In New Orleans on this Martin Luther King Day, marches and celebrations took place amid the city's ongoing struggle to recover from the devastating flood that followed Hurricane Katrina more than four months ago. Debate continues over how best to rebuild the city and protect it from future disasters.
Some of the spirit of New Orleans is starting to return, along with the city's people. Thousands of former residents have come back in recent weeks, but the lack of housing is keeping many others away.
City officials and prominent citizens are working together on two fronts, trying to develop a plan for rebuilding stricken areas and pushing for a multi-billion-dollar project that would build levees capable of protecting the metropolis from even a category five hurricane.
Over the past week controversy has centered on the recommendations of a special commission that suggested some low-lying areas of the city might eventually be set aside as marshland parks. The commission also recommended a four-month moratorium on rebuilding in areas of the city that were heavily damaged in the post-Katrina flood. Many former residents of poor, predominantly black neighborhoods that are in low, flood-prone areas reacted with anger to that proposal.
Mayor Ray Nagin, who supports the commission's work in general, was quick to step away from the moratorium question.
"That is just a recommendation that the commission made," said Nagin. "If I were making a decision today, I would not be putting a moratorium on anything. I want this city to come back and I want people to start building."
But commission members and many urban planning experts argue that it would be counterproductive to allow rebuilding in areas that are likely to flood again. There are also questions about how many former residents will want to return to such areas. A RAND corporation study suggests that New Orleans is likely to have a population of only about 275,000 people a few years from now. That is around half of what the population was before Katrina.
But some community leaders say citizens should be given a chance to return and not have their neighborhoods marked with redlines on a map created by engineers and urban planners. Some local officials agree.
In a VOA interview,
says homeowners should be given a chance to rebuild.
Clarkson: "I think we should not red-line any part of our city. I think we should be careful at how we approach each stage. Private property rights should prevail at the end of the day and it should be a staged process and not a some-come-and-some-don't process. I think that was the wrong approach."
Flakus: "But aren't there some parts of the city that are so far below sea level that they are vulnerable…?"
Clarkson: "But any part of the city is vulnerable if we do not get flood protection. One degree further west and my part of the city, which stayed dry, would have been totally flooded out. You cannot say that one part of the city is more vulnerable than any other."
Ms. Clarkson is among the local officials and community leaders backing a proposal to substantially improve the levee system that protects the city and its many areas that lie below sea level.
Jackie Clarkson says any improved levee system developed here would also benefit other vulnerable areas along the Gulf of Mexico coastline.
"It is not about just levees, it is not about trying to keep this city afloat temporarily," she said. "It is truly about total comprehensive flood control: gates, locks, levees, coastal barriers. It is truly about creating a plan that will work for all America. This could happen all along the entire Gulf coast and we hope we are setting a precedent to protect [areas] from Texas to Florida."
But there is resistance in the U.S. Congress to spending additional billions of dollars on top of what has already being spent to help the city recover.
New Orleans and Louisiana officials argue that the money would be well spent, given the threat of future costly hurricanes. Last week, a delegation from the city and state governments, led by Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, visited the Netherlands. Around 60 percent of that European nation lies below sea level and its land is protected by a sophisticated system of dikes.
Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson did not go on the trip to the Netherlands, but she says she supports the idea of drawing on expertise from other places in the world that are threatened by flooding.
"We relate to other parts of the world that are below sea level more than we relate to most of America that is not below sea level," said Clarkson. "If you can rebuild Tokyo, part of which is below sea level, or you can rebuild the Netherlands or Venice, why not New Orleans?"
Scientists say part of what is needed to protect New Orleans from future hurricanes is a restoration of wetlands and barrier islands off the coast, which, they say, did protect the city in the past. Any proposal to restore natural areas, however, would take decades to implement.