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We're starting to hear some discussion about what will happen to New Orleans once this disaster ends. What most of the talk I've heard misses, however, is the extent to which there isn't really a collective decision to be made about whether or not "we" will rebuild the city. Government will play a role, of course, but we're largely talking about many small decisions undertaken by businesses and individuals. One thing to consider is this. Say you're the owner of a handful of rental units in one of New Orleans' poor neighborhoods. Now say you're insurance money comes in. Are you going to use that money to rebuild your wrecked structures, or are you just going to take the money and buy some stocks? Some people will do the former, of course, but many will do the latter.

Or say you're my friend K., a 2003 Ivy League grad, working as a public school teacher in N.O., safely evacuated to her boyfriend's parents' house in Alabama before the storm hit. Are you going to sit around and wait for whenever the schools re-open, or are you going to look for some job elsewhere? The latter, I suspect. My guess would be that the overwhelming majority of childless professionals -- a transient group in any city -- at a minimum will relocate. The spillover consequences of things like this are going to be large. Poor people without savings will very quickly need to go wherever it is they can find jobs and housing. What's more, New Orleans is a very poor city and it's somewhat hard to imagine a large federal program aimed at building slums. Similarly, while the N.O. city government and the LA state government will doubtless get some kind of federal bailout to prevent bankruptcy, it's hard to imagine either being attractive candidates for bond investors in the near future and equally hard to imagine how they'll be able to get things up and running without taking on debt.

Now on the other hand, the oil and gas industry in the are will doubtless revive, and the French Quarter's appeal as a tourist destination ought to persist. But it seems very likely to me that whatever rises from the floodwaters will be rather different from the former city. In particular, New Orleans' population has been declining for decades anyway. People are naturally reluctant to uproot themselves, which slows long-term decline of urban areas. Since everyone is currently displaced anyway, though, it seems that depopulation will only speed up. So something will be rebuilt, but I'd wager it'll be something significantly smaller than the former city.

September 1, 2005 | Permalink


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» Let's Talk About The Weather from i'm just waiting for the robot invasion
The weather? Yeah - you know, the hurricane. New Orleans is half gone, underwater, and now the blame game begins. Hell, I've already played at it a bit myself . . . At The Huffington Post Scot Mehno demotes Hayley Barbour to mayor. Big Media Matt clear... [Read More]

Tracked on Sep 2, 2005 12:19:19 PM

» Rebuilding New Orleans from Martin Stabe
Apparently 31 per cent of Americans think New Orleans should not be rebuilt after this horrifying disaster ends. What a strange question for pollsters to be asking. Matthew Yglesias explains why it’s not up to American public opinion to decide... [Read More]

Tracked on Sep 2, 2005 1:16:26 PM

» Rebuilding New Orleans from Martin Stabe
UPDATED Apparently 31 per cent of Americans think New Orleans should not be rebuilt after this horrifying disaster ends. What a strange question for pollsters to be asking. Apparently, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, expres... [Read More]

Tracked on Sep 2, 2005 1:27:56 PM

» the politics of the New Orleans disaster from Peter Levine
I agree with Maria Farrell and others that the New Orleans disaster has displayed aspects of American life that are grievously wrong. People died because they couldn't afford to leave the flooded city. The government failed to help them, just... [Read More]

Tracked on Sep 6, 2005 7:23:47 AM


If the levees are rebuilt and improved, and the pumps are upgraded, and the land flushed fairly clean, I'd bet lots of people will be attracted to the cheap submarine land. They'll buy it and build something flood resistant, unless prevented from doing so by law.

So, maybe we should hire the Dutch to do the levees, and/or raise the land. Or, maybe offer the whole shebang to the Dutch for 50 cents on the dollar.

Posted by: yesh | Sep 1, 2005 11:37:29 PM

I've read that when Kobe, Japan rebuilt after its earthquake, the city gentrified considerably (whatever that means in Japan). I suspect you'll see the same effect in New Orleans. Those without property in the city won't, for the most part, be going back.

Posted by: Dan Ryan | Sep 2, 2005 12:27:39 AM

I'm not so sure about that. New Orleans isn't just anyplace.
A lot of the locals love it with a passion, and will put up with
a lot to stay there or go back. Of course, a lot of people will leave as well. But there are plenty who don't have the resources to go anywhere else.

