democratic leaders have governed New
Orleans for over 60 years. What the heck have we done
for the poor all these years to help them become more
self-efficient? Have our programs perhaps failed them?
Why are there not more of them today believing in
themselves? Is it that we democrats do not want
minorities to progress because we are afraid that they
may become successful, make good money and then leave
the party? How can I say this you ask? Well, because I
am a minority who comes from a family of ten and on
welfare. But, my mother instilled in us the idea of
value and self worth. She preached self-esteem and
pride to us. She told us that we could be anything we
want in life. I don't hear any of our democratic
leaders preach self-esteem (especially to blacks) so
that they will believe in themselves and leave the
cycle of welfare. I am sad to say that by the way our
democratic reps speak these days, some of us are
feeling like if they want us to stay poor so we will
vote for them, in return for more hand outs. Sorry,
but this is how all this hatred talk from my
democratic leaders is making me feel. I prefer that we
speak smarter then the other side and not necessarily

Thank you.

Posted by: Jerry E. on 7 Sep 05

The Jerry E post stinks of pre-prepared cut & paste job. It doesn't address Alan's post. I'd delete it, even if it is a worldchanging eg of how democracy is making use of the internet, it's also spam.

BTW: I saw the idea I dreamt up about houses that can float is actually a reality in the Netherlands: they're building houses on the side of canals that can float if the canal floods.

Posted by: Dendrobium alderwildtianum on 8 Sep 05

Thanks so much Alan for a great post and for everyone for your thoughtful comments.

In the wake of such a horrifying, ongoing disaster, it's helpful to hear all of your perspectives on what can be done.

The one thought I can quickly add at this point is that the vision should incorporate the Natural Step Framework's Four Principles for Sustainability, especially the fourth principle of meeting basic needs, based on the revolutionary basic needs work of Chilean Alternative Nobel Prize-winning economist Manfred Max-Neef.

Posted by: Terry Gips on 8 Sep 05

Dear Friends: the victims of hurricane Katrina have been referred to variously as "refugees", "evacuees" and "displaced persons", among others, to their discontent. I agree.
I suggest we refer to them as "KATRINARDS". (Or, alternatively, "QUATRINARDS").
The "ard" suffix is a French construction which embraces "...those of...".
The "Quat..." variant plays upon the various sections of New Orleans known as quarters or quartiers.
I offer this with sorrow and affection.
Brian Murtha

Posted by: Brian Murtha on 8 Sep 05

As a displaced New Orleans native I am happy to see this discussion going on. This site:
has an article by a professor of geography at SF State, a NO native, addressing these issues.

Posted by: Sal Hall on 8 Sep 05

Thanks very much to Alan for his thoughtful and optimistic post.

The fact is that there is very little chance of New Orleans NOT being rebuilt, simply because it is such a repository of American history, and home to so many. We have an opportunity today that humanity has never had before. We have a chance to rationally and intelligently build an entire American city from the ground up. Expensive? Hell, yes! Worth it? Endlessly debatable.

I personally, want to be on the side of the optimistic. There is nowhere to hide, and if we overthink this, we deny our human spirit, and lose the chance to experience what we're capable of.

Posted by: Mitch Wade on 9 Sep 05

This article is wonderful...and a good starting point for human-settlement-planning from now into the vast future!

After all, if we think (as Speaker Hastert does!) that New Orleans is not worth re-building, next thing you know, Islands are not worth saving, settlements near rivers are not worth saving, any settlement that has any kind of geographical challenge is not worth settling...which, of course, is bull!

People are resourceful and creative, and places call to them. Work WITH the place, rather than against it!!!

Posted by: Peggy on 9 Sep 05

John McPhee wrote in his book, "The Control of Nature" that long term control of the Mississippi down its current channel is untenable, and the river needs to flow down the Atchafalaya and build the delta there. Let go the river, and use the old levees to raise the city as an historic place and move the port to the new channel. It would save money by shortening the shipping distance up the river, and the Corps could have brand new levees to construct from scratch. Let some of that mud build the Louisiana coast instead of dumping it in the Gulf.

