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New Orleans to rebuild amid uncertainty

Questions about what can be saved and what must be razed

By Steve Almasy



New Orleans (Louisiana)

(CNN) -- How many people in New Orleans will have to make major repairs to or completely rebuild their homes?

President Bush told the nation there is a "powerful American determination to clear the ruins and build better than before."

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has what federal officials say is an ambitious plan to bring 180,000 people back to the city.

The mayor has said, "I just can't wait for the rhythm of New Orleans and the sounds of New Orleans to come back."

He once feared as many as 10,000 people might have died as a result of Hurricane Katrina, which slammed the Gulf Coast on August 29. On Tuesday, officials said the death toll was 972 and they called off door-to-door searches for bodies. (Full story)

At one point, 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded. According to the U.S. Census there were about 213,000 homes in New Orleans parish in 2002.

Mike McDaniel, the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, said Thursday that between 140,000 and 160,000 homes need to be leveled. And more than 350,000 vehicles are ruined, he added. However, local officials will decide which homes will be razed.

Nagin said the city had begun an initial assessment of homes, and residents should not believe rumors that entire neighborhoods will be bulldozed without consultation.

"There's this myth out there that we will start demolitions en masse before people get a chance to kind of assess and weigh in. We won't do that," he told reporters Friday.

Nagin said the Lower 9th Ward, a historic but largely poor neighborhood, should be treated respectfully. Some are worried developers may seize the opportunity to buy land on the cheap and build expensive high-rise apartments.

"I'm hoping to come up with a system that if we do have to do any mass demolitions down in the Lower Ninth Ward," Nagin said, "that we figure out a proper compensation formula for those homeowners and they move either back in those areas or in an area that is comparable."

In St. Bernard Parish, east of New Orleans, waters rushing in from Lake Borgne made neighborhoods like Lexington Place a cesspool of mud.

The newly built homes were ankle-deep in toxic filth at one point, a noxious air still makes breathing uncomfortable.

Trucks sit on top of cars. One home is in the middle of the street. Residents search for words to describe their horror.

"The guys were saying, don't cry, mom," one woman said. "Don't make it so upset and I got dehydrated. My pulse rate went down. I lost my vision, actually. I was sitting in the car sick. I couldn't even see my house. All I could see was the outline of the house."

Another woman said that from the outside, her home looked fine.

"When I opened the door -- when I saw the front of my house, I said, 'Oh God, I still have a house and that's wonderful,'" she said. "When I opened the door, it was like the house from hell."

Old homes have advantages

The French founded New Orleans in 1718 and many of the buildings are hundreds of years old. Some older buildings may actually fare better and likely can be saved, said Elizabeth English, an associate professor at the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center.

"The buildings that have historic value, it's worth much more to try to preserve those," she said. "And most likely they've been constructed from more durable materials and it may not be as difficult to save them."

English, who has a degree in architecture, said that old homes were built with a denser wood that is more resistant to mold and rot.

And those homes were built with painstaking craftsmanship better than today's workmanship, she suggested.

The amount of damage will depend upon how long the structure has been under water. Some buildings in New Orleans were flooded for more than two weeks.

Hurricane Rita brought even more water to the impoverished Lower 9th Ward further damaging some structures, state Sen. Walter Boasso of Arabi told the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

But just because a home has mold does not mean it has to be torn down.

"The mold can possibly be cleaned off," English said. "It depends how pervasive it is."

Still, there will be no way to save many homes and much of New Orleans will need to be rebuilt.

Nagin announced Friday a panel of 17 civic leaders whose job it is to develop a plan for the city's rebirth by the end of the year.

In the meantime, teams of firefighters have been sweeping the city, placing red signs on homes considered unsafe.

As of Sunday, 510 residences had been declared structurally unsound, however, most of the neighborhoods that were badly flooded have yet to be searched.

Some New Orleans districts -- like the French Quarter, Uptown, Algiers -- just need to be cleaned up.

Two weeks ago, after one of his early assessment flights of the city, Nagin said he was encouraged by what he saw.

"There was a kind of a protective hedge around the French Quarter, Jackson Square, St. Louis Cathedral, Uptown, Treme, the unique assets of New Orleans," he said.

Nagin was relieved that a portion of the historic section of the city had made it through the storms.

He added, "So there's a fundamental, a foundation for us to build upon to bring New Orleans back even better."

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