Sat, Sep 03, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Rebuilding the `Big Easy' brings opportunities among the chaos

By Duncan Campbell  /  THE GUARDIAN

More than 150 years ago, the Illustrated Lond News pronounced loftily on a young American city.

"New Orleans has been built upon a site that only the madness of commercial lust could ever have tempted men to occupy," observed the magazine in 1853.

Now the planners and citizens of one of the world's most famous cities have to decide how -- and if -- they can rebuild and what Hurricane Katrina has changed for ever.

Question marks hovered on Thursday over everything; from what has become of the city's criminal records and its prisoners to whether there would have to be a full-scale bulldozing of the ruined areas of the city. While the city's main preoccupation was still search-and-rescue and handling looters, a debate was already starting about the future.

After Hurricane Betsy had devastated the coastline in 1965 and taken 74 lives in Louisiana and Mississippi, the US Army Corps of Engineers added extra height to the levees meant to provide protection for the city and its surrounding areas. Even then, they were aware that a hurricane of the force of Katrina would still be able to cause the kind of damage that has been witnessed over the past few days.

What the city and state government now have to decide is whether they again attempt to build the floodwalls even higher or whether it will be accepted that some parts of the city will be impossible to protect and the whole shape of New Orleans may have to be rethought.

John Thompson, the architect and chair of the Academy of Urbanism in Britain, said on Thursday that the disaster presented New Orleans with an opportunity to create a new kind of city.

"It's quite a cathartic process to be thinking of something better for the future," said Thompson, who has been involved in a number of urban regeneration projects around the world, including some in cities hit by disasters.

"Throughout history, cities have been hit by disasters and that can provide an opportunity for a rebirth rather than just a restructuring. The issue you have is not just the physical restructuring, but also the spiritual, cultural and economic restructuring. Does this point towards just replicating what has been there before or to use what has happened as an opportunity to rethink some of the mistakes of the past?" he said.

Many American cities, he said, had become just a conglomeration of buildings and car parks and he hoped that any rebuilding plans would aspire towards creating a less alienated urban environment.

"Rebuilding a great American city could be a great project," he said.

"All the past disasters, they have hit suburban areas, not the central urban areas of major cities," Mary Comerio, author of Disaster Hits Home, a book on post-disaster reconstruction, told the Times-Picayune Web site. "Here we have a significant hit on the entire urban area -- not just the core, but everything. It is going to be an incredibly complex staging operation."

She compared the damage done by Hurricane Katrina to the 1995 earthquake that hit Kobe, Japan, killing 6,000 people. In that disaster more than 100,000 buildings were destroyed and 300,000 people were left homeless. Kobe took up to 10 years to rebuild, she said.

Comerio said that the poorest members of the city's population would be the hardest hit. Apartments are always the last to be rebuilt, she said, and low-income housing lagged behind that.

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