Natural Disasters

The Automated Metropolis

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The always insightful Joel Garreau argues that, however much he or you or I might prefer otherwise, the City of New Orleans will not be rebuilt. The economy may demand a port there, he writes, but the port no longer demands a city:

Also distinct from the city are the region's ports, lining 172 miles of both banks of the Mississippi, as well as points on the Gulf. For example, the largest in the Western Hemisphere is the 54-mile stretch of the Port of South Louisiana. It is centered on La Place, 20 miles upriver from New Orleans. It moved 199 million tons of cargo in 2003, including the vast bulk of the river's grain. That is more than twice as much as the Port of New Orleans, according to the American Association of Port Authorities. The Port of Baton Rouge, almost as big as the Port of New Orleans, was not damaged. Also, downstream, there is the LOOP -- the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port out in the Gulf that handles supertankers requiring water depths of 85 feet. These ports are just a few of the biggest.

Illustrating how different the Port of New Orleans is from the city, its landline phones were back in business a week ago, says Gary LaGrange, the port's president and CEO. "The river is working beautifully," he reports, and "the terminal's not that bad."

Throughout the world, you see an increasing distinction between "port" and "city." As long as a port needed stevedores and recreational areas for sailors, cities like New Orleans -- or Baltimore or Rotterdam -- thrived. Today, however, the measure of a port is how quickly it can load or unload a ship and return it to sea. That process is measured in hours. It is the product of extremely sophisticated automation, which requires some very skilled people but does not create remotely enough jobs to support a city of half a million or so.

The dazzling Offshore Oil Port, for example, employs only about 100 people. Even the specialized Port of New Orleans, which handles things like coffee, steel and cruise boats, only needs 2,500 people on an average day, LaGrange says.