Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Rebuilding New Orleans Sustainably

It is time for the citizens of New Orleans, along with the rest of the United States, to take a long hard look at reconstruction options. The United Nations recently mandated a buffer zone be created along the coastlines of tsunami-impacted regions of Southeast Asia. The same logic should be applied to other areas that are prone to natural disasters.

One of the first things architecture and construction students learn about is site selection (“Building Fundamentals 101,” so to speak). Is the site under consideration in a flood plain? Is there adequate drainage and protection against moisture damage? What about other hazards in the vicinity such as radon, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.? It is only prudent to pause and consider these and other issues as the future course of the city is chartered.

The suggestions offered here are echoed by former President Jimmy Carter, who is recommending that "many housing and other development projects would need to be moved, strengthened or excluded from beachfronts and other sites where sand dunes, wetlands and other natural protective areas need to be preserved."

Here are a few reasons not to rebuild New Orleans in the present location:
1. High risk of more natural disasters: New Orleans has been quite fortunate over the years when you consider that it was built in one of the worst possible locations. Rebuilding on the current site will put people in harm's way unnecessarily.
2. Lower reconstruction costs: Most builders will tell you that it is less expensive to build new than it is to rebuild severely damaged buildings and infrastructure. Historic buildings and buildings with low to moderate damage could be relocated.
3. Lower long-term costs: Building on higher ground a safe distance away from the coast would eliminate the expense of creating and maintaining a flood control system. Floodwalls in New Orleans keep sinking in the mud and require continual maintenance.
4. Reconstruction could begin almost immediately and quite possibly be completed more quickly (assuming that government agencies can sort out land ownership records in a timely manner): There would be no need to wait for draining and drying the city, repairing infrastructure, removing mold, etc., and no need to build or repair levees and other flood prevention systems. One source estimated that it would take several years just to restore running water and sewers.
5. Health hazards: New Orleans has become a toxic waste dump of sewage, chemicals and decaying bodies that will permeate every inch of the city, including every home and business. Most buildings will be filled with mold once the floodwaters recede. Rescue personnel, construction workers and future residents will be subjected to these hazards. Outbreaks of disease, higher health care costs and lawsuits are imminent, and therefore need to be added to the cost of reconstruction if New Orleans is rebuilt in its present location.
6. Burden on taxpayers: Taxpayers are going to pay for rescue operations and then be required to rebuild the city in an area that is clearly not suitable for habitation. At the same time, schools, roads, water treatment plants, parks, you name it, across the US are already underfunded. Rebuilding New Orleans in a more sensible area could save tens of billions of dollars. And surely, there will be other natural disasters over the coming years while the city is being rebuilt and we need to ensure that adequate resources are available to deal with them in a timely manner.
7. Restoration of the environment: The Mississippi delta and the surrounding coastline should be restored for environmental reasons, as well as reduce the brunt of future storm surges. This is impossible to accomplish with a city in the way. Maybe New Orleans should be completely flooded once all toxic materials have been removed, and then allowed to become a sunken city.
8. Rebuild to a higher standard: Let’s take this opportunity to rebuild New Orleans better than it was, including making it more sustainable. Properly designed and sited on higher ground, the new city would be more resistant to future natural disasters and also benefit from innumerable modern features.