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Should New Orleans be rebuilt? House Speaker Denny Hastert got in immediate hot water for just asking the question….Of course some kind of city will continue to exist there, as the French Quarter and the area where New Orleans’ corporate headquarters exist are largely on higher ground and above water. But what about the rest of the city–all the residential areas that are now below several feet of water?

The most far-thinking piece I’ve read on the subject is this op-ed by geophysicist Klaus Jacob in yesterday’s Washington Post. Jacob raises a lot of good questions, the kind that will need to be answered as time goes on; but he’s also making a plea that scientific and technological expertise be brought in early in the process (and it’s not too early now) to address the basic question:

…should we rebuild New Orleans, 10 feet below sea level, just so it can be wiped out again?

Some say we can raise and strengthen the levees to fully protect the city. Here is some unpleasant truth: The higher the defenses, the deeper the floods that will inevitably follow. The current political climate is not conducive to having scientific arguments heard before political decisions are made. But not doing so leads to the kind of chaos we are seeing now.

New Orleans has been sinking at about one inch a year–in another century, a time when global warming will be excaberating the hurricanes that will then exist, it will be eight feet lower than it already is, and sea level is projected to be one to three feet higher. Jacob’s conclusion is that
It is time to face up to some geological realities and start a carefully planned deconstruction of New Orleans, assessing what can or needs to be preserved, or vertically raised and, if affordable, by how much. Some of New Orleans could be transformed into a “floating city” using platforms not unlike the oil platforms offshore, or, over the short term, into a city of boathouses, to allow floods to fill in the ‘bowl’ with fresh sediment.
Whether and how New Orleans should be rebuilt is going to be one of the toughest questions facing politicians at all levels, and from what I’ve seen so far I don’t have much faith that there’s going to be more than a reflective “of course it will be rebuilt” and a plowing ahead.

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