Posted: Wednesday October 18, 2006 12:03PM; Updated: Wednesday October 18, 2006 12:28PM
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(We drive east to the London Canal, where a similar temporary levee, with gates, is in place. Along the way we see houses in the Lakeview District, many of which have construction equipment outside.)
Smith: See this block? All of Lakeview looked like this -- manicured lawns, nice trees -- before Katrina. It's absolutely the nicest neighborhood in New Orleans. An average house before the storm cost $400,000; flooded houses are now worth half of that. What we've learned is that 89 percent of the flooded houses have permitting activities going on, meaning some sort of repair and/or rebuilding is taking place. And that is consistent with the surveys that have shown that a vast majority of residents have decided to stay and be part of this new, regenerated city.
Silver: What about all the reports that the levees still haven't been repaired to pre-Katrina standards, let alone more stringent ones, despite all the money that has been allocated by the government?
Smith: Southeast Louisiana has 350 miles of levees and flood walls, and 220 miles of those were damaged or destroyed by Katrina. All 220 miles have been repaired. Congress has funded $5.4 billion to improve flood protection in Southeast Louisiana; that'll take us 3˝ years. That will not provide so-called Category 5 protection, however, which is what the Dutch have in place. They had their Katrina in 1957 -- the flood protection breached, and 3,000 people died. They learned their lesson and have since come up with a better system that includes elements of "compartmentalization" -- splitting up the city into different zones in order to prevent a comprehensive flooding. We're talking to the Dutch and looking at all they've done as we try to come up with the best system we can. The Corps sent delegations to the Netherlands to look at their stuff, and they've been over here as well.
(We drive through the Ninth Ward, which is impoverished but reasonably undamaged -- past the now-closed Desire housing project, where Marshall Faulk grew up. As soon as we cross over the Industrial Canal and into the Lower Ninth Ward, my stomach drops. One of the first things I see is a house on top of an overturned truck, as if the two had been welded together.)
Jones:This house probably hasn't been touched since the storm -- and here we are more than a year later. Who knows where it came from? It probably was down the street, or on a different street, and got picked up by the rush of the water and transplanted to this spot. You see those spray-painted X's on the houses? The number on the top quadrant is the date inspected. The one of the left is the ID number of the search and rescue crew that went in. The number on the right is the number of utilities found on. And the one on the bottom is the number of dead found. The highest number I found in a bottom quadrant was nine. Then there are some X's that are empty boxes -- that meant it was too hazardous even to look inside.
Smith: This entire neighborhood, ultimately, is going to have to be torn down. It's just horrific.
(We drive on, passing battered home after destroyed lot, breathing deeply and saying little.)
Jones: Believe it or not, it looks reasonably good at this point. Two months ago you still had telephone poles hanging over the roadway and cadaver dogs coming through.
(We stop at the canal wall, since replaced, where a 100-yard section -- the size of a football field -- broke simultaneously, unleashing the rush of water that annihilated everything in its path.)
Smith: The Industrial Canal is a commercial waterway, and it is deep enough for ocean craft. During Katrina it got so wide it looked like the Panama Canal. By 6 a.m. the morning after the storm both sides were being overtopped. In the process, all of the earth behind the wall was washed away, eliminating the back support. Then, at 7:30 a.m., those 100 yards collapsed all at once. That wouldn't happen now, because we support the back of the walls with concrete, rather than with dirt. Another brutal lesson we learned.
(We head to the river, driving along a frontage road not available to commercial vehicles. The shore is lined with burnt-out warehouses -- casualties of the widespread fires that broke out several days after Katrina, the causes of which are still unknown.)
Jones: You won't get this on a normal tour. The Gray Line doesn't come here.
Silver: What about the notion that it's crazy to rebuild New Orleans, that it's an underwater bowl destined to flood again? Is that a valid point of view?
Smith: We don't think so. Look, you can't do anything to prevent earthquakes in San Francisco, for example. But we can do things to defend New Orleans from storm surges. With the required amount of money, effort and will, we can protect our city. This isn't just about tourism and protecting the historic French Quarter, either. This is about protecting America's strategic interests -- petroleum and natural gas. You can move factories, but you can't move the oil fields.
(We enter the French Quarter through the backside and head down Decatur Avenue, passing streams of tourists and shops and restaurants bustling with customers.)
Silver: I know this part of town is up and running -- sort of. But when will the city truly be back on its feet?
Jones: People are trying, and a lot has been accomplished. But if you look, for example, at some of the German cities in the aftermath of World War II, history tells us this is not an easy road. In my opinion, it will take decades before we recover.