Posted by: Joe Buck | Sep 2, 2005 12:47:11 AM

JB. The 'resources' issue can cut both ways. Unless the evacuation is very brief, many won't have the resources to easily move back.

Posted by: Dan Ryan | Sep 2, 2005 12:56:55 AM

The flood of '93 wiped out huge portions of St. Louis County and they're thriving now--all the old farms and farm houses and silos are gone, but they've been replaced by mile long strip malls filled with every chainstore under the sun and all that. More and more people are moving out there. It's different cause it's not at all urban, but still...

Posted by: Julie | Sep 2, 2005 12:59:12 AM

For me, living in New Orleans during hurricane season felt a lot like living in New York City during an orange alert. I think this reflection on why people stayed in New York after September 11th explains why many people will go back to New Orleans, despite the risks:Living in New York is like a terminal disease: You start awake in panic every morning, your stomach knotted, your heart plunging in your chest. But as the day wears on, you’re not even aware that you’re going about your life. An event that will surely qualify as one of the most astounding in the whole of recorded history has occurred not a mile from you. It’s as if you just happened to be a shepherd tending your flock near Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius erupted, or a seventeenth-century London publican glancing out the window of his establishment in the Strand to glimpse the flames consuming London. That two hijacked, passenger-loaded commercial jetliners should plunge into the World Trade Center and topple it to the ground, reducing almost 3,000 innocent civilians to ash, was beyond imagination—but I still have to drop off the dry cleaning and go to the bank.

It’s this disconnect between the ordinary rituals of daily life and the unpredictable course of history that keeps us here. “Dad, why didn’t the Jews leave Germany when they realized the Nazis wanted to kill them?” I badgered my father when I was 9 years old. “Why did they sit around and wait until it was too late?” Why didn’t the burning of the Reichstag in 1933 tip them off as to Hitler’s intent? Nearly half a century later, after three decades in New York, I have the answer: Because it was home.

Posted by: Becks | Sep 2, 2005 2:16:50 AM

If you look at how absolutely vital the New Orleans port is to our economy, both for grain shipments out and oil shipments in, you immediately see that there absolutely has to be a city there for the oil and dock workers we must have at that location.

And they all need houses. Sears stores. Fast food. Schools. Churches. Elected government. Car dealers.

Ooops -- there's a city again!

But Jeebus Cripes -- do it right this time!

Posted by: Antifa | Sep 2, 2005 3:40:43 AM

Matt Y. forgets that a very high percentage of residents of New Orleans are native born. It has a lower transient single-young-professional population than NY or DC. So even if they all leave, it wouldn't leave that big of dent in the population. In any event, the real magnets for young professionals are law firms, etc.--many of which feed off of the industries located in or near the city. If those industries don't leave, then the professional jobs that rely on them won't either.

But it will probably take years to know one way or the other.

Posted by: snowball | Sep 2, 2005 7:49:17 AM

Agree with Snowball - my impression, obtained from a few friends that are NO area residents, is that there are much fewer people like "K" in NO than in the NorthEast or on the West Coast. Young people in NO are mainly people who grew up there, and have much greater ties to the area than you'd find here in NYC.

I also wonder whether there will be some kind of tax break or other incentive given for people to live in NO. Remember that after 9/11, the government gave people HUGE tax breaks to live in Downtown Manhattan. I know a lot of people who moved downtown just to get the tax break. (Of course, the government didn't extend the tax break to Chelsea. Grumble.) Can a similar incentive work in NO? And if it could work, should it be given? Dunno.

One other thing: can the parts of NO that are below sea level be raised? I mean, can we get a whole lot of dirt and fill it in??? If there are whole areas that need to be rebuilt anyway, why not rebuild them on a hill, to help prevent this from occurring in the future? Is that possible?

Posted by: Al | Sep 2, 2005 10:38:57 AM

Isn't there a problem with all the benzine and other toxic petroleum products in the floodwater? Won't much of this stuff sink into the soil when the waters recede, leaving the site of N.O. a candidate first of all for EPA Superfund before rebuilding efforts? I hope not, but I worry about potential environmental devastation that will not be easily overcome no matter how much spirit the city's inhabitants have.

