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Seven Rules for Building a New New Orleans

Release Date: 06-09-2006

Author: Joshua E. Brown
Phone: 802-656-3039 Fax: (802) 656-3203

Hurricane Katrina was the largest natural disaster ever to strike the United States. The US government has pledged over $100 billion to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after this predictable tragedy. The question is: how should it be rebuilt?

In an editorial published electronically June 10, 2006 in the international journal Ecological Engineering, Robert Costanza, Director of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont, and two co-authors point out seven rules that need to be followed to restore New Orleans. They suggest that while what was there can simply be replaced, this approach would merely mean setting the pins up to be knocked down again by a future hurricane.

Wetlands and barrier islands are the only thing between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. But 1800 square miles of wetlands have been lost since the 1930s. The blanket of freshwater, sediments, and nutrients from the Mississippi River Basin that used to spread across the Louisiana delta no longer does so, as the heavily managed river is forced to dump most of its load into the deep waters of the Gulf.

That river management allowed deepwater shipping in New Orleans and stopped flooding of developed areas, but it will ultimately lead to the cityís destruction.

A well-conceived plan called the Louisiana Coastal Area Project would have reversed the trend of continuing wetland loss. This plan may now be in jeopardy if priorities shift to simply replacing levees and pumps instead of restoring wetlands and creating sensible human settlements.

What would a truly new New Orleans look like? Here are seven rules proposed by Dr. Costanza and colleagues:

1. Let the water decide. Building a city below sea level is always a dangerous proposition. While parts of New Orleans are still above sea level, much of it has sunk below. It is not sustainable to rebuild these areas the way they were before. They should be either replaced with coastal wetlands, which are allowed to trap sediments to rebuild the land, or replaced with buildings on pilings or floats that are adapted to flooding.

2. Avoid abrupt boundaries between deepwater systems and uplands. Gentle slopes with wetlands are the best division, and avoid putting humans, particularly those who have few resources to avoid the next hurricane, in harmís way. Of course the abrupt boundaries of the levees are necessary, since wetlands alone cannot protect the city, but we need both.

3. Restore natural capital. Coastal wetlands in Louisiana have been estimated to provide US$ 375 per acre ($925 per hectare) each year in storm and flood protection services. Hurricane Katrina has shown this to be a large underestimate. Restoring Louisianaís coastal wetlands and New Orleans levees has been estimated to cost US$ 25 billion. Had the original wetlands been intact and levees in better shape, a substantial portion of the $100 billion in damages from this hurricane probably could have been avoided. Prevention is much cheaper and more effective than reconstruction.

4. Use the resources of the Mississippi River to rebuild the coast, by changing the current system that constrains the river between levees and allows it to simply dump into the deeper waters of the Gulf. Diversion of water, nutrients, and sediments from the Mississippi should be greatly expanded beyond what current plans call for, to allow rapid restoration of the coastal wetlands. Where possible, levees should be breached in a controlled way to allow marsh rebuilding.

5. Restore the built capital of New Orleans with green buildings and a car-limited urban environment with high mobility for everyone. New Orleans has abundant renewable energy sources in solar, wind, and water. What better message than to build a 21st-century city running on renewable energy on the rubble of a 20th-century oil and gas production hub? Imagine neighborhoods of New Orleans with strong, multistory, multifamily buildings surrounded by green space, each with enough water and fuel storage for several weeks, and operating on wind and solar energy.

6. Rebuild the social capital of New Orleans to 21st century standards of diversity, tolerance, fairness, and justice. New Orleans has suffered long enough with an unjust social system dating from the 18th (or even the 15th) century. The envisioning and rebuilding must include participation by the entire community.

7. Restore the Mississippi River Basin to minimize coastal pollution and the threats of river flooding in New Orleans. Upstream changes in the drainage basin have altered nutrient and sediment delivery patterns to the delta. Changes in levees and farming practices upstream and the establishment of 5 million acres of wetlands and riverine forests can improve not only the coastal restoration process, but also the nationís agricultural economy by promoting sustainable farming practices in the entire basin.

The authors point out that we must not let the restoration of New Orleans and the rest of the Mississippi delta become another disaster waiting to happen.

For more information, please contact the editorial offices of Ecological Engineering ( or the paper's authors: Robert Costanza (; William J. Mitsch (; John W. Day, Jr. (

The paper available at