Is New Orleans Safe? Will It Ever Be?

But shorter-term options are on the table too, and many in New Orleans residents are demanding they be put in place. At an Aug. 9 meeting between the corps and two city council committees, several short-term solutions were discussed. One is to build a $100 million temporary gate near the mouth of the funnel. That project couldn't be completed until the start of the 2009 hurricane season, according to Bedey.

Adding 3-foot plates to the tops of I walls along the existing MRGO canal is another short-term option, at a predicted cost of $30 million to $50 million, but also can't be completed until 2009. But residents and politicians from battered St. Bernard Parish oppose the temporary gate, saying it'll push water back out into the lake and overrun MRGO, again flooding St. Bernard in a storm.

Bedey reportedly responded that the St. Bernard walls along MRGO would be fortified as part of the project. It was one of many objections that volleyed back and forth over virtually every option offered during the Aug. 9 meeting, according to news reports.

"Bedey said the agency hopes to decide within a few weeks whether to adopt any of the temporary fixes or to just hope that a major hurricane doesn't hit the city while the corps concentrates on completing a long-term plan to protect the city from the surge caused by a 100-year hurricane," the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported earlier this month.

Thinking 'Out of the Box'

In the end, many of the most passionate experts say the only realistic way to "save" New Orleans is to scale it back and abandon some of the most low-lying areas.

"The problem is, 'Where's the leadership?'" asked Louisiana State's Dokka. "What are we going to do? To me there are certain places [in New Orleans] that are just too dangerous to live in, and they need to be partitioned like a ship. So then we can go [to] the rest of the country and say, 'OK, this is a dangerous place to live, but we're going to reduce the risk as much as we can.' There's stuff you can do, yes, but there's no leadership, because people are saying 'We want to make it all better and put it back to what it was.' You can bring back New Orleans, but it'll be a smaller, but more resilient New Orleans."

An engineering expert from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has been deeply involved in reviewing the corps' work agrees.

"What I would like to see in some way is if there were more time to think about this, to think out of the box, to come up with solutions that don't rely on rebuilding bigger and better in the same footprint," said the engineer, who requested anonymity because he doesn't have approval to comment publicly on the progress of the flood protection system. "You'd want to refocus strategy a little bit, and that may not be rebuilding in the same footprint."

"Rather than hope we can control nature, which I think in the end nature will always win, we need to live with nature in that respect and adapt to that," he said.

But how do you draw a community back home if you can't promise it protection? It's certainly a goal both the corps and its critics share.

"At the end of the day, this isn't about the 100-year level of protection," Bedey told ABC News. "This isn't about the wetlands. This is about helping to restore faith and confidence in the people, such that the people want to come back and the businesses want to come back."

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