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So for a long time, before it can become a city of construction cranes, New Orleans will be a city of bulldozers. That's what could do the most damage to the things that gave the city its character--the center-hall cottages with their columned porches, the rows of single-file shotgun houses with their carved brackets supporting deep overhangs. Many of those dwellings were in serious decay even before the storm hit, but as long as they stood, there was the chance to preserve and restore them, as has been happening in the city's transitional neighborhoods like Bywater. Once they are gone, will flavorless 21st century tract houses replace them?
Or, worse, nothing? Flood insurance offered by the Federal Government is required by most lenders before they will provide a mortgage for a house in a flood-prone area. But that insurance has a cap of $250,000 or 80% of the replacement cost of the home, whichever is less. How many low-income families, their resources strained by the disaster, will be able to come up with the difference? Even the loans that the Federal Emergency Management Agency makes available require a good credit record, which for many people may be one hurdle too many.
Rebuilding the city, however, will open opportunities to do things better. Hospitals could be redesigned to provide parking on the lower floors so that any future flooding would not reach the floors where patients and medical records would be kept. After the 1989 earthquake collapsed sections of San Francisco's Embarcadero Freeway, the city demolished elevated segments and developed a splendid park and waterfront esplanade. "We didn't replan the city," says Mary Comerio, author of Disaster Hits Home, a study of six postdisaster reconstruction efforts. "But we took these terrific opportunities to remake pieces of it."
There are still a lot of people in city planning and engineering who are glad that Hastert spoke their innermost thoughts. "They should just move the whole city to higher ground," says UCLA's Stewart. "There's nothing you can do about the fundamental problem, which is that it's 9 ft. [on average] below sea level." Of course, Venice is also ever threatened by water, but nobody suggests just letting it sink. Postdisaster reconstruction is therefore likely to focus on strengthening the levees, but some experts in the field see that as a losing proposition in the long term. "Americans' disposition to buy a technological fix is why disasters are getting larger and larger," says Dennis Mileti, director emeritus of the natural-hazards center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "Although everything we do helps reduce losses, when a big one comes that exceeds what our technology was designed for, the damage is [catastrophic]. It ends up putting more people at greater risk in Miami, San Francisco, all the cities we love."