Posted by: mpysche | Sep 2, 2005 10:44:26 AM


Couple comments: First, disaster relieve and reconstruction subsidies generally go to subsidize the reconstruction of private property. Those who own the private property in New Orleans will capture the lions share of whatever Federal dollars are spent there. I don't know what the property ownership patterns are in New Orleans but I'm betting that property ownership is a lot more white and wealthy than the population. I'm sure there are also many middle class blacks that own single family houses, but the bulk of the money will probably go to the larger land owners. Are they going to just walk away from this opportunity or will they rebuild? I'm guessing most will take the money and rebuild, or sell out to others who will do so.

Second, New Orleans is flood damaged but not destroyed. Big difference. Destroyed is what Dresden and Tokyo looked like after WW-II. Destroyed is what Homestead FL looked like after Andrew. If there is economic rationale for the city to exist (like maybe being the largest and most important seaport in the United States and a MAJOR cultural and tourist destination) then it will rebuild. Houston was flooded 4 years ago in 2001 after being hit by Hurricane Allison and suffered $5 billion in Flood Damage. Yesterday I was driving through Houston to the Astrodome and passed through many flood damaged neighborhoods that four years later show no sign of ever having been flooded.

In flood damaged homes and buildings the owners were forced to gut everything down to the building studs and girders up to the flood water line and then sterilize the studs and bare walls before replacing the sheetrock, wiring, and flooring material. After the flood the streets in flood damaged neighborhoods were lined with a 6-10' high berm of flood damaged debris that homeowners drug out of their houses and just piled along the streets and it took the city refuse removal something like a month to get it all hauled away and disposed of. Same thing will happen in New Orleans. Any buildings that are worth saving and remodeling will be gutted up to the high water mark and new floors, walls, and wiring will be installed. A lot of them will turn out better than they were before. Houses that were decaying relics before Katrina won't be salvaged most likely because there's no point in polishing turds. But if the money is there, something new will take their place. All the historic areas will be completely rebuilt as they have value.

It's really amazing how fast cities can be rebuilt when the effort is made. By the 1950s much of Europe was completely rebuilt from devastation that far exceeded anything that New Orleans has seen. Kobe Japan is slicker and more gentrified than ever. You can't tell there ever was a flood in Houston.

Posted by: Kent | Sep 2, 2005 11:51:17 AM

Rebuild New Orleans? Let's rebuild America!

Posted by: Doug | Sep 2, 2005 9:11:09 PM

It makes no sense to me to "rebuild New Orleans" -- stirring and brave words! -- unless you flood-proof it. So you have to add that to your rebuild budget.

Posted by: David Sucher | Sep 2, 2005 9:30:06 PM

Do you believe in global warming?

If the climate hasn't changed, we won't get another hurricane like this one for an average of a hundred to two hundred years. If we rebuilt everything the way it was lots of it is likely to be replaced twice before NO gets hit hard again.

But if you believe in global warming, we're likely to get increasingly bad hurricanes and it really makes sense to rebuild new orleans somewhere farther inland. Leave the things there which have to be there, and make sure they can withstand both flooding and 200 mph winds. Move everything else someplace safer.

Posted by: J Thomas | Sep 2, 2005 9:59:27 PM

My crazy thought:

Having already asked the mayor to step down and allow the govt to take over the city, Bush will ask Congress to federalize the city as a district as a result of a national emergency. Then the Republican will relocate the capital there, rebuilding it according to a new plan just as D.C. itself was designed as a piece, a plan created and implemented by Halliburton and other friendly contractors, to solidify their hold on the south. D.C. is where it is because it's at the border of the northeast and southeast, the center of the country in 1800. But the northeast is lost to the Republicans. So why stay?

Posted by: angry young man | Sep 2, 2005 10:12:11 PM

I've lived in NOLA for the past 7 years or so, and went to architecture school there, so I've spent a fair amount of time studying the city. A lot of what's been said is true. New Orleans is not a total loss. A lot of what gives it its "tourist charm", namely the French Quarter (Balconies, bars, and boobies)and Uptown(Big fancy houses and giant oak trees), that's mostly been spared the flooding. Pretty much everywhere along the river is higher ground, and is ok. Because it's higher ground, it's where stuff was first built, so a lot of the history is still intact.

As you move away from the river and up towards the lake, or east past the french quarter, that was more the rank and file residential neighborhoods, as well as some industrial areas. The CBD is a special case, but most of those buildings are salvageable, and they'll get fixed relatively quickly.

