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Tough questions about rebuilding New Orleans

In a city that looks like a cross between a biblical flood, Dante's “Inferno” and a war zone, the question is, "How do you rebuild New Orleans?"  By NBC News' Tom Costello.

In a city that looks like a cross between a biblical flood, Dante's “Inferno” and a war zone, the question is, "How do you rebuild New Orleans?"

Louisiana State University geography professor Craig Colten has spent years studying the Big Easy's relationship with nature. 

“I think it would be foolish to try to rebuild New Orleans as it was two weeks ago,” he says. “I think we need to find ways to put some of those lowest-lying areas — areas in the deepest amount of water now — into a wetlands type of land use."

The French built New Orleans 300 years ago on low-lying ground between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Levees had to be built to protect the area from flooding. But as the city expanded, it grew into the former wetlands, which are flood barriers. When the storm came, the old French Quarter remained relatively dry, while the wetlands flooded.

“It's certainly a flood plain,” says Colten, “and they knew that very early on."

To keep the water out, the levees could be built higher, but there's another problem. New Orleans is sinking about an inch a year as the levees channel crucial Mississippi sediment, which once replenished the ground, out to sea.

The Army Corps of Engineers and city planners will soon have to map a future for the levees and the neighborhoods that depend on them to stay dry. But a complete recovery could be years away.

“I think most of these homes will have to be replaced,” says Michael Carliner of the National Association of Homebuilders. “And there are over 200,000 homes in New Orleans."

Of course, insurance adjusters haven't yet gotten in to estimate how much the cleanup will cost. But tens of billions of dollars will surely flow into a state with a colorful history — a history that includes official corruption.

“We're going to do this right,” says Gov. Kathleen Blanco. “We're going to do it smartly. And we're not going to waste a nickel.”

On the streets of New Orleans, where carriage driver Dennis Richardson is desperate for the tourists to return, the money, and the rebuilding, can't come soon enough. 

“All of us,” says Richards, “need a victory.”