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You've Got to See It to Really Believe It

It's only amid the devastation that the huge job of rebuilding New Orleans hits home. Still, the task defies comprehension.

October 02, 2005|Peter H. King | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — On a weekday morning not long ago, two state engineers left Baton Rouge to go hunting for places to deposit the remains of half a city. Before the ruined portions of New Orleans can be reconstructed, they must first be deconstructed and hauled away -- an estimated 22 million tons of debris, an amount 15 times more than the World Trade Center's collapse generated.

About 40 miles from New Orleans, the pair -- 48-year-old Bijan Sharafkhani, who rode shotgun, and the driver, 31-year-old Jason Meyers -- began to pass billboards erected after Hurricane Katrina.

"NO MATTER WHAT," vowed one, sponsored by a construction firm, "we are moving back to our city NEW ORLEANS."

"Hey Louisiana," shouted another, placed by a potato chip maker, "let's build it back EVEN BETTER!"

These defiantly upbeat messages echoed the rhetorical flourishes swirling about New Orleans in the last month. Even as the last evacuees were being pulled from rooftops, there was spirited talk of rebuilding New Orleans as a "shining new city," if not on a hill, at least on a swamp with improved levee protection.

What Sharafkhani and Meyers were to witness -- as it happened, it was the day before Hurricane Rita came ashore -- would be a sobering counterpoint to the gospel of renewal. Driving through the freshly drained eastern portions of the city, they received a ground-level indoctrination into just how arduous the task ahead will be.

"Watching the news," Meyers would say at the end of the tour, his voice soft, almost disbelieving, "you don't realize how big this is. We drove around for -- what? two hours? -- and saw nothing but destruction, nothing."

'Three-Dimensional Chess'

The process of rebuilding New Orleans has barely begun, yet it is possible to detect emerging fault lines beneath the effort that will, in large measure, determine its outcome. One early point of friction is how fast to move with demolition.

The day before Sharafkhani and Meyers went dump-hunting, the city's politically potent historic preservationists had convened in a ballroom of Baton Rouge's Old Governor's Mansion, a monument to the late Huey P. Long. They had come to beat the drum for going slow, for working house by house to make sure that every structure of historical value that can be saved will be saved.

They warned against "the bulldozer approach" and challenged any notion that health and environmental concerns, not to mention sheer logistics, demand a more rapid demolition. Individual property rights, the preservationists said, would be their battle cry.

"Don't let government use government as an excuse not to save your house," declared New Orleans City Councilwoman Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, whose district includes the French Quarter and, just across the river, Algiers.

She made reference to the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control: "Don't let government from outside the city come and say: 'You have an EPA problem. You have a CDC problem. We have to demolish your home.' That's an old way. Don't let them get away with it."

Whether undertaken house by house or street by street, with or without input from preservationists, the demolition of much of the city's eastern neighborhoods is inevitable, and some people have begun trying to gaze beyond the coming debris piles and burn pits to imagine what might arise from the ruins.

One is J. Stephen Perry, president of the convention bureau, a member of several civic boards, former chief of staff of a previous governor -- in short, a player. He sat last Sunday morning in the lobby of the Capitol Annex in Baton Rouge, beneath a vaulted ceiling and walls decorated with Depression-era Works Progress Administration tableaux, and talked about what many are calling the "new New Orleans."

With a brisk shake of his head, he dismissed the idea of willy-nilly demolition: "You need to be careful before you start tearing things down. The easiest approach is to bulldoze a neighborhood. That is not going to happen here."

At the same time, he went on, the badly damaged neighborhoods to the east are what will allow New Orleans "to literally develop a living template of urban reform, something that we never before had an opportunity to even dream about in the United States."

It is a point made often by those who contemplate rebuilding New Orleans. Spared by Katrina, for the most part, were the city's most viable portions: the French Quarter, which brings in the tourists; the hotels, which put them up; the older, architecturally refined neighborhoods that attract a core of urban professionals (and give the tourists something to do beyond trolling Bourbon Street); the Central Business District; the port and its shipping construction. These will provide a starting point for renewal.

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