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Vital role as port ensures Big Easy will rise again

Matt Crenson Associated Press

New Orleans will be rebuilt.


House Speaker Dennis Hastert may muse that it makes no sense to spend billions of dollars to rebuild a city that is 7 feet below sea level. Fifty-four percent of Americans may say that flooded parts of the city should be moved to safety, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll.

Forget about it.

History, geography and especially economics make it inevitable that New Orleans will be rebuilt – almost certainly with more substantial flood protection, of course. The Big Easy is, always has been and probably always will be a vital port.

“We cannot live without it,” said Ari Kelman, a historian at the University of California at Davis and author of “A River and its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans.”

The Port of South Louisiana makes it possible for farmers in Iowa to sell corn to customers in China. It gets steel to Midwestern automakers and coffee to wholesalers all over the country. And thanks to the unique history and culture that 300 years of maritime trade have spawned, the city of New Orleans now has a singular place in the American tourism business as well.

New Orleans lies at the outlet of a 15,000-mile river transportation network that stretches from the Rockies to the Alleghenies. That’s why French settlers located it there in the first place – enduring floods, disease and sweltering heat in exchange for economic and military control over the interior of North America.

“New Orleans is a surprising evidence of what men will endure, when cheered by the hopes of an ever-flowing tide of all-mighty dollars and cents,” an English visitor declared in 1857.

A little more than a century later, geographer Peirce Lewis summed up New Orleans as “an inevitable city on an impossible site.”

Every year, about 50 percent of the corn and one-third of the soybeans exported by the United States float down the Mississippi River and its tributaries on barges.

They move far more cheaply that way than they would by road or rail, said commodities trader J. Stephen Lucas, president of Jayhawker Consulting Co.

“You can ship corn out of Iowa on rail cars,” Lucas said. “That costs more money for transportation, and that means a lower price for the farmer.”

You can’t sail a barge to China, so those river vessels have to stop at docks in and around New Orleans to have their cargo transferred to oceangoing ships.

Similarly, ships coming from all over the world have to stop in the New Orleans area to offload their products – some onto barges, others onto rail cars or trucks. Altogether, the docks in and around New Orleans handle more than 100 million tons of cargo annually, making it the world’s third-busiest port by volume.

The New Orleans area also plays a role in the energy industry, thanks to its proximity to offshore oil and natural gas fields in the Gulf of Mexico. Although most corporations use nearby Houston as a headquarters rather than New Orleans, they still rely on Port Fourchon, about 60 miles south of the city, to ferry equipment and workers out to the rigs. A significant fraction of the nation’s oil imports come in through the region. And Louisiana refineries account for about 15 percent of the nation’s gasoline refining capacity.

It would not be possible to operate all this industrial infrastructure without a lot of people nearby. According to the Port of New Orleans, there are 60,000 people directly employed in maritime shipping in Louisiana, and 107,000 people whose jobs depend on the industry.

Those people, in turn, need groceries and clothing. They need banks and gas stations and appliance stores. Their children need schools to attend.

They need New Orleans.

Some economists have predicted that many of the lawyers, accountants and other professionals who have been forced to retreat to Baton Rouge, 50 miles upriver, will stay there even after New Orleans is rebuilt.

But the French Quarter isn’t going anywhere. Tourism is a major business in New Orleans, thanks to the city’s rich history, unique culture and reputation for naughty good times. With the Quarter and other popular destinations relatively undamaged by the flooding of lower-lying parts of New Orleans, the city still has plenty of appeal.

“I guarantee you that it would cost many times more to abandon the city than to rebuild it,” said Laurence Geller, president and CEO of Strategic Hotel Capital.

The company owns the Hyatt Regency New Orleans. The building suffered major damage during the hurricane, but it is well worth repairing, Geller said – as is the rest of New Orleans.

“I really am an optimist for the future of this city,” Geller said.

Tourism brings $10 billion to New Orleans annually and accounts for about 15 percent of the city’s jobs. Because those jobs tend to be relatively low-paying, they are held mostly by the poor minority residents of New Orleans who were disproportionately harmed by Hurricane Katrina.

Some commentators have suggested that some of the poorest residents of the Big Easy will never come back. With no homes or other possessions to connect them to New Orleans, the theory goes, they will simply stay wherever Katrina and the Red Cross blew them.

But for better or worse, the tourism industry in New Orleans needs the poor and will probably draw some of them back. That means the city’s low-income housing, largely destroyed by the post-Katrina flood, is likely to be rebuilt.

“The obvious question to ask is, who is going to rebuild it?” Kelman said.

With so many opportunities to redevelop wealthier areas, developers will probably have very little interest in building low-income housing in places like the Ninth Ward, which is one of the nation’s poorest urban neighborhoods. The federal government has been trying for decades to get out of the landlord business.

A shortage of affordable housing may cause some further contraction of the city’s population, which has shrunk about 30 percent over the past 40 years.

“That may be good because we may be able to abandon some of those lower areas,” said Craig E. Colten, a professor of geography and anthropology at Louisiana State University.

As they think about rebuilding New Orleans, many people are finding opportunity in Katrina’s destruction. Kelman sees opportunities to correct some of the socio-economic inequality that has plagued New Orleans for centuries, by developing quality housing and adequate services in traditionally poor areas.

Geller would like to redevelop the area around the Hyatt, which is attached to the Superdome and a shopping complex, so that the area is better integrated with the French Quarter and other tourist neighborhoods.

“This is a tragedy, but an interesting and wonderful opportunity … to master plan the city,” he said. “The American spirit is so wonderful and entrepreneurial that things will happen.”

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