New Orleans will be rebuilt, but it will never be what it was. Consider - the process of:
- Plugging the Levee holes
- Draining the water
- Inspecting/Demolishing buildings
Will take many, many months - I'd say longer than anyone is guessing right now. The historic district seems to have mostly escaped, and will be one of the first places to come back - property owners there will actually have property to come back to. The rest of the city?
Well, consider - there's some proportion of the population (many of the 80% who evacuated, I'd guess) who have family and/or friends who will be able to take them in. For those people, regardless of their age, this will be like a return to being 18 (or 21, if they went to college). They'll have to start all over again, with nothing but a helpful push from their families. How many will return to New Orleans? Not many, I'd guess - most won't want to put their lives on hold for the next 6-12 months.
Then there are the people who are only being evacuated now - they have even less than the first group. Many of them don't own homes (I saw census bureau data that stated a 49% rental rate in the city). They've lost almost all the goods they did own, so there's very little holding them to the city - no jobs, no family - nothing. Unlike the group above, these folks probably don't have as many outside family/friends to go to (if they did, I suspect they would have gone there earlier). This means that they'll start without the helping push, but they'll have to start again nevertheless. And like the first group, I very much doubt that they'll sit in a holding center for 6-12 months when there's nothing to return to.
So what do have left? The residents of the historic district (or buyers of their property in the interim - there will be speculative buying on the cheap going on). Business interests that need to be there - import/export, energy, fishing. However, that's going to be limited by the willingness of insurers to sponsor construction - and believe you me, those outfits are going to take a very critical eye toward rebuilding in areas that are under a lot of water. Regardless of what new plans come down the pike to rebuild levees stronger, everyone knows that it will be a multi-year effort to do that - and any new construction will be in danger while that happens.
Consider the history of Galveston, TX after the ruinous 1900 hurricane:
While Galveston received financial help from the county, state and federal governments, a large portion of the burden had to be carried by the city itself, at the expense of other projects.
McComb sums it up about as well as it can be:
"Human technology made it possible - for the city of Galveston to remain on such unstable land. The city did not flourish. Houston - left the island city far behind. Galveston simply survived.
That's the future history of New Orleans, right there - and bear in mind, that as bad off as Galveston was then, New Orleans has it worse. Galveston, like Biloxi today, merely (I hate to put it that way) has rubble to clear before rebuilding could start. New Orleans has all that water...