Officials Mull Big Easy's Fate

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An astonishing phenomenon, the drowning of New Orleans (search), leads to a mind-boggling question: How to rebuild a city? Some are already considering the challenge.

Officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (search) estimate it will be weeks before all the water that flowed into the city through breached levees can be pumped back out. After that, it will take several years — and many billions of dollars — to rebuild homes, offices, streets and highways.

It is the decisions people make as they go through that process that will determine what New Orleans eventually becomes, disaster recovery experts said. From the major political battles over how to spend public funds to each family's deliberation over whether to return to a city where there's not much to go back to, the choices people make in the weeks and months ahead will determine the Big Easy's fate.

"It will reveal a lot about the power structure of New Orleans," said Lawrence Vale, a professor of urban studies and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (search).

Federal, state and city government will need to make big investments in infrastructure — especially flood protection — to entice businesses back to the city and reassure insurers that nothing like this is going to happen again any time soon. They will also have to convince people that the city is a safe place to live.

The owners of single-family homes are usually the first to rebuild after a hurricane, said Walter Peacock, director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. But because fewer than 50 percent of New Orleans homeowners have flood insurance, many of them probably won't have financial resources to rebuild at all.

Condominiums and rental housing take longer to come back simply because they have more complicated insurance and financing issues to work out. That can make finding a place to live in the aftermath of a disaster extremely difficult for renters, especially poor ones. The flooding has wiped out many of the neighborhoods where low-income minorities live, making their situation especially tenuous as the city recovers.

"If you get reinvestment it probably isn't going to be targeted at those people," Peacock said. "That could be a major problem in New Orleans if that housing doesn't come back."

Because low-income housing in the Florida Keys has not been replaced after hurricanes, he said, the resort area's hotels and restaurants now have trouble finding enough employees. Many of them have to commute from Homestead, south of Miami.

Ironically, the destruction caused by Katrina gives New Orleans residents the opportunity to gird themselves against the next hurricane that pounds into their city. Even before Katrina hit, Louisiana was considering a stronger building code that would require more wind-resistant designs for roofs and walls. With the proper building materials and techniques, a house can usually survive a Category 5 storm intact, said Marc Levitan, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Louisiana State University.

The new rules should be instituted as soon as possible, Levitan recommended, before people start to rebuild.

"It would be nice if we could make some recommendations and get them in place so we're not building the same thing that fell down last time," he said.

Katrina also gives the Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for flood control in New Orleans, the opportunity to modify the network of levees it uses to keep water out of the city. The structures that are currently in place are designed to withstand a Category 3 hurricane, but the Corps has been considering an upgrade for several years that could handle a Category 5 storm.

"I think there's a lot of opportunities for improving the levees," said Joannes J. Westerink, a civil engineer at the University of Notre Dame. "There are lots of ways of protecting the city."

They all cost money, of course. So for New Orleans and everyone who has a stake in it, the big question over the next few years will be how much to spend and what to spend it on.