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New Orleans Postcard

Trading Spaces

My wife and I were about to put our house on the market before Hurricane Katrina. I remind myself of this as we contemplate an act that has taken on the trappings of civic treachery--putting our house on the market now, a year after Katrina. It's true: We really were talking to realtors last summer. It was time to downsize, we said. Empty-nest syndrome, we said. That was our cover. Secretly, we were a bit freaked out about hurricanes even before Katrina. (At least I was.) Not so secretly, we were certain the national real estate bubble had reached its soapy and iridescent limit. Our house was paid for, but we were starting to feel like New Yorkers: It was worth more than we were.

Now it's different. Everyone is freaked out about hurricanes. Staying on in New Orleans has become a matter of courage, a political statement. The mayor tells us that New Orleans is on the verge of the biggest boom in the long history of a boom-and-bust town. Upward of $8 billion in federal block grants for housing is about to wash over Louisiana, an economic tidal surge as epic in scale as the watery one that blew apart the levees and drowned the city. Housing prices are up 26 percent since Katrina. (That's in the unflooded parts of town, of course.) We're coming back gangbusters, I tell myself, even as I secretly wonder whether our local housing bubble isn't a last hurrah, a sucker's rally. Hang tough, I tell my friends.

But an awful lot of doctors and lawyers and schoolteachers and stockbrokers and nurses and folks with kids to educate are not hanging tough. The newspaper ran a statistic the other day: Eighty-nine percent of the city's psychiatrists have bailed out. And New Orleans never needed counseling more urgently. Another big storm--Al Gore tells us it's coming--and there could be a stampede for the exits. That storm could come next week, and it could be bigger than Katrina. The parts of the levee system that failed last time have been patched together. But what about the parts that didn't fail, the parts that were about to fail, that would have failed if the parts that did fail hadn't failed first?

Our house is in the French Quarter, so it didn't flood. They knew where to build a house in 1816: close to the river, on the natural ridge thrown up by eons of sedimentation. More precisely, the free man of color who built our house (a commander during the Battle of New Orleans) knew how to build in a part of the world prone to rough weather: parapet walls to hold the roof in place, massive attic timbers from the barges that used to be torn apart when they reached the end of the line, back in the years before steam made it possible to haul barges upriver and reuse them. Masonry over brick--no clapboard for Category Three winds to tease apart and rip away.

I was on vacation in Mexico when Katrina rose up in the Gulf. Sensible people were fleeing southeast Louisiana; I scrambled to get back. As the federal levees failed and New Orleans became Atlantis, the early reports held that the French Quarter was also underwater. My colleagues from the newspaper gave me the bad news as they stumbled out of the circulation trucks that had brought them--some weeping, some merely exhausted--from New Orleans to an evacuation point in Baton Rouge where I reconnected with them. You can imagine the sense of relief--of love for our house--that swept over me a day or two later, when I slipped past National Guard checkpoints and saw it for the first time post-Katrina. A few slates had been knocked off the roof. Crape myrtle branches littered the back courtyard. A windowpane had been blown out on one of the French doors--one pane in a wall of French doors. After days without electricity, an unimaginably vile stench emanated from a bag of scallops in the refrigerator. But there it stood, loyal and true--a squat, doughty little house that had survived Katrina as it had every other hurricane for 200 years.

One of my sons has a flare for the dramatic: "Sell the house? You'd be opening the trap door on a gallows," he said to me, and he said it with a straight face. His big brother is more practical. His grad school signed off on a one-semester research project on city planning--or the lack of it--in the "new" New Orleans. He's staying with us in his old room, in what locals indelicately call the slave quarters, out back of the main cottage. He said he expects he'll be here through the end of the year, so it would be nice if we didn't dump the house before then. "After that, Dad, do what you need to do." But what would that be? Squeeze into an overpriced condo? Move to Iowa and start over?

Coastal erosion. Rising seas. A delicately manmade landscape that requires careful and constant maintenance by an incompetent federal establishment. A feckless and self-infatuated mayor. A Congress and White House that lack the resolve to demand a state-of-the-art flood defense around the city commanding the mouth of the continent's mightiest river. Why is rebuilding New Orleans not a matter of national pride, rather than grudging debate? Whatever happened to the can-do spirit America once laid claim to? Must we ask the Dutch to do it for us?

But, by the same token, what sane person would invest a dime in New Orleans just now? Why wouldn't anyone slide his chips off the table and ease quietly toward the door?

Carl, my barber, tells me that tailback Reggie Bush, the darling of Saints fans now scattered across the nation, just paid nearly $2 million for a riverfront condo tower a stone's throw from the Convention Center, where 20,000 flood refugees were trapped for the better part of a week. Donald Trump is clamoring for permits to build a glitzy Trump condo hotel in what would be the tallest skyscraper in the city. The Hyatt chain has committed $300 million to a makeover of its storm-ravaged hotel next door to the freshly re-roofed Superdome. It's part of a grand plan that also includes moving City Hall, building a new civil courthouse, a jazz museum, and a downtown park.

The French Quarter hums again with music at night. Only a new generation of tourist t-shirt slogans--THE BITCH LEFT ME WITH ONLY THE SHIRT ON MY BACK--betrays Katrina's passage. In the pillared precincts farther upriver, the Garden District dreams its leafy dream as though nothing had ever happened, not even the Civil War.

Then there's the rest of the city, the disaster zone, an area five times the size of Manhattan. You want to know what's weird about New Orleans? It's not the houses near the canals that were hit with a Niagara of water so powerful it blew them off their foundations and tossed cars into trees. What happened there is dynamic and self-evident. What's weird about New Orleans is the mile upon mile of trim and upright ranch houses that marinated in swill for three or four weeks. Vast swaths of a city emptied as if by a neutron bomb, with only the fecal brown floodline up under the eaves to suggest what went so very wrong--that, and the ghostly dried brine still coating the dead lawns and landscaping.

And yet people are coming back, gutting homes in this ghost town. Some of them think they're just getting wrecked houses ready for sale to the bottom-feeders or to the state through the buyout program Washington's belated billions are meant to finance. (A lump sum, argued over for ten months, that amounts to a fraction of what gets spent every month in Iraq.) Some will cash out. Others will settle back into these properties, because they can't find a buyer or can't break a son's heart.

Real estate, the experts note, has a helpful inertial effect in a post-catastrophe environment. It brings people back to their holdings. It contributes to what Lawrence Vale at MIT calls the resilience of cities. New Orleans is proving notably resilient--more so, in any case, than the federal levees.

A part of me wishes the housing market would crash and get it over with, erase the run-up that makes me feel like I have too much at stake in New Orleans to stay on in New Orleans. In the end, I doubt we'll leave. Our lives are in New Orleans, a city that has never been for the faint of heart. We have too much at stake here. So does America.