On September 7, 1900, Galveston, Texas, was a bustling, prominent seaport with a growing population of 40,000 people. The next day when the historic hurricane blew in, Galveston was reduced to a pile of rubble, and over 6000 people had lost their lives. In spite of promises to build bigger and better than ever, Galveston never fully recovered. Today it serves as a seaside tourist destination with a population of 56,000 people. Its seaport and commerce moved inland and became the cosmopolitan city of Houston, Texas, which is now the fourth largest city in the United States today. There has not been a deadlier natural disaster since then, that is, until Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. With the damage and loss of lives that occurred on the Gulf Coast, and the aftermath of the flooding of New Orleans, this storm will be remembered not just as America’s deadliest natural disaster, but its costliest as well.
As the breech in the levee is repaired and the water is slowly pumped out, there are cries that New Orleans will be rebuilt bigger and better than ever. As bare ground begins to reappear, local, state and federal agencies are harping each other in the blame game, and ultimately pointing a nasty finger toward President Bush. Such as it is when people experience strong emotions. Rational and calm thought in the face of such complete devastation becomes a rare commodity. Listen to any TV station, be it CNN, FOX, NBC or others, or any radio show, Imus or otherwise, and what you hear are pundits opining on who is to blame for the slow response to the flood that overwhelmed eighty percent of the city, sinking it into what will be remembered most certainly as an example of failed leadership. But as to who failed, or why, should not be the focus of attention, at least right now. Right now, we need to finish the job of making sure that the remaining residents have been evacuated safely, and that we as a nation welcome and absorb the residents of New Orleans who have been displaced by the flood.
Without question we will experience the effects—economically, psychologically and spiritually–of this disaster for years to come. Cities in our country have been destroyed and rebuilt before. Chicago in 1871 and San Francisco in 1906 come to mind, but it is hard to imagine how New Orleans could ever be rebuilt. Hundreds of buildings sitting under ten to twenty feet of fetid water simply do not dry out as if nothing happened. They do not burn or crumple into dust but instead stand as erect boxes of mush. With the exception of a few sections of the city that received little water damage, and a good section of the French Quarter that remained unscathed, there really isn’t much in New Orleans that will be salvageable. When the waters are finally pumped out, the shock of just how thorough and insidious the damage has been will become unbearably evident.
We can continue to argue over who’s at fault for New Orleans’ calamity and the social inequity that the flood seems to have exposed, but until the last drop of water is pumped out of the city, the real focus needs to be on, “What now?” How do we help the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been so incomprehensibly disrupted? How do we provide the jobs, housing and schools that they will need? How do we help them become acculturated with their new communities? For those who insist New Orleans be rebuilt as the cosmopolitan city it had been will see a process that will take years? Such an endeavor, though, would not seem very prudent, as it doesn’t make sense to rebuild a city that will still sit ten feet below sea level. After all, is it realistic to make that kind of financial investment when another hurricane of equal or greater force could easily breech the levees again?
And so, perhaps New Orleans should be relegated to become what Galveston, Texas became after 1900: a small, tourist city. Certainly preserving the French Quarter would lend to that. As to the port that that area will still need and the commerce it will generate, can anyone say, “Baton Rouge, the new, New Orleans?” Some might consider that to be a far stretch, but considering that Texas succeeded in building a port inland that’s protected from the Gulf, then what’s to stop Louisiana from applying the same level of ingenuity in finding a more permanent solution. The question is whether there will be the visionaries who can argue convincingly the necessity of practicality over nostalgia, for unless that is done; a rebuilt New Orleans will only stand as a glaring example of hubris, misallocated resources, and the potential for another cataclysmic, human tragedy.