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New Orleans Is Sinking

NEW ORLEANS, Nov. 20, 2005

The lower Ninth Ward was one of the hardest hit areas New Orleans. (AP)

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“New Orleans is going to be 15 to 18 feet below     

(CBS) For 300 years, the sea has been closing in on New Orleans. As the coastal erosion continues, it is estimated the city will be off shore in 90 years. Even in good weather, New Orleans is sinking. As the city begins what is likely to be the biggest demolition project in U.S. history, the question is, can we or should we put New Orleans back together again?

Life has been returning to high and dry land on Bourbon Street, but to find the monumental challenge facing the city you have to visit neighborhoods you have never heard of. On Lizardi Street, 60 Minutes took a walk with the men in charge of finishing what Katrina started.

Correspondent Scott Pelley reports.

“New Orleans is going to be 15 to 18 feet below sea level, sitting off the coast of North America surrounded by a 50 to 100-foot-tall levee system to protect the city.”
- Prof. Tim Kusky


Before Katrina, “There would be noise and activity and families and people, and children, and, you know, I haven’t seen a child in a month here,” says Greg Meffert, a city official who, with his colleague Mike Centineo, is trying to figure out how much of the city will have to be demolished.

Meffert, who is in charge of city planning, says it is “very possible” up to 50,000 houses will have to be bulldozed. Right now, most of the homes in the city are uninhabitable.

Meffert faces a difficult task. Every time he goes to a house site here, he says, “It’s one more knife in me that says, ‘She did another one. She did another one,’” explains Meffert, “she” meaning Hurricane Katrina.

When you walk through these neighborhoods and you see the houses, you get a sense of the pain of the individual families. But you don’t get a sense of what has happened to the city of New Orleans itself.

It is estimated that there were 200,000 homes in New Orleans, and 120,000 of them were damaged by the flood.

The part of the city known as the lower Ninth Ward received some of the heaviest flooding. The houses are splintered block after block after block, almost as if the city had been carpet-bombed in war.

Meffert says that before the storm, New Orleans had a population of 470,000-480,000 people. Realistically, he thinks that half of those residents won’t be coming back.

The possessions of thousands of families, the stuff collected over lifetimes is suddenly garbage, clawed up into mountains in city parks. With so much gone already, should New Orleans pick up right where it was?

“We should be thinking about a gradual pullout of New Orleans, and starting to rebuild people’s homes, businesses and industry in places that can last more than 80 years,” says Tim Kusky, a professor of earth sciences at St. Louis University and a flood control expert.

Kusky talks about a withdrawal of the city and explains that coastal erosion was thrown into fast forward by Katrina. He says by 2095, the coastline will pass the city and New Orleans will be what he calls a “fish bowl.”

“Because New Orleans is going to be 15 to 18 feet below sea level, sitting off the coast of North America surrounded by a 50- to 100-foot-tall levee system to protect the city,” explains Kusky.

He says the city will be completely surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico just 90 years from now.

“That’s the projection, because we are losing land on the Mississippi Delta at a rate of 25 to 30 square miles per year. That’s two acres per hour that are sinking below sea level,” says Kusky.

That process could only be slowed, in theory, by massive restoration of wetlands. In the meantime, while Kusky’s advice is to head for the hills, some New Orleans residents are hoping to head home.

Vera Fulton has lived most of her 81 years on Lizardi Street and returned to her home recently for the first time since being evacuated.

“When they say ‘storm,’ I leave. I can’t swim and I can’t drink it. So what I do, I leave,” says Vera, who has lost her home to two hurricanes.

Vera is intent on coming back. “I don’t have no other home, where I’m going?”

Three generations of Fultons, Vera’s son Irvin Jr., his wife Gay and their son Irvin, 3rd, live around Lizardi Street.

Irvin says his house is “just flat” and he didn’t have insurance.

That’s the dilemma. The only thing they have left is land prone to disaster. They want to rebuild, and the city plans to let them.

