New Orleans faces a long road to recovery. Most of its population has fled, its economy has been shattered, its streets strewn with toxic debris. These challenges can be overcome. But as the work progresses, one question has to be answered first.
How can the devastation of a future hurricane Katrina be avoided? Of course, other huge issues remain, such as how the Crescent City should rebuild and in which neighborhoods. Should it look backward to emphasize its historical charms or see itself more as a laboratory for exciting 21st-century urban ideas?
The trouble is rebuilding plans can only go hand in hand with assurances that those new and renovated structures won't suffer the same fate their predecessors did in August.
The US Army Corps of Engineers is rushing to do what it can before the start of the next hurricane season in June. It hopes to rebuild and strengthen levees to withstand a Category 3 hurricane by then.
But authorities still must decide whether Category 3 protection is sufficient. Officials in Louisiana are beginning to unite around the idea that only protection from Category 5 hurricanes (the most dangerous) will suffice - especially given the trend of stronger, more frequent hurricanes.
No one knows yet how that level of protection would be achieved or how much it would cost. The federal government will spend $8 million just to look at those questions. One early estimate suggests a levee system to protect southeast Louisiana from a Category 5 hurricane (winds greater than 155 m.p.h. and an 18-foot storm surge) could cost $22 billion.
And that doesn't include restoring wetland areas, which could provide another layer of storm buffer but at a cost of additional billions.
Those are hefty estimates. But the expense of post-disaster cleanup and rebuilding has been set as high as $200 billion. Constructing a strong storm-protection system could prove a money saver in the long run.
After parts of the Netherlands were inundated in a 1953 tidal surge, the Dutch government spent $14.7 billion over several decades to modernize its dikes and add high-tech gates and other barriers to ensure that it would never find the North Sea spilled in its lap again.
When President Bush visited New Orleans, he stood in front of St. Louis Cathedral and promised to "do what it takes ... stay as long as it takes" to rebuild the city. But he has shied away from saying that means Category 5 hurricane protection. With his administration under siege on Iraq - and with Congress looking to trim runaway spending - prying help from Washington for state-of-the-art storm protection may be tough.
Louisiana's political leadership will need to speak with a single voice and convey a clear message as to the value of a Dutch-scale plan. Congress will want assurances that federal money will be well spent. Recent investigations showed that some of the city's existing levees may not have been properly constructed. That gives ammunition to those who fear the possibility of a massive boondoggle.
Such a project will take many years and put a big dent in the public's wallet. But it's the sensible alternative. Plan carefully. Build it right. New Orleans - and all Americans - will reap the benefits for generations to come. •