Will New Orleans survive - not just the next hurricane season, but the next 100? It's really more of a political question than an engineering question. And now, it's largely up to the Democrats.
Yesterday, as congressional Democrats were shaking the dust of minority status off for the first time in 12 years, Louisiana officials were unveiling the first real plan for protecting New Orleans. It's an ambitious strategy that would rebuild the fragile Mississippi delta and shield inhabitants of the city and surrounding towns from hurricane storm surges with a combination of levees and floodgates.
I don't know if this is the best plan. There are lots of issues. Can you build what some have called a "Great Wall of Louisiana," extending halfway across the state, without seriously damaging marshes or drawing new development into the path of danger? Given the whole delta is sinking and dissolving like a giant Alka Seltzer tablet, can you do more than slow down the relentless march of coastal erosion?
If they ultimately take on this challenge, the state and federal governments will really have their hands full. The situation literally changes by the hour, as salt water from the Gulf of Mexico seeps ever-northward into delicate marshlands, already chewed up by nutria and crisscrossed by thousands of miles of channels. Global warming will push seas higher, and possibly amp up hurricane strengths as well. The end result, if little is done - or if the kind of patchwork plans we've seen in the past are all we get - will be a city besieged daily by water, impossibly expensive to keep safe, or just to maintain.
Some argue that New Orleans is unique, but really, this is just the beginning. In a few short decades, other coastal cities may also find themselves staring into a similar abyss.
That's why, at the core, this is a political problem. Does America want to protect its cities? If so, then Congress, working with Louisiana officials, should actively engage the future of New Orleans. Take it seriously. Look at where the funding should come from, and how to keep it going for the decades-long time frame necessary. Look at the way we build and manage our infrastructure and coastal protections - right now, it's a disaster. Earmarks and lobbyists rule the day; there's no way to distinguish pork from a life-and-death project.
The 21st century will throw a lot of scary environmental changes our way. Katrina was a warning - these changes are already sandbagging (no pun intended) our sluggish and politically blinkered 20th-century agencies and institutions. It's in everyone's interests, not just New Orleans', that the new Congress grapple with these real problems - for a change.
John McQuaid is the co-author of Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms.