New Orleans Between Storms
In addition to the extraordinary loyalty that residents and visitors feel toward the city, the unsentimental fact is that its recovery is mandated by its strategic location at the mouth of the Mississippi River. A vast portion of U.S. river traffic converges here, making New Orleans not only the largest port in the United States but a gateway for trade from all over the world. An open question is whether culture will have an equal voice with commerce in the recovery.
Challenges Structural and Chemical
The obstacles to rebuilding the damaged port city are immense. Much of the infrastructure has been destroyed. The cost of recovery has already been estimated at $200 billion. And the residents, who are key to the city's character, are experiencing a diaspora.
The part of New Orleans that was built in reclaimed wetlands, below sea level, was flooded by neighboring Lake Pontchartrain when the levees proved inadequate. Many buildings were damaged by the water, but even the unflooded portions of the city are threatened by poisons in the air, water, and soil.
Forensics architect and registered disaster services worker Dean Vlahos cautions about the long term dangers to buildings caused by standing floodwaters. He warns that mold, foundation erosion, and environmental contamination can not only create serious health risks, but also compromise the structures and systems of those buildings left standing.
While mold, a potentially toxic fungus that thrives on decaying matter, will be a serious health and construction problem, Vlahos says, it is only the tip of the iceberg. He worries there will be many buildings for which remediation is impossible and demolition is the only recourse.
The lower Mississippi region had long been known as "cancer alley" because of its polluting petrochemical industries. A post-Katrina release of oil has been compared to the much smaller 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Adding to the "toxic gumbo" of microorganisms and chemicals blended and distributed by floodwaters in New Orleans are household cleaners, pesticides, paints that are now mixing into volatile and untested combinations.
Sadly for the region, the results of this chemistry experiment will affect the health of humans, animals, plants for years to come. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is beginning to test and report on the toxins. But it is hard to imagine how the city will ever be completely clean of the chemical residue.
Assessing a Battered City
What's at stake is a cultural richness that is unique in the United States. As author and Slate magazine architecture critic Witold Rybczynski put it: "The narrow streets and alleys form an ensemble of great historical worth. The value of the French Quarter is not merely that it is old and exceptionally charming... but that it has resisted gentrification and preserved a healthy vulgarity."
A picture is now emerging of what was and was not lost. Much of the beloved French Quarter escaped flooding. Michael Moran, senior correspondent with MSNBC
reported in early September: "many of the buildings that make up one of the most culturally influential cities in America appear to have survived intact, leaving [officials] hopeful that restoration would be possible."
The U.S. Mint, an early 19th century building converted into a museum in the 1980s, suffered wind damage to its roof, Moran reports. He cited significant water damage to the 1870s studio of the French impressionist painter Edgar Degas and to the 1734 Ursuline Convent, which is believed to be the oldest building in Louisiana. The 1794 Saint Louis Cathedral does not appear to have sustained major damage. The Associated Press reports on the status of other beloved landmarks.
Prospects for Rebuilding
Because the city is a complex formulation of people, arts, institutions, architecture, and commerce, its rebuilding will be incomplete if any component is missing. Constructing French-Quarter-style buildings without the vibrant multicultural population to inhabit them would replace real neighborhoods with Disneyland caricatures.
In their essay, Rebuilding After Katrina, George Washington University professors Jane Bullock and George Haddow write about the importance of community involvement in any recovery: "First and foremost, the focus of the rebuilding effort in New Orleans and the gulf Coast region must focus on reinventing how residents and businesses live and function in such a high risk area."
Bullock and Haddow continue: "There must be a commitment by everyone involved in the rebuilding effort — government, the private sector, the general public — to set new standards that will render communities more resilient and that will lessen the impacts of future hurricanes... All residents and community stakeholders must be directly involved in the planning and design processes that will determine how best to rebuild, and in some cases relocate, their homes and businesses."
Can New Orleans Recover?
On September 15, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced a major campaign to help ensure the preservation of historic buildings and communities throughout the Gulf Coast region.
The National Trust will work with federal, state, and local governments to develop tools to facilitate reconstruction and help prevent future disasters. These include grants and tax incentives for rehabilitation, revisions to building codes and design guidelines, and public education about the importance of historic resources.
National Trust President Richard Moe expressed the urgency of this work because there have already been calls for the demolition of entire historic neighborhoods in New Orleans. "The down-home heart of the city beats in historic neighborhoods such as Holy Cross, Treme, Broadmoor and Mid-City, where modest shotgun houses, corner stores, and Creole cottages are essential ingredients in the flavorful architectural gumbo that is New Orleans. It's essential that we save as many of these buildings as possible."
The New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper had repeatedly reported on federal spending cuts for the repair of the levees, which were known to be inadequate for category 4 or higher hurricanes. Any restoration or reconstruction in the below-sea level portions of the city needs to be preceded by a rebuilding of the levees. Otherwise, any repairs made now will simply be washed away again next time.
Similarly, lax building codes had allowed the construction of inadequately structured housing stock all over the region. Thousands of residents, predominantly those already living in poverty, are now homeless after their communities were felled by the winds. Rebuilding without strengthened structures and codes is pure folly. Rebuilding with new codes will be expensive. Not rebuilding would be one more insult to a battered regional culture. And in an area so readily damaged by the effects of global warming, can the rush to reconstruct be allowed to neglect sustainability considerations?
Bollinger concludes: "The people of New Orleans have enormous and well-deserved pride in the uniqueness of their home. I am certain that the architects, engineers, and historians will work together to restore the city in a way that will preserve the rich culture that is New Orleans." The architecture will be not only a measure of that recovery, but also part of the reason to make the effort.
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B.J. Novitski is managing editor of ArchitectureWeek.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has listed many informational resources related to Hurricane Katrina, including the booklet, Treatment of Flood-Damaged Older and Historic Buildings.