09/19/2006 11:27 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Can New Orleans Be Secured?

There are two separate elements involved in the rebuilding and rebirth of New Orleans, each with its own set of formidable challenges. One is what everybody thinks of when the subject comes up - people coming back, rebuilding their homes and businesses, neighborhoods stirring to life. In other words, restoring the community to health - and, since it wasn't all that healthy to begin with, maybe building something better.

No easy task. Nothing like it has ever been done (at least not in the United States).

But the second element is, arguably, far more important: everything depends on it. Can the city and its surrounding marshlands be secured against an onslaught of dire natural threats - big hurricanes, sinking land, and rising seas?

That's an open question. Technically, it's possible. But politically, it's dicey. I don't think that very many people - either among the public, in Congress, or the White House, really understand what's involved and the kind of sustained investment of money and political will it will take. And that's scary. Yet without it, any reconstruction will be at grave risk. Who wants to rebuild, only to see catastrophe strike again in 25 years - or 5, or 1?

Briefly, here's what's involved: The city needs a better levee system, designed to protect it against the worst nature can dish out. It should be designed with the future in mind - the next 1,000 years, not the next budget cycle. Since the entire Mississippi delta is slowly sinking and seas are likely to rise, the region needs to undertake a major marsh restoration. The New York Times has a good story today on one element of this - diverting the Mississippi so that fresh, silt-laden water can replenish the marshes.

The price tag for all this? We're talking tens of billions of dollars over a period of decades. Big, but not all that huge, especially compared to some other national efforts of late of far more questionable efficacy.

Some credible voices are arguing it's just not worth it - it's a huge investment, a small city, it may not work. I don't agree, but that's a national debate we ought to be having, and so far, we're not having it. One lesson we learned from writing our book was that momentum for such long-term projects always fades - that's one reason why the pre-Katrina levee system was so terribly flawed and deficient. Now that we're looking forward, do we really want to shove this one off on a few House subcommittees?