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Renaissance of New Orleans Still Only a Possibility


More than two months after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans continues its struggle to recover. Mayor Ray Nagin says the metropolis near the mouth of the Mississippi River will likely have half its pre-Katrina population for the next year or so, but he and other civic leaders are hoping that the people who do return will help revitalize what was one of America's most historic and culturally dynamic cities.

For the few people who have returned to the flood-damaged Lower Ninth Ward, the scene is heartbreaking and discouraging.

J.W. Tatum and his wife, Marna, are the only residents who have come back to this neighborhood so far, but he believes many people will come back soon.

"Our hope is that they will return, especially as it gets cold up in Salt Lake City and Detroit and all those places, they will be back,” thinks Mr. Tatum. “Once the population gets back, we should be okay."

That is also the hope of Tulane University professor and architecture expert Ann Masson, who thinks a small population of dedicated people could create a New Orleans renaissance.

"If this, in fact, happens, we will be a smaller city, but we will be more focused, we will be more concentrated,” she told us. “We will make better use of our land and better use of our older structures and still maintain an interesting combination of cultures and people."

But she admits getting people back for this rebirth is a problem.

"It is kind of a chicken and egg (problem), because you have to have housing to get the workers back to renovate the houses for people to live in and some of those are themselves, the workers."

Mayor Nagin says he would like to see everyone return, except the drug dealers and violent gang members who made New Orleans one of the most dangerous cities in the United States before Katrina struck.

Ann Masson says a city with less crime would also attract more families and people willing to invest in restoration. "Now, on a given evening, you can walk out and feel much safer than you could pre-Katrina. These guys are gone and we hope they never come back," said the professor.

As the clean-up continues, urban planners are studying heavily flooded zones and deciding which houses should be rebuilt and which should be demolished and cleared away.

Meg Lousteau, Director of the Louisiana Landmarks Society, says the disaster has shown clearly which style of house is best suited for New Orleans.

"The older houses that we have here were designed to breathe and work with the environment -- the hot, humid climate that we have -- these [newer] houses obviously do not do that; additionally, they were built with flat roofs, which is an absolute no-no when you have as much rain as we have here."

But not everyone can live in one of the better-built historic homes in New Orleans.

There is also the question of where to build. A recent article in the New Orleans Times Picayune newspaper showed that, back in 1878, no one lived in the low areas that were flooded when Katrina made levees break.

Experts are still studying ways to fortify the levees and deciding whether rebuilding in some low-lying areas makes sense. Until these questions are addressed, many former residents will not return and much of the restoration of New Orleans will remain on hold.

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