So what's going to happen once they drain the water and clean up the filth is that you're going to have some big sections of the city still existing, plus a bunch of empty space. So there's a few big questions. How quickly will the empty spaces fill in? What will they fill in with? And, Can the remaining city economically survive without the rest of it?

There's a lot of things that makes New Orleans unique, but one of the big ones is the mixing of the population. Meaning that different household income levels tend to coexist in an unpredicatble weave throughout the city, instead of being divided into discreet and isolated neighborhoods. While this fact makes it a little more dangerous for careless tourists, it certainly brings some life to the city that you don't see in many other places. The gentrification issue is a really big one. There is a sizeable part of the new orleans population that survives on an income that would be nowhere near adequate in most other cities. There are lots of families that only have houses because they've been passed down by earlier generations. They live from paycheck to paycheck, could not afford insurance, and will definately not be able to afford to rebuild. Many of these people litterally lost everything that they have, and they will not be able to replace any of it without some serious help. As other posters have mentioned, many of these people will find jobs over the coming weeks/months in order to subsist, and they'll probably stay wherever they ended up being evacuated to.

So there's probably going to be some serious gentrification going on. Which is sad. It'll be doubly tragic if everyone moving in builds the big, boring suburban houses that are so prevelent everywhere else in the country. New Orleans has generally had an active and powerful historic preservation society, but I fear the momentum to rebuild will force the local government to let developers run amok, and we're going to end up with an ugly city full of boring condos and uninspiring brick houses. Basically, New Orleans will start to look like houston, or atlanta, or any of those other cities with no real charm.

There's going to be talk of rebuilding the city "the right way", and much of that will have to do with hurricane protection in mind. I just hope that it also includes some wise planning in order to keep the city a unique and interesting place, even if it is different from what it was before.

Posted by: Shawn | Sep 2, 2005 11:58:41 PM

Are we taking our eyes off the ball?

Impeach. Bush. Now.

There is a part of us that must slip into cool efficiency when accidents occur and chaos prevails. We tell our Selves that we are responsible for our feelings and that we cannot afford them in this moment. We set them aside for later when we can weep. Our hands are needed now.

"Ideas have consequences" has been the Right's mantra for decades. The consequences and rotted immoral realities of the conservative corporatist philosophy are now apparent -- citizens kept from the truth become ignorant; a religion that promotes assassination is terrorist; if you invade other countries without cause, the world becomes more unstable; if you dismantle the government, it isn't there; a country without a government ... can't govern. The very character of our ideas has led to this.

Even as we lament the dead in New Orleans and do all we can to save those still in peril, we must not miss sight of the fact that this disaster is but a single heavy droplet that marks the beginning of an impending worldwide storm.

Let's be clear here. Our instruments and agencies of governance have utterly failed us. We need to replace them immediately. "Impeach Bush Now" must become the rallying cry of the nation.

The Agency of Homeland Security and its incompetent child, FEMA, have failed the nation in protecting a documented "critical infrastructure" economic hub and port. As Paul Krugman wrote on September 2nd in the New York Times: "Before 9/11 the Federal Emergency Management Agency listed the three most likely catastrophic disasters facing America: a terrorist attack on New York, a major earthquake in San Francisco and a hurricane strike on New Orleans. 'The New Orleans hurricane scenario,' The Houston Chronicle wrote in December 2001, 'may be the deadliest of all.' It described a potential catastrophe very much like the one now happening."

As Neil Irwin wrote on September 1st in the Washington Post: "The storm hit a chokepoint in the U.S. economy -- a concentration of ports, rail lines, barge traffic and major highways making up one of the nation's major trade hubs. New Orleans is underwater, and its future is uncertain -- as is that of the $49 billion in goods, 60 percent of U.S. grain exports, and 26 percent of the nation's natural gas supply and crude oil that flow through nearby ports each year."

The CIA is crippled; The DoJ has taken up endorsing torture; DoE is asleep and predicts oil will last for another century; DoD is mired in Iraqi sand; Homeland Security has failed; FEMA has failed to protect even its three self-proclaimed priorities; this corporatist Presidency has failed.

Impeach Bush now.

