BATON ROUGE, La. -- Shakietha
Woodard has no desire to return to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina
swamped her apartment in the suburb of Kennar.
"Move back? Why?" said
Woodard, 29, who has one child and is pregnant with a second. "Even
when New Orleans was together, there was no way to make money. I'm going
to move to Texas and find opportunity there."
Woodard, who was among more than 4,000
displaced residents encamped on cots yesterday in a convention facility
not far from Louisiana's capital, was hardly the only evacuee who had
little stomach to return to the swamped city.
"A fairly large number of people
say they don't want to go back," said Dick Burch, a spokesman here
for the American Red Cross. "They don't want to go through this
While relief officials cope with the
immediate needs of hundreds of thousands of Katrina victims, some experts
are beginning to ponder the longer-term options for one of America's most
fabled cities, now a mud-covered ghost town.
No doubt New Orleans will be rebuilt.
But the form it takes will depend largely on how many of its more than
450,000 residents return.
"About half the dispersed
population is likely never to come back," said Mary Comerio, a
University of California, Berkeley, architecture professor and author of
Disaster Hits Home, a book on disaster recovery.
"People who have a financial
interest in the city - they own land or work at Tulane University or a
hospital - have a reason to come back," she said. "Young people
who aren't so tied to the city will move on. The elderly will go on with
their lives in a new place rather than invest the next 10 years of their
lives to rebuilding.
"It will change the character of
New Orleans, no question," she said. "Inevitably, it will be
While the dislocation of an entire city
has prompted some commentators to call for reconstructing New Orleans on
higher ground - or abandoning it altogether - most experts say the city
probably will redevelop much along its current design.
"Generally, cities will rebuild
pretty much the way they were," said Robert Olshansky, a professor of
urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois
Urbana-Champaign. "Some people think suddenly it's a blank map. But
it's not. People still own all those pieces of land and have strong social
ties to the area."
The French Quarter will undoubtedly be
restored, and downtown buildings are largely intact. Tourism, shipping,
and oil and natural-gas interests have a deep investment in the area and
will want a population nearby to serve them. But some businesses that
could easily be elsewhere may move on rather than redevelop.
Some academics fear that if the
population of New Orleans changes too dramatically, the city's unique
culture will become a museum piece to benefit the tourist trade.
"The reason the world loves New
Orleans is because of its culture, created by the diversity of its
people," said Shirley Laska, director of the Center for Hazards
Assessment, Response and Technology at the University of New Orleans.
"If you don't find a way to build a New Orleans that sustains that
culture, then all you've done is to just build a Disney World."
There are few comparable experiences for
leaders of New Orleans to follow. Chicago rebuilt after the 1871 fire, and
San Francisco prospered after the 1906 quake, but both disasters occurred
during the industrial age, when American cities were expanding
dramatically. New Orleans, by contrast, has been shrinking for four
decades and has few long-term prospects for growth, as vulnerable as it is
to the rising sea level.
"In rebuilding or restructuring the
city, there's a real question whether they need to rebuild it as it was
before," said Kenneth L. Kusmer, a history professor at Temple
University who specializes in urban social history. "You don't need
to have centralized cities anymore."
Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist and senior
researcher at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said
New Orleans would all but disappear in 100 years, after the petroleum
reserves in the Gulf of Mexico were depleted, the city sank deeper, and
sea levels rose with the onset of climate change.
"We have to think long-term,"
Jacob said. The policies set by Washington to rebuild New Orleans will
have implications for other cities such as Miami, Sacramento, Calif., and
New York that are in the path of storms or rising sea waters.
"It's not just New Orleans that's
at stake," he said. "We have to face up to the fact that we're