Sunday, September 04, 2005

New Orleans, end of an era?

My memory is muddy what's this river I'm in
New Orleans is sinking and I don't want to swim

Those lyrics penned by The Tragically Hip some years ago took on new meaning as the future of New Orleans came into question in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

It is almost certain that thousands of Americans have been killed in what will likely be the worst natural disaster since the 1906 Earthquake and fire that destroyed most of San Francisco. Of course New Orleans was not the only city smashed by Hurricane Katrina. There are dozens of other communities including Biloxi Mississippi where homes and businesses were flattened. But it is New Orleans that has suffered the most due to the flooding which left much of the city filled with floating debris, sewage and dead bodies.

The final death toll may never be known. And what of New Orleans itself? It may be months before the floodwaters are pumped out and perhaps sometime next year before rebuilding can really begin. Many of the displaced have lost everything and have no job, no money and no insurance with which to rebuild. Will they return?

What of corporations like Harrah's Entertainment, Coca-Cola and General Electric that have major operations in New Orleans will they return? Panama City, a Florida panhandle city 300 miles east of New Orleans, was in the immediate aftermath of the storm the only deep water port in the upper gulf cost region that was still open for business.

Will container traffic return to New Orleans or will people and business relocate to safer areas? President Bush after admitting that federal response to the disaster was inadequate declared, “New Orleans would rise again.” But will it?

It was after the 1906 earthquake that Los Angeles surpassed San Francisco as California’s premiere city; and in 1900 Galveston was the main port city of Texas until a Hurricane wiped out much of that city. After that, Galveston went into decline while people chose to relocate to the nearby river port of Houston.

The other question is should New Orleans be rebuilt? Hurricane season is not over. Much of the Gulf of Mexico is at 30 degrees Celsius, well over the temperature level needed to spawn more of these killer storms.

If the current trend towards global warming continues than New Orleans can expect more hurricanes to come rampaging in on a more frequent basis and perhaps packing an even greater punch. The levees and dykes around New Orleans were built to withstand a class three hurricane. Katrina was a class four, what happens when a class five hurricane hits the city?

Aside from the future of New Orleans there are also the oil refineries that are located along the gulf coast. Oil rigs need to be where the oil is but refineries do not. Rather than simply rebuilding, does it not make sense to move at least some of that refining capacity further inland where it can be better protected from the impact of hurricanes?

Perhaps the biggest question is what will be the political impact of those searing images of tens of thousands of poor black Americans left abandoned for days with no food or water? Many Americans, especially blacks feel the government would not have been so slow to respond if this is a disaster that had afflicted a predominantly white community.

Internationally many countries, including Canada looked on with amazement at how ineffectual the US government’s initial response was to the calamity and then rushed forward with offers of assistance.

As was the case with 9-11 there is a sense that a turning point has occurred in history and things are never going to be quite the same again either for New Orleans or the United States.