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Rebuild or Relocate?

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Climate change will pose increasing challenges to city planners dealing with areas especially vulnerable to the elements. In the aftermath of a devastating natural disaster in an urban locale prone to events of a similar magnitude, the knotty question becomes whether to rebuild decimated structures or relocate them to safer sites.

It is a brave urban planner who will advocate relocation, for few displaced individuals take kindly to being uprooted, even if they know they will likely face further crippling blows from nature if they fail to move to a more secure address.

One such bold individual is noted city planner Edward Blakely. An American expatriate, Dr. Blakely was recruited from Australia by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to restore the city to some semblance of normality in the wake of ferocious Hurricane Katrina.

As recounted in his new book, My Storm (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), Blakely faced a daunting task in engineering the recovery of a ravaged city entirely below sea level, and thus significantly exposed to major hurricanes no matter how sturdy the surrounding protective levees.

In his revealing book, Blakely quoted Judith Curry, chair of the Georgia Tech's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. She predicted that "a hundred years from now, there is no way New Orleans is going to be here. ... This is just the way geology and climate work."

If that were not enough to intimidate Blakely, he had to deal with a historic sense of doom stretching back to pre-Civil War days. It was then that a prominent civic engineer took note of New Orleans' precarious location and commented, "It would be a service to sweep away the city with all its boarding houses, grog shops, and music to boot."

Yet Blakely soldiered on, enduring widespread criticism for steering reconstruction away from much of New Orleans' Ninth Ward, whose low lying sections were the most vulnerable to repetitive wipeouts in a city itself extraordinarily exposed to nature's wrath.

Many urban planners will face the same dilemma as Blakely in the years ahead, given that flooding episodes will grow with the intensification of storms and rise of sea levels due to global warming. A recent U.S. Geological Survey report confirms the mounting challenge with its disclosure that sea levels are increasing three to four times faster along the densely populated mid-Atlantic coast than elsewhere in the world.

Will urban planners have the guts to sound the retreat, and if so, will they be ignored until there is no choice but to turn tail in disarray?

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