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New Orleans Rebuilding Panel Backs Reducing Some Neighborhoods

A prominent member of a commission that oversees rebuilding efforts in New Orleans is backing a proposal to reduce the size of the city and return some flood-prone areas to wetlands. Planners are struggling to ready the city for future storms that could bring as much flooding as that caused by Hurricane Katrina in late August.

In an article published Wednesday in the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper, Joe Canizaro, co-chairman of the Bring Back New Orleans planning subcommittee endorsed the idea of returning some areas of the city to wetlands. This has been widely backed by environmentalists and city planners, who fear that many neighborhoods devastated by Katrina will flood again if another such storm arrives in the years to come.

Mr. Canizaro said many sections of the city would shrink, but not be eliminated altogether, and that city planners would allow development in some neighborhoods over a three-year period to see if they can be made viable.

In a VOA telephone interview, Louisiana State University Professor of Geography Craig Colten, who has been studying New Orleans for many years, says he would favor a more immediate condemnation of some areas as unsuitable for residential housing. "I am a little disappointed that he is saying, 'let the city rebuild as guided by the market for three years and then make changes to the footprint.' That is going to complicate things and be more costly in the long run," he said.

Professor Colten says this should not be seen as a move to eliminate poor neighborhoods, because there were also many middle and upper class areas built in low-lying areas that flooded. "People of all classes and races were impacted and to limit [rebuilding in] the most hazardous areas is not discriminatory on those grounds. It is discriminatory in the sense that it seeks to provide greater safety," he added. "At least that should be the intent and what the plan tries to do."

As for how the shrinking of some neighborhoods and the overall downsizing of the city might affect the character of New Orleans, Professor Colten says such changes were inevitable.

"I think a lot of what we are seeing is just an acceleration of processes that were already under way," he said. "The city had been losing population since 1960, there had been great changes in the demographics and the racial mix of the city since World War II and, in many respects, having a reduced population will help the city rebound."

Professor Colten says not only the wetlands within the city should be restored, but that wetlands to the south and small islands out in the Gulf of Mexico should be restored in order to provide a barrier against future hurricanes.

"People around the country have asked the question: 'Why throw more money into a city where people choose to go live below sea level?' Well, when most of those people chose to go live there, there were many miles more of wetlands surrounding the city, the city was higher and drier," explained Professor Colten. "The levees stood higher than they do today because that whole area is sinking. If we can begin the process of restoring the wetlands, all those negative elements of the site become less of a problem."

The cost of rebuilding barrier islands and coastal wetlands was set at $14 billion in a recent proposal before Congress. Nowhere near that amount is expected to be approved this year, but many environmentalists argue that it would be wiser in the long run to spend that money now than to be forced to spend several times that amount recovering from a future hurricane.