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2nd September
2005

First Published in The New York Sun, September 2, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

The other day, I drove past ground zero the void that has come to symbolize our pride and our shame: pride in the hero ism of our first responders and the ordinary people confronted with an extraordinary situ ation thrust upon them on September 11 2001, and its aftermath.

Four years later, the hole has become our shame, still empty as politicians debate how to restore and renew this small area of Lower Manhattan. In a way, we have betrayed those who died that day, by not moving decisively.The hole now symbolizes a defeat that comes from our inertia and lack of leadership.
Put this into perspective: Four years after Pearl Harbor was attacked, World War II had been over for nearly four months. We raised a great fighting force, built thousands of planes tanks, and other munitions, fought a ferocious war on multiple fronts, developed the atomic bomb, and defeated two of the most powerful na tions on the planet. In the four years since the at tacks that brought down the World Trade Center we have talked and argued but failed to build.

This week, another tragedy has befallen our nation, a natural disaster that perhaps we could have prepared ourselves better to face, but that will require every ounce of resolve and ingenu ity to overcome.

Can we rebuild the great city of New Orleans and the other devastated areas? Or will we sink in the same kind of bureaucratic inertia that has befallen us in New York?

The answer is that we must rebuild it. New Or leans is a port and a city of enormous historic cultural, and economic significance. It must not be allowed to die. It is not enough to rebuild New Orleans: We must restore it to maintain its unique character.

I was shocked by the images of looting and the tales of lawlessness on the streets. The New Orleans I know is a city of great people with great pride in their city. But I suspect we will hear wonderful and inspiring stories of heroism.

Initially, it looked like New Orleans was going to survive the hurricane, battered but intact But relief quickly turned to alarm as the levees were breached and the city flooded. Suddenly the worst-case scenario became real: A major American city had been destroyed as surely as if a dirty bomb had exploded in the French Quarter. While the contamination isn’t radioac tive, it is lethal. The brew running through the streets is sewage, carrying diseases typical of Third World countries.

In a sense, New Orleans has an advantage over New York. Its residents at least have a blue print for renewal: They will surely want the city to be what it was. At a certain point, the ques tion will come down to money, perhaps hun dreds of billions of dollars.

In New York, there is no shortage of money But after the inspiring leadership of Mayor Giu liani, a vacuum has emerged, which is why ground zero is empty four years after the terri ble event.

The federal government provided compensa tion for the families of the victims of September 11. What will be done in this case, where the death toll, in New Orleans and elsewhere, could exceed that of September 11, and the number of people who have lost their homes and jobs will likely number in the hundreds of thousands?

The loss of jobs is staggering. Suddenly nearly everyone in New Orleans is unem ployed. The daily newspaper now is without a city to serve. Tens of thousands who work in the city’s legendary hospitality industry have lost the restaurants, hotels, and tourist attrac tions — and the tourists they depend on, per haps for years. It may be years before Mardi Gras is held again.

Beyond restoring the city, its buildings, and its economy, the question is how to prevent a future disaster. After all, the possibility, in deed, the probability of this catastrophe had been known for years. This is what the Nether lands faced in 1953 when its dikes were breached, drowning nearly 2,000 people. The Delta Project that resulted is said to have made the country watertight, but it took decades to complete.

Fixing New Orleans will be a test of will, not just for the residents of the Big Easy, but for all Americans. Though the New Orleans economy is too dependent on tourism, that dependency has given the city a reservoir of goodwill throughout the nation and world that will be helpful in the days ahead.

In adversity, there is opportunity. Europe and Japan emerged stronger from the devastation of World War II.We can restore the tourist town but must also build a more varied economy in New Orleans.

Beyond money, the missing ingredient is leadership. Mayor Nagin appears to be in over his head. A national effort needs to be headed by a national figure. The names of President Clinton and Mr. Giuliani come to mind — not as symbolic fund-raisers but as redevelopment tsars, a modern-day Douglas MacArthur or Robert Moses who can demonstrate that Amer icans have not lost their energy and initiative with the passing of the “greatest generation” — exactly what we in New York have failed to do at ground zero.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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