Posted by: Tim Fisk on 9 Sep 05

I've started an initiative to advocate the implementation of ideas like the ones contained in this essay during the reconstruction of New Orleans. It's called the New New Orleans Initiative and the URL is We've also set up a wiki in order to start the dialogue of what the appropriate reconstruction should entail. I encourage anyone who may be reading this to create and account and begin contributing immediately.

Posted by: Jonah Langenbeck on 10 Sep 05

my son is a freshman in the tulane school of architecture....he will be attending his first semester at northwetern university but is looking forward to being a part of the creative , intelligent and hard working team that new orleans needs to rebuild...would love him to be on some listas a volunteer when the work begins..eileen

Posted by: eileen jacobs on 10 Sep 05

It all sounds so wonderful, but I have one reservation; you cannot build Eden in a sewer.

New Orleans threw into sharp focus problems that are nation-wide. The too ready availability of guns; a nation far better geared-up to go to war than to rescue its own people from catastrophe; an underlying racism.

Unless New Orleans can arise from the waters an independent nation, I can't see a Nirvanic future for it.

Posted by: Pete M on 11 Sep 05

A beautiful comment on the "ultimate urbanist's dream", Alan. If you get some other 'ultimate' thinkers together I would like to become involved because--though I am from south Alabama orginally--I have been working in development for 20 years now. Just last year we had a conference in Rumania on children in emergencies (follows on the tsunami lessons) and how children should NEVER be allowed to board transportation alone and without their families. We are teaching these things all over the world--except at home. Thank God for internet so many will get reunited in an industrial society, but many won't and might be abused and lost if they can't say their name, their address, and if those who find them don't keep their little shirts in a ziplock bag to show desperate parents who saw them last. If only we can learn for later and spread these precious lessons that are out there, elsewhere in the world. If there are 'developers of a different breed' (not the ones ready to build back the same dysfunctional place our cities became) I would like to join them.
Peace to all in the wake of Katrina, wherever you may be.

Mary Ellen

Posted by: Mary Ellen Chatwin on 11 Sep 05

I am not an urban planner or an engineer, just a person who visits NOLA several times a year and had planned (& still do) to retire there sometime soon.

The problems are not above the technical expertise & wealth our country possesses. Certainly, the country that built the Hoover Dam, Panama Canal, etc. and rebuilt numerous post WW II cities can rebuld New Orleans.

I've often googled "rebuilding New Orleans" and am saddened that the majority of returns support NOT rebuilding. Not that it won't be done, but the majority of Americans will not be interested once the floodwater receeds.

Americans rally behind leaders. And this situation calls for a leader. The New Orleans community needs to find that person and find him fast, or decisions of their fate will be made by others without concern for their interests.

The ideas presented in all these posts are wonderful for their long term thoughtfullness, but what happens in the short-term is every bit as important.

It's the people of New Orleans that make this place special and the longer they remain outside the area, the more the prospects of deeding everything over to a homgenized suburbia become reality. Plans for temporary housing must be made. Locals must be employed. Those that evacuated need to come back asap.

One more thing I've noticied in all of this: The Times-Picayune has done a excellant job of holding itself together and will be vital to providing a much needed voice to NOLA.

Posted by: Jim Calabrese on 11 Sep 05

I almost passed Alan's excellent article by because I thought it was going to be a pretend motivational thing aka. Dr. Phil or something. Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth, and I am delighted with the article as well as most of the comments. At this point my brain is about fried by information over-kill concerning N.O. and Katrina. However,now, thanks to Alan, I'm able to see light at the end of the tunnel!

For me, New Orleans is representative of the situation the entire nation faces in one way or another. For instance, here in Sedona, Arizona the price of an average home is around $450k while the average family income is $45k or less. Actually, most jobs are in tourism pay around $8 an hour.

So Sedona really has something like a third world economy. Wealthy retirees and developers control everything and never even speak to working stiffs. In the meantime this part of the state is a favorite destination of non-documented aliens who don't even require any benefits except what they can get from welfare.

