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Correspondent's File

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They're resilient people. Only the ones that really want to be here will stay. This will be a smaller city in the future.

The French Quarter, mostly spared, is quiet the next day. Only a few tourists walk the empty streets, passing migrant laborers looking for work rebuilding or cleaning up. Bourbon Street looks like a stage set. On CanaI, most stores are still boarded up. Some are difficult to discern from the rubbish piles outside them. City Hall, a clunky Modern building, is also covered with plywood. On Wisner Boulevard in Midtown, the scent of rot and mold is everywhere.

And it goes on, mile after mile after mile. After a while, it becomes numbing. I want to close my eyes. It's difficult to return to the conference. Attendees there discuss zoning, land use, and aesthetic integrity, but I have trouble imagining how leaders will be able to clean up all the trash, let alone rebuild this place. A few people are beginning to rebuild their homes, but these structures will be lonely islands in a sea of destruction. Surely, their owners won't feel safe from crime, or from another hurricane.

Safety, and new development, will only come through levees strong enough to withstand a category five storm. Nobody will build, lend, insure, or do anything without these. The levees near lake Pontchartrain, the huge earthen mounds, are fine, but those nearer the worst-hit neighborhoods are barely patched up with sandbags. Experts hope the levees will be returned to pre-Katrina levels by June. But that won't be enough. The price tag for proper levees has been quoted at around $30 billion. Yet, there is no clear sign that Congress has any intention of paying this bill. The rebuilding could cost up to $200 billion, the experts are saying. It could be another 25 to 50 years before this place gets back to normal.

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A symbol of hope or of devastation?

The smart, idealistic notions being passed around at the Marriott, familiar to those who have attended past AIA or APA conferences, seem removed from reality. They mean nothing if leadership doesn't find a way to work together, and if money doesn't arrive. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu says the federal government keeps most of Louisiana's annual offshore oil and gas revenues. The state should be able to hold on to more for rebuilding (but not for unnecessary pet projects). New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin didn't show up for this conference, and the city held its own meeting with the Urban Land Institute a couple of days later. There is no leader here. Meanwhile, specific questions that no one wants to answer must be answered very soon. The fate of historic buildings must be decided now or even fewer will be salvageable. Homes will need to be condemned to make way for bigger levees and improved wetlands. If homes can't be built on low ground, they must be cleared to make way for new development. The life has to return to the city, and it could take a miracle to do it. But for now, that life is gone, and New Orleans remains still. ■

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