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New Orleans' Fuzzy Future

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Last week, the Corps of Engineers announced with great fanfare that its current project to repair and upgrade the New Orleans levee system would, if all goes according to plan, accomplish its goal by the target date of 2011. But that's a very big if. Because so far, things have not exactly gone according to plan. The Corps's announcement had an alarming coda: that extra protection will cost more than twice as much as previously believed - a whopping $15 billion. This means that the Bush administration has to go back to Congress and ask for the additional cash.

This is all depressingly familiar. First, it was $3 billion. Then that morphed into $7 billion. The Corps's previous goal for completion was 2010. It was pushed back a year. There have been problems with quality control, contractors, and with other agencies.

But the central problem is, this is only the beginning, and a modest one at that. The current project is certainly necessary, and a lot better than what the city had before. But it's actually far less protection than the Corps once (wrongly) claimed the city had with the failed, pre-Katrina system. What does this say about the long-term future of New Orleans? The Corps is struggling to catch up to where it thought it used to be. How is it going to deal with climate change? And this isn't just the Corps's problem. Is anybody in government thinking seriously about the big picture?

I spent some time looking at these questions, and the result is a piece on the Mother Jones website this week. Part 1 of 3 is up today. Here's a sample:

Catastrophes are supposed to nudge history in new directions. After the 1927 Mississippi River flood engulfed vast areas of the south, the Corps overhauled the river's basic flood-control architecture, building the foundation of the modern system we have now. Katrina's devastating blow to New Orleans raised some history-making issues: Can the damaged city be sustained--that is, can it survive not just the next few hurricane seasons, but the next 100? And as global climate change causes sea levels to rise and possibly fuels larger hurricanes, will other cities inevitably go under too?

Instead of addressing those questions, though, the national debate has stressed the idiosyncrasies of New Orleans. Some have written that French explorer Bienville made a mistake when, in 1718, he founded New Orleans on the fringe of a low-lying swamp dangerously close to Hurricane Alley. Others take it a step further and say that three centuries has been a good run, but it's time to give up. There's some truth to these statements--New Orleans' location on a low-lying, sinking river delta has indeed put it in a terrible predicament. But the underlying message is that Katrina was a fluke: that New Orleans' problems are unique and its existential concerns mostly irrelevant to the rest of the country. That may be comforting to people outside Louisiana. But it's not realistic.

In some sense, we are all New Orleans. We just haven't figured that out yet.