I've mentioned this because Sedona needs open approaches like Alan describes. Somehow or other, I've managed to live in Sedona for a decade and a half, and I'm the only economically disadvantaged person who has consistenty participated in local politics.

Neither Democrats or Republicans ever seem to feel like stooping as low as to encourace open dialog with the disadvantaged classes, after all, they assume that the cream rises to the top and they are that cream.

Of course it is quite likely that the legal workers of Sedona are college educated, but they earn the same as illegal aliens. Somehow or other I've managed to keep engaged, and I also bring thinking not unlike Alan's to the table. However, I'm not considered to belong to the underclass.

A few years ago I suffered a catastrophic illness here in Sedona and became temporarily homeless as well as losing nearly everything I owned. I was abandoned and even derided for my fall from financial grace. So I have some idea what N.O. people have been going through.

Fortunately, one person took me in and I've somehow rebuilt a simple but satisfying life in spite it all.

New Orleans had the same basic problems of economic dysfunctionality as is over-powering Arizona. Their tragedy may be like a dress-rehersal for the nation if and when peak-oil impacts us. Very few see the hand-writing on the wall or if they do they just choose to ignore it.

I still consider it to be a blessing to live in Sedona in a 300 sq.ft. efficiency and I drive a restored 1990 Honda Civic Wagon. Life can be worth living without all the materialistic excesses. KISS -- keep it simple stupid.

And finally, I've been rich(er) and now I'm poor(er), but if I've learned anything from my financial catastrophies, I've learned that there are more good friends and soulful contributers near the bottom that at the top!

New Orleans has provided us with an opportunity to leave our money, power, and status illusions behind and really open our hearts and pocket books up to be good Samaritans. The Golden Rule never goes out of style!

Posted by: Patrick Hickey on 11 Sep 05

Its great that there are plans like this that people are trying to come up with. It always important to find information that can save our lives at some point.

One place that I found that can also really help is

It has some really good ideas for ways to keep safe.

Posted by: Alex Stadig on 11 Sep 05

Venice has as much water yet has not been used to the advantage of the community. Water shuttles can move tourists everywhere and ease traffic issues. By using stone, cement, buildings will not be compromised by future storms. Why not build Canals for New Orleans. Imagine canals lit up for Mardi Gras SPECTACULAR yes?

New Orleans...should stop fighting nature and invite the water in. Scenic canals would draw tourists and protect the area at the same time. Many new resort developments are underway (one large scale in Nevada) that include water front living which is very desirable.

Posted by: S. Anya on 11 Sep 05

Now you see it Now you don't!

Why in the world do you want to waste large sums of resources to rebuild a city over a swamp? The best answer is to return this area to a natural environment which will be better for the overall health of the plant and animal life.

We (Americans)seem to believe that the government is one big bottomless pit for money and that regardless of cost,let it be done. I personally believe we can't afford all these pie in the sky revitalizations that are being suggested.

I believe trying to rebuild is a way to throw good money down the drain so let New Orleans sink quietly into the mire.

Posted by: Chris Edmonson on 11 Sep 05

Hello. My name is Hal. I have a message for you.

We all know about the tragedy of New Orleans and the hurricane Katrina. We have all seen the news, heard the stories. Some of us have even experienced it ourselves. Well, I have a question for you. What does the future hold?

If you do not know, then you are like most of us. Well, I have a solution.
I have an idea for what should be done with New Orleans. You see, we have here an incredible tragedy, but we also have an incredible opportunity. There is so much more that could be done to New Orleans. It could be wiped away and forgotten. It could be rebuilt as it was before. It could be built better than ever. It is this final prospect that I propose.

Now, I have no political background. I have no plans, no blueprints, no funding or organization to devote to this idea. All I have is a concept. A concept I wish to spread to everyone. A concept that, at first glance, seems like something out of a science fiction novel. A concept that, when looked at closely, has no reason it should not work.

Look around you at America. Look around you at the way we live our lives, at the way the government functions. Look ahead. How will this method last? How long can we go before the economy collapses, before the government is overthrown or broken. How long before something drastic happens that changes us all for the worse? Well, New Orleans gives us the ability to change all of this. New Orleans can be the start to what can become a much better America for everyone.

Sooner or later, we are going to run out of space. The population is increasing. Conditions are growing worse. The economy is beginning to fail. The government is in debt. People are too apathetic to do anything about it. We will run out of space, and when we do, we have two options. The first is to continue upwards. To build on top of everything. This is taken in movies and novels. The undersides are always dismal places, slums those above choose not to look at, until the foundations crumble and the world falls out from under them.

The other solution is to tear down and rebuild. To break down old, inefficient, degraded cities and rebuild them to be modern, to be secure, to be better. This is likely the route to be taken. However, why do we have to wait? Why should we wait until there is no more room? Why shouldn’t we start now, while we still have the space, and the time, to make things better for the future?

This is where New Orleans comes in. While the hurricane was a disaster, it is also a chance. The city will have to be rebuilt eventually. Why should we not build it a future city today?

“What about the people?” That’s the point. We rebuild the city from scratch. We can take the amounts of poor, and homeless, and refugees from the hurricane into account. We can prepare for them, and give them what they need, from the very start. This is what I propose. I propose we build a future city in the site of New Orleans. We build a structure unlike any other on earth. A modern, futuristic city designed from the start to hold everyone and more. Designed to withstand the elements. We build this city, not for now, but for the future. We build this city as a first step in the direction of a better tomorrow.

“What would it look like?” I don’t know. I can put forth many ideas. We could build a pyramid, larger than any seen before. Hundreds of floors, and entire city self-contained. The core can house all the heating, cooling, ventilation, computation, and the needs any city could have. The lower areas can be lower-rent districts. Places that are shelter for those in need, places where you can stay until you have something better to go to. We could dig deeper, have a city under ground. Protected from the elements by the very earth itself. We could have it self-contained, surrounded by the lake. Forget the levy’s, the walls are thick enough. The higher you go, the larger the spaces, the higher the rent. Drawbridges could access the outside. Helipads and airports could be anywhere along the sides. The point is, the city can look like anything we want to design. I’ll cover that some more later.

“How can this be done?” I need your help. I need everyone’s help. I need you to read this, to post this, to spread the word. Give this letter to someone else. Copy it and spread it around. Come to the journal, talk about it yourself. Post the links online. Do whatever you can to spread the word. This can be done, but it cannot be done alone. We need to become a thinking, acting populace. We need to be the ones in control. We should not have to limit our future because of money, the government, the way things have been. We should be able to step forward! We should be able to act!

“Where does the money come from?” Everywhere. The government can help fund the project. The people of New Orleans can help with what they have, invest in the future. Anyone with some money to spare can donate it. Companies can chip in, if not with money, with raw materials, workers, time. We can appeal to other countries for donations, for aid, for help. We can make this project truly worldwide.

“Where will the people of New Orleans go until this is finished?” Anywhere. If enough families around the country opened their doors to take in another, they could be housed. If the government, or the Red Cross, or independent companies build houses, rented out apartments, or bought hotels, they could be housed. The government could waive the fees, for the sake of charity. The people who lost their homes can help work on the project, so they have jobs as well as housing. Anyone could get a job constructing the new city. The resources can be obtained, if enough people help.

This is an investment. This is an investment in our futures. I make no pretense about it. It will cost a lot of money, and it will put a lot of people in debt. The money can be gained back, however. Just think; a giant futuristic city. How much money could that bring in during the space of one year, as a tourist attraction? How much money could it produce as an efficient port? A hub of commerce? How long would it take to make back what was put into it? One way or another, the city will eventually be rebuilt. The question is how, and my answer is “better.”

“What about cleaning up?” Cleanup of New Orleans is already underway. That won’t change no matter what the future holds. Why can’t we be thinking of rebuilding it already? What is to stop us from having a plan, the resources, even the construction underway by the time the cleanup is finished? Nothing. While the cleanup is taking place, donations can be collected, resources can be bought, preparations can begin for this project.

