Americans do not capitulate easily to adversity, which is why President Bush's elegy last week--and his stirring promise to rebuild--comforted us. "Americans want the Gulf Coast not just to survive, but to thrive; not just to cope, but to overcome," he said, standing in front of the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, my hometown. "We want evacuees to come home for the best of reasons--because they have a real chance at a better life in a place they love." It sounds uplifting. But, sadly, it is wrong. New Orleans should not be remade.
You might have called the very existence of New Orleans, my hometown, a triumph of hope over nature. But nature had the last say. Nestled between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain (which spills into the Gulf of Mexico), the city's founders saw it as the perfect place for a port town. There was only one problem: The land between the river and the gulf wasn't so much land as swamp. They drained it as best they could and began to build, but it has meant a Sisyphean, 300-year death match between engineers and the elements.