Driving home today, it dawned on me that New Orleans could very easily become the first time in modern history that a major urban city is effectively abandoned by its residents.
Consider this - in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the city has been evacuated in order to allow cleanup efforts to take place. A few diehard souls remain in the city, but for the most part, the population of the city probably only numbers a few thousand right now - most of them existing in little pockets, forming small tribal societies.
The real question is how many of New Orleans' evacuees will return to the city once it starts to be habitable again. Consider the trauma that they have experienced - their homes literally blown or washed away; a breakdown of urban infrastructure in the wake of the storm; social collapse; and finally evacuation to other cities. Those that stayed the longest saw the worst side of things - bodies floating in the streets, gangs of thugs and rapists, starvation, desperation and the very human survival response to those pressures.
How many of those people will want to return to New Orleans? It is now a city of buildings, but with no soul. Even though the port and oil refinery facilities can be restarted easily, the supporting economy in the city is gone. The myriad small businesses that coexist and support the larger economic engines are all gone. Either destroyed by the storm, or a lack of cash flow in the storm's wake. Few businesses can weather a complete shutdown that will be months in duration. Retail shops will be the first victims, but there will be many others who return to find their businesses effectively dead - either because the business itself has been destroyed, or their clientele have fled the region.
Few but those who see opportunity in trying to restore New Orleans, or those with deep emotional roots in the place will have much desire to return. Even those who will return will find a city very different from what they left. Consider your home town with 30% - 50% of the population missing. It would be eerie, disconcerting to say the least.
I expect New Orleans will be revived, but it will not be anything like its former self.