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In its most appealing neighborhoods, New Orleans is already something better than any mere visionary idea. It's a city that people love precisely for its unrationalized flavor, for its freewheeling French Quarter and its elegant Garden District, both largely spared. But beyond the city known to tourists, it's also a place riven by class and race; of its 485,000 people, 67% are African American, many of them poor. The city they knew was already fraying at its foundation, its history crowded with a long line of buccaneers in public office offering dreams with one hand while pilfering with the other. The rebuilding effort, which will involve tough decisions about what and where to rebuild and about which places get funding first, is sure to bring all those problems into sharp relief. "The first thing they have to do is overcome their own mind-set," says Joel Kotkin, author of The City: A Global History. "They need to think about investment, infrastructure. And they will need a sense of rigor. This is a city famous for corruption where everything is for sale. Throw a bunch of federal aid money at that, and things get worse."
Things could not be much worse than they are now. The first step in rebuilding New Orleans will be simply to draw off the water that covers 80% of the city. Most pumps around the levees are submerged and inoperable, explains Jonathan Stewart, a professor of civil engineering at UCLA who has been tracking the situation closely. "They'll have to bring in other pumps from around the country on barges and just keep them pumping," he says. "The Army Corps of Engineers estimates they can remove a foot every day."
When the waters come down, they will expose a city that will have been steeping for weeks in a noxious soup. Although emergency-management officials are relieved that the flooding did not crack open the storage tanks of the large petrochemical factories south and east of the city, the waters still contain a poisonous mix of gasoline, household and industrial chemicals and stinking human waste. They will leave a layer of heavily contaminated silt everywhere. John Pardue, director of the Louisiana Water Resources Research Institute at Louisiana State University, says, "We're going to have to find out how deep the contamination is. Can we scrape it off, or are we going to have to replace topsoil?"
Then comes what promises to be the most painful part, a process that might be called municipal triage. The foul waters will have plenty of time to ruin houses' and other buildings' insulation and wiring. Masonry structures will probably survive the flooding. The worst hit can be stripped back to the concrete, power washed and resurfaced. But a great many wooden structures--meaning most of the city's housing stock--will be bloated wrecks subject to mildew and collapse.