At Vera’s house, Mike Centenio, the city’s top building official, told 60 Minutes homes can go up as long as they meet what is called the “100-year flood level.”

The federal government had set a flood-level, but didn’t figure on a levee failure that would flood parts of the city.

The official level is several feet off the ground. If people meet the requirement, they can rebuild their homes, despite the fact that we saw, for example, a refrigerator lifted to the top of a carport by the floodwaters.

Asked whether allowing people to rebuild makes sense, Centenio says it is “going to take some studying.”

Right now, he says the flood level requirement is the law.

Twelve weeks after the storm hit, no one has an answer to where people should go. An estimated 80,000 homes had no insurance, and for now, the biggest grant a family can get from the federal government is $26,200.

Those without flood insurance face an uncertain road ahead, trying to piece their lives and homes back together.

“I don’t think any of us get to be made whole. I don’t know of anybody that’s even getting back to where they were. It’s just a matter of how much you lost,” says Meffert.

No one wants to risk more losses until the levees are fixed but there is not a lot of confidence in that. There’s evidence some of the levee walls may have failed from bad design or lousy workmanship.

Fixing them is up to Colonel Richard Wagenaar, who told 60 Minutes, that by next summer, the levees will withstand a Category 3 storm. But for a Category 5 storm, Congress would have to double the levee height to 30 feet.

Col. Wagenaar says building a 30-foot flood control system around the city could take five to ten years, and cost billions of dollars.

Asked whether he would live in New Orleans if the levees were restored to pre-Katrina levels, Col. Wagenaar said he would, after a long pause.

“There's a lot of long pauses in things I think about these days,” Wagenaar added.

Another thing that gives you pause is the fact that one of the world’s largest pumping systems can’t keep the city dry with broken levees.

60 Minutes was there in September during Hurricane Rita. Crews were fighting with everything they had, cooling a pump with a hose and a coat hanger. When the station flooded during Katrina, Gerald Tilton dove under water to open valves.

Since then, Tilton and his men have been living at the station. “Most of us, our homes have been destroyed but a large number of us are still here doing the job that we get paid to do,” says Tilton.

Tilton says he hasn’t seen his home since the storm hit and only took one thing from the house when he left: his diploma. “I graduated from Tulane last year and that was the one thing that I wanted. I know it might sound crazy.”

But sharp minds and heroism couldn’t stop a second flood.

It took another two weeks to dry out and count the losses. Now, inspectors with laptops are identifying ruined houses.

“Every house in New Orleans is loaded into this database,” explains Centineo. The reports are sent instantly to a computer at city hall, where the database is linked to aerial images of every address, both before and after.

When the reports are in, they will know how many billions it will take to rebuild, but not where that money is coming from.

Mike Centineo showed us, at his house, that you can’t appreciate the loss until you walk through the door. He lost pretty much everything in his home. “We’ve lost a lot. What hurts is family photos. They went under water and I pulled them out to try to salvage what I could,” Centineo says.

Centineo says he understands, probably better than any building official ever has, what the victims of Katrina are going through. “I’m one of them, that’s true, I’m one of them.”

He is one of about 400,000 people still unable to come home. That’s the worst part now, the deflation of the Big Easy.

There are too few people to pay taxes or keep businesses going. The world’s largest domed stadium doesn’t have a football team; In New Orleans, these days, not even the Saints go marching in.

Meffert has some clear feelings on whether the nation should commit billions of dollars and several years to protect the city.

“Is it commit or invest? I mean this is the thing that that people miss. The country has to decide whether it really is what we tell the world what we are. Or are we just saying that? Because if we are that powerful, if we are that focused, if we are that committed to all of our citizens, then there is no decision to make. Of course you rebuild it,” says Meffert.

By Shawn Efran/Rebecca Peterson MMV, CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Read also on this issue:

Rebuilding New Orleans: State asks '60 Minutes' to hold report on sinking

Unfeasibility of Rebuilding New Orleans

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