The ironic fact is -- we're very lucky. The world at this moment is awash with cheap, plentiful energy and, consequently, burns a billion barrels of oil every twelve days -- a quarter of that in America. The wealth and the energy are available -- this time -- to repair this disaster.

The point is that these resources were available yesterday to prevent this disaster. The hurricane missed New Orleans; what caused this destruction is our national failure to shore up the levees.

The conclusion is easily grasped -- we are inept at protecting our national interests even though we are a wealthy nation with cheap, plentiful energy.

The question must be -- how would or could we handle a New Orleans without cheap, plentiful energy? We need the answer to that question now -- not two decades from now.

The world burns thirty billion barrels of oil every year. Imagine replacing thirty billion barrels of anything -- every year. It has to be renewable, you have to do the work to manufacture it, and you have to move it in a transportable way to market. Don't cheat -- imagine doing this without the existing energy infrastructure (because the oil is gone). Could we even make thirty billion barrels of coffee or milk or granola without cheap, plentiful energy?

The average American uses the energy equivalent of 8 gallons of oil every day and there is no renewable alternative on our horizon. We plan now or we take our seat next to the dinosaurs.

The worldwide water wars are just beginning. Global warming has ensured a suitable home for malaria in an additional 1/4 of the U.S; it is a scourge wherever poverty prevails and malaria kills a child in Africa every 30 seconds. America is unprepared for a pandemic of influenza, unprepared to grow its own food or manufacture its own needs, and has no remaining slack in its economy to absorb the crunch of an impending housing deflation. Every piece of our American infrastructure is now fragile and at risk from culpably negligent governance.

New Orleans is just the beginning of a worldwide storm and we will need a functioning government -- collaborating with other governments (i.e., an invigorated United Nations) to survive it.

Impeach Bush Now.


Posted by: ehj2 | Sep 3, 2005 11:33:44 AM

Anyone else consider the possibility that New Orleans will be rebuilt specifically to make certain that its mostly poor, black reesidents go back there? I seriously doubt that most people want to have to resettle large numbers of New Orleansians within their own cities. I'm the only person so far who has suggested this.

Posted by: Glaivester | Sep 3, 2005 12:00:23 PM

Just a quick note to mention something no one else has here. What about New Orleans the working port? I understand that the port infrastructure is largely not what was destroyed, but surely the working-class population of the city provided a great number of the port workers for the fifth largest port in the world. Given that you can't move the Mississippi river, we will probably end up just massively reengineering the flood plains of the city and building mixed-income developments there for those workers as well as for the professionals. Could come out ok.

Posted by: Ottoe | Sep 3, 2005 6:27:13 PM

To the extent that individual NO property owners decide not to rebuild, they will instead sell their property. Someone, somewhere, will want to buy that property at some price. I suspect there will be a lot of people getting contaminated land real cheap, building inexpensive housing on it, and a lot of poor folks will move right back in.

Posted by: Hamilton Lovecraft | Sep 3, 2005 6:27:27 PM

15 year exemption from city taxes - 10 year exemption from state taxes - 5 year exemption from SOME federal taxes. Feds make city and state whole. Shining new city in no time.


Posted by: williak | Sep 3, 2005 7:09:12 PM

Katrina's landfall: Monday, 6:30 a.m.

Subject of the President's speech at 9:04 a.m. on Tuesday as New Orleans awoke to failed levees and rising water: "The 60th Anniversary of V-J Day."

President's First Major Statement on Hurricane Relief Planning: Wednesday at 5:11 p.m. after returning "early" from a month-long vacation.

Sounds a lot like sitting on stage seven minutes after learning that the nation was under attack on 9/11, huh?

Posted by: Anonymous | Sep 3, 2005 10:59:04 PM

quick note...new orleans had perhaps the thinnest middle class of any city. it was a place of super rich and super poor. why, or how, would the poor return? but ehj2 is correct...why are we talking "rebuild" when there are thousands yet to save?

Posted by: diana christine | Sep 4, 2005 1:13:15 AM

Urban Renewal = Black Removal
NO Renewal = Black Removal
That's my bet.

Posted by: dilbert dogbert | Sep 6, 2005 4:38:52 PM

Pick up RW "Johnny" Apple's new book about American cities.

His words about New Orleans pre-echo much of what Matt says, and the comments say.

Posted by: Gotham Image | Sep 6, 2005 6:45:38 PM

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