“How do we find the right people for the planning?” Why do we need to limit it at all? This is what I propose. Build a national, even worldwide forum. A place where anyone, around the world, can propose an idea. Any plan can be thought over, revised, and debated on. I’m certain there are people out there with ideas. If I, a college student from the middle of nowhere, can come up with an idea, anyone can. No matter how big or small, it can be proposed.

“What about political support? That’s the hardest part, and yet the easiest. You see, we will never get this plan to work if all we do is write letters to the senators. This idea will never go through if no one knows about it. This is why I am targeting you, the everyday person. We, the people, have the power. If the people know, and the people understand, then the politicians have little choice but to agree.

“How will this forum work?” Here is my idea. The Internet is a good place to base it. A central forum, a website where anyone can submit ideas and have them posted. Anyone with a phone can call in; it can be recorded and posted. Television and radio can broadcast the highlights. Print sources can publish the links and the highlights. Letters can be posted as easily as phone conversations. Any and all forms of media can be used.

From there, the ideas are in a free-for-all. Sooner or later, within the forum, parties will emerge supporting their ideas. The worse ideas, the less feasible, will be dealt with. They can be merged into one, they can be added to and resubmitted, they can be removed. When it comes down to a few, it’s a battle of the best. The most popular idea at the end can emerge and be the one to be designed. If multiple ideas have enough defenders that no single one can prevail, they can be set aside and new plans, merging the best of the best, can be created.

“What happens once the best is found?” Construction. By this time, the funds should have been accumulated, the support gained, everything needed to start obtained. People can donate money. Companies can donate money, or resources. The government can donate whatever they can. Other countries can help with the donations, the manufacturing, anything they can. Anything that’s donated can be used, or sold at auction for more funds. The only thing left is to construct it.

Think about this. What is there, in this idea, that cannot be done? What of this can be done if we all put our minds to it? Construction opens up hundreds, thousands of jobs. Those who help build, can be given first choice of where to live within the city. Anyone involved can be rewarded once it’s complete.

Yes, this will take time. This will take a lot of time. To borrow from cliché, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither will out future. Cleanup will take time, but it can be done. Construction, planning, it all will take time, but it all can be done.

The Point of this letter. The point of this is to rally support. What I am doing here is creating the most basic framework for it. I do not know how to engineer a city. I do not know how to clean up contaminated water. I do not have the ability to do this on my own. All I can do is spread the word. If I give this to everyone I know, and they do as well, and so do they, and so on, connections will be made. Sooner or later, someone who CAN engineer a city will know. Sooner or later, someone who DOES know how to clean up the water, will find this and agree. Sooner or later, enough people will know and agree with this, that it will gain it’s support in the government and it CAN be done.

This is where you come in. You, the reader, have one very important resource you can dedicate to this project. Your voice. There is no part of this plan that cannot be done. There is nothing I have said here that is truly impossible, if the resources are obtained. It will take time, but it is possible. This cannot happen without you. This step towards our future depends on you.

“What do I have to do?” Spread the word. That is all I ask of you. Copy this paper, give it to someone else. Send the document to everyone you can. You can write to your senators, your government, but that isn’t the point. That isn’t how we will get this done. What we do is target each other. Once the people know, and the people agree, the rest will follow.

Conclusion. The future is possible, starting now. The future, however, cannot happen without you. Please, help spread the word. That is all I can do, and that is all I ask. New Orleans is but the first step, but it is our best chance to start the future today.

The Journal:
Feel free to comment on the journal, and link others to it.

The Forum:
Feel free to comment on anything, post whatever you like. Your opinion is what will make this better.

The Email:
Please use this email only if you don’t wish your comment to be public; any comments sent to it will not be posted to the forum or the journal without permission first

Please, spread the word. It is the first step to a better tomorrow.

