WASHINGTON - Flood-prone neighborhoods of New Orleans should be abandoned and rebuilt on higher ground, according to more than half of the participants in an AP-Ipsos poll.
Taken in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the survey found 54 percent favor relocating vast sections of the city that tourists love for its jazz, distinctive cuisine and Mardi Gