There is no question that Hurricane Katrina will go down in history as one of the worst natural disasters ever to affect the United States. A number of major cities on the Gulf coast—New Orleans, Louisiana, and Biloxi, Mississippi, most notably—have been utterly devastated. If you want to help with the ongoing rescue and recovery efforts, please contact the Red Cross.
Obviously the focus now should be on saving people’s lives (despite the fact that, had these people left when they were ordered to evacuate, they would likely be safe today). Secondarily, we should focus time and money toward helping those who lost their homes get back on their feet.
But I would like to posit, while this disaster is fresh in our minds and magnitude of the destruction is still on our TV screens, that New Orleans itself is a bad idea and should probably be abandoned as an active, functioning city. Because of the nature of the city’s location, it will never be safe from this kind of disaster.
As you can see from this ground level map of New Orleans (Army Corps of Engineers, via Wikipedia), most of the city is built below water level on a silt delta between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River. The only thing that protected the city from flooding was a bizarre system of earthen levees and massive pumps—a system which was only designed to withstand only a Category 3 hurricane. Katrina was a Category 5.
It has long been common knowledge that a direct hit from a Category 4 or 5 hurricane on New Orleans could easily be among the worst conceivable disasters to strike the United States. It finally happened (after decades of occasional near-misses) and was exactly what we expected.
(As an aside—given that this is well known both in and out of New Orleans, you’d have to be a special kind of stupid to stay behind when a storm like Katrina is bearing down on you. On the flip side, you’d have to be a special kind of brave to stay behind as a police officer, medical worker, or fire fighter to protect and save those who didn’t leave when they had the chance.)
At this point, conditions in New Orleans are so bad that even the shelters—established to be safe havens—have degraded to the point that they must be evacuated. Soon, the entire city will become a ghost town with nobody in it but looters, rescue workers, and those who are still trapped or stranded. With 90 percent of the city now under water, it is probably time to reevaluate the prudence of having a major financial, economic, and cultural hub for the United States in such a terrible location.
The historical areas of New Orleans should certainly be preserved for their cultural and historical significance (if they are still standing, that is), but I see no rational reason to rebuild everything in the same place it is now. Make the relevant parts of the current city into a tourist destination—”Old Town New Orleans,” or something—and move the actual residences and business to a safer location (say, one above sea level).
A Category 5 hurricane like Katrina is going to do significant damage no matter what, but the magnitude of the devastation and loss-of-life in New Orleans is much more a product of the location of the city than of the storm that hit it. If we want to prevent another disaster like this from striking New Orleans in the future, it will require much more than stronger levees and bigger pumps. We have to move the city.