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As New Orleans Dries Out, What Is Its Future?


Even an optimist knows it will be weeks before a semblance of normal life can be restored to ruined New Orleans.

One thinks of Galveston -- another city of rich history and exquisite charm. In 1900, it was the largest port in Texas -- an oil boomtown so prosperous that its strand along the Gulf of Mexico was called the Wall Street of the South. Then an epic hurricane pulverized 2/3 of its buildings, killed 1/5 of its people, and buried the city of great Victorian homes beneath five meters of water.

Galveston survived as a small, picturesque seaside town, as Houston -- 70 kilometers inland -- stole most of its oil, banking, and shipping business and grew into America's fourth-largest city.

If New Orleans rebuilds, by every forecast it will be smaller and even more focused on tourism to its historic French Quarter and restored Garden District. That assumes money will be found to radically augment the old levees that so tragically failed this low-lying city. Many homes in poor neighborhoods were built of cypress and may have come through the deluge surprisingly well. But tens of thousands of their occupants are likely gone for good.

Some say the whole place should be leveled and rebuilt elsewhere, as a sort of Creole theme park. Others say that engineers should allow the Mississippi River to cut a new channel where it wants to -- to the west, through swampland to the sea. What is now the river past town would become a placid, less flood-prone, lake.

Americans who love saucy, old New Orleans stubbornly picture her revived and well -- making great music and food, and again filling the air with the golden coins of a Mardi Gras parade. It's a lovely vision from the heart, but wishing does not make it so. Just ask the folks over in Galveston.

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