Posted by: View The Future on 11 Sep 05

As an exile from New Orleans I find the original article and the posts v. interesting and, in some cases, inspiring. I hope to return ASAP--but to a v. diff. city. It was a place of staggering creativity--and staggering ignorance. NOLA will re-open--the port is too important, as is the energy industry. As an exile, I fear what the gov--local, state & fed--will do. I, too, envision a greener, more "intelligently designed" (sorry) place, with wide ribbons of urbanity along the "heights" by the river and certain ridges intermingled with urban wetlands. 20 years ago or more I used to go to a bar out by the lake. The bartender was old and used to live in the same area before the lake levees were even built. He told us how they used to wade out into the clear marshy, reedy water and pick up crabs to boil. I cherish that vision. Could that environment return? Prob. not. But, to use a music metaphor, NOLA could be the stage for a new improvised extended jam between nature, the built environment & culture, like it always has been, but at a higher octave.
While many of us hope we can return to NOLA, we realize it won't be the same and we might not like what it becomes. So we prepare ourselves for an extended life in exile. But it could be worse. Lafayette is full of nice people, the food is good, as is the music, and it's close enough to sneak into the city when we can.

Posted by: Jim Stratton on 11 Sep 05

I'm so glad this was posted. I just stumbled onto it, whilst wondering about re-building and the tremendous opportunity to make something new.

I had actually spoken with my mother about this, and she wanted me to write a piece myself with my vision, and submit to whomever would listen, but I see there are like minds out here.

In any case - I wholeheartedly agree with what this post is saying.

I myself have 2 main concerns, as far as community re-building goes.

1. That the poor are not priced out of their old neighborhoods - my fear is that in the quest for walkable, environmentally friendly, low-impact neighborhoods - all the rebuilding would go towards these fantastic mixed use, condo communities - and the poor will still be left out in the cold.

2. My other concern (kind of building off of the mixed use, condo community idea) is that the architectual integrity stay. Many of those homes may have been poor and falling apart, but they still had a certain character and beauty to them that we no longer see in modern building. If some sort of homage could be paid to the old shotgun, I would love to see that happen.

I also definitely agree that New Orleans citizens should be in charge of rebuilding their city - I even had the thought that bringing back the old guild setup of craftsmen would be refreshing - and give N.O. yet another boost in culture.

There are so many opportunities here for making things "right", imo.

Posted by: Tina on 12 Sep 05

New Orleans is as untenable a place to build, never mind re-build, a city as I can imagine. It doesn't matter how high you rebuild those levees, they'll never be high enough. With sea-levels rising, storms becoming more severe and the ground subsiding into the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans WILL be flooded again. Like the song says, it's only a matter of time.

Posted by: Toshi on 12 Sep 05

Alan AtKisson's comments feel good, but in general provide plaitudes rather than a platform for something positive to come out of this disaster.

In order to think about what should be done to get the city back on its feet, one must think about what has happened. In simple terms, the ability of city residents to earn income has largely disappeared while the expense of living there would remain. People of means will not move back to the city unless the income they can earn offsets the expenses they would incur once they return. In order to make the city attractive to talented, ambitious people their expenses must be reduced. The following may accomplish this:

1. A tax moratorium (including federal taxes) for returnees for at least several years and reduced taxes until levees have been improved.
2. Use eminent domain powers to acquire homes in flooded areas and give homes that are salvageable to people willing to rehabilitate them and/or rebuild new homes where existing homes cannot be repaired. People rebuilding can be provided with no interest loans and tax free status for some years. Of course, people benefitting should be required to live in their new homes for a specified period to receive tax benefits. Former residents would also be eligible as would new residents.
3. Provide a tax moratorium for returning businesses and for business startups not related to the tourist industry employing city residents in much the same way as above.
4. Since the city's tourist areas appear to be largely or wholly intact, maintain taxes on hotels, restaurants and bars in these areas.
5. Have the federal government fund the difference between taxes collected from tourists and the funds needed to run essential city services until the tax rolls can be restored once the city's economy revives.

The above would reduce the role of the federal government in reviving the city, provide incentives for newcomers (especially newcomers that may be interested in starting up businesses) and enable displaced residents the opportunity to return and rebuild their lives and homes. The greatest beneficiaries would be those most able to contribute to the city's economic revival - exactly the kind of people that one would want to encourage to return.

