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Experts debate rebuilding New Orleans

WASHINGTON —Even before the evacuation of flooded New Orleans has been completed, hurricane scientists, disaster experts and reconstruction officials are raising the question of whether the city should be rebuilt at all.

President Bush has promised to help the city "get back on its feet," and few people can imagine an America without New Orleans. "I can tell you that someday there will people playing jazz in the riverfront," said Hassan Mashriqui, a Louisiana State University engineer who used a supercomputer to model flooding from Hurricane Katrina.

But others say the idea of rebuilding a below-sea-level city next to a large lake in a hurricane-prone area makes little sense, especially with the prospect of taxpayers having to foot repeated bills for aid and reconstruction.

"Moving the city is clearly going to be an option," said John Copenhaver, a former southeast regional director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "It would be an unbelievably expensive and difficult proposition, but it has to be on the table."

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Commanding Gen. Carl A. Strock on Thursday agreed that "a discussion will have to take place," and House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert, R.-Ill., told a suburban Chicago newspaper: "There are some real tough questions to ask about how you go about rebuilding this city. ... I think federal insurance and everything goes along with it, and we ought to take a second look at it."

"Can the country afford to rebuild in this high-risk area, where there is no means of mitigating the losses?" asked Eric Tolbert, who until February was FEMA's disaster response chief. "We could finish rebuilding, put the levee back where it was and five years from now we could be facing the identical scenario."

Federal officials have relocated disaster-prone towns before, but never on the scale of New Orleans, one of the country's oldest urban areas, home to a half-million people, a major transportation hub and a tourist mecca.

After a killer 1993 flood on the Mississippi River devastated the Illinois town of Valmeyer, 35 miles south of St. Louis, the federal government agreed to move the town 1.5 miles to land that was 400 feet higher and out of the flood plain.

But Valmeyer had a population of only 900 people, nearly all of whom agreed to the move. The town has thrived in its new location.

"We don't have to look over our shoulders and worry if the Mississippi is going to flood again," said Valmeyer village administrator and county clerk Dennis Knobloch.

But relocating a city the size of New Orleans has never been attempted, and an attempt would be not only expensive—little Valmeyer cost $65 million to move, New Orleans, at the same rate, would be well over $50 billion—but also have even higher political costs. What, for example, would be done with New Orleans' many historic buildings?

"We're talking about New Orleans. There's never been a successful relocation of a large city," said Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center at the University of Colorado.

That sentiment is echoed by George Haddow, who when he was deputy chief of staff at FEMA, was a big proponent of moving towns out of harm's way. But New Orleans is his hometown.

"It's a treasure and it's going to have to be rebuilt," Haddow said. "There are ways to rebuild this city that can reduce the impact and damage that's occurring now."

Bigger levees to fend off hurricane surges aren't the answer, Haddow and Tolbert said.

"There are two kinds of levees—the ones that breached and the ones that will be breached," Haddow said.

Army Corps chief Strock said Thursday that there wasn't a physical or financial problem with New Orleans levees, they were just overwhelmed because they weren't designed to handle a storm Katrina's size.

Even if New Orleans is rebuilt, few people advocate that the reconstruction simply mirror the way the city has grown to date.

Experts suggested that a wide range of changes be incorporated into reconstruction, including raising the city from its current point several feet below sea-level to five or 10 feet above sea level.

"Why rebuild at minus 10?" said oceanographer Joseph Suhayda, the retired director of the Louisiana Water Resources Research Institute at Louisiana State University. "Build them back up. Now we have a chance to start with a clean slate. Let's go back and do it right."

Suhayda said raising the city could be done with the millions of tons of dirt that flow by the city in the Mississippi River.

Suhayda also recommended reconfiguring levees so, if breached, the flooding would be compartmentalized, affecting only small sections of the city, not the entire city.

New buildings should be more wind-resistant and perhaps taller for vertical evacuation, said Michael Lindell, director of the Natural Hazards Center at Texas A & M University. The trouble is that these types of preventive measures cost money and such programs have suffered from budget cuts under the Bush administration, Lindell said.

Cities that think about rebuilding and prevention and include it in their disaster plans do well when it comes time to rebuild; those that haven't done the planning, don't, Lindell said.

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(Knight Ridder correspondents Ron Hutcheson and James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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