Some may argue that such an approach would be racist. Nonsense. There are plenty of African-Americans of means and ability that could see this as an opportunity for empowerment. Such a program would make it difficult for people without means to return it is true. But one can argue that a weakened city cannot afford the burden of people without means and the rest of the country should share in the burden of caring for them.

One final point. Such a program as above would probably reduce real estate values in areas of the city not affected by flooding. However, a tax moratorium would reduce and perhaps eliminate the negative effect of lower real estate values.

In the end, whatever incentive program used must target those with talent and ambition to locate in the city that otherwise would not choose to do so. If this does not happen then a lot of money will be spent to create a museum for a dying city.

Posted by: John Tofflemire on 13 Sep 05

For everyone with an interest in New Orleans may I suggest reading Duncan Murrell's article in Harper's August 2005, p.50ff. "The Swarm, An Eruption in the French Quarter." Murrell is talking about the infestation of New Orleans by the Formosan Termite, the most ferocious of the breed. Any plan for restoration needs also to deal with the termites.

Posted by: Milo on 14 Sep 05

There have been several past examples of communities relocating from hazard areas, rebuilding in safer places, and implementing sustainable design and technologies in the process. They include Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin; Valmeyer, Illinois; and to a lesser extent, Pattonsburg, Mo. All are small rural communities -- nothing on the scale of New Orleans -- but they are useful precedents and proving grounds. Among other things, they have proved that people can accept and thrive from relocation; that disaster victims can adopt new, more sustainable designs and technologies, despite their overwhelming desire to return to "life as normal" as soon as possible; and that FEMA and other federal agencies can play a constructive role in sustainable redevelopment. Many of the people who worked on these projects are volunteering to lend their expertise to New Orleans. While FEMA establishes its Disaster Assistance Centers, perhaps we can establish a Sustainable Recovery Assistance Center in New Orleans, equipped with design tools and staffed by volunteer experts in green design and technologies, to advise the many companies and organizations that will be involved in rebuilding the city.

Posted by: Bill Becker on 15 Sep 05

In response to the following comment in the above article:

"There is no one in the world smarter at managing land and water than the water engineers of the Netherlands. They have a thousand years of cumulative experience. New Orleans' famous pumps, which worked adequately for many years, were actually of Dutch design..."

That our pumps are of Dutch design is incorrect. A. Baldwin Wood of New Orleans actually designed these wood-screw type pumps from drawings by Archimedes and the Dutch got them from us!

My 93 year old uncle, Dudley Atkinson, is an engineer who was involved in the construction and installation of these pumps in New Orleans and knew A. Baldwin Wood. Uncle Dudley worked for Dibert, Bancroft & Ross of New Orleans, the foundry and machine shop who built these pumps and who also built the SAME pumps that the Dutch are still using today!

These pumps are made of heavy high carbon cast iron for long life and their bearings were "Cutless" brand rubber, water lubricated.

Originally these pumps were powered by separate power plants and were NOT connected to the grid so they would continue working if the general power system went down. And these power plants were well above sea level so they would never flood.

But...some smart people in New Orleans government over the years got the idea to do away with all that and put these pumps on the power grid and also exchange some of these old reliable pumps with "more efficient" pumps (which means they work faster and burn out quicker and cannot move the kind of water that these "old fashioned" screw pumps can).

The original screw pumps were 14 feet in diameter and combined could pump 25,000 cubic feet of water per second which is 182,000 gallons per second or 10,920,000 gallons per hour.

At this rate the city could've been drained within a few hours. And had the pumps continued running the city would've never sat under so much water for so long a time. Flooding damage would've been mitigated.

I know all this because I had to evacuate to my uncle's house in Baton Rouge and he gave me the scoop.

The city should reinstate all these pumps and put them on separate power plants as originally designed.

Of course protecting the city from getting flooded in the first place is another issue. Perhaps we have something we can learn from the Dutch in this regard.

Posted by: Richard Bienvenu on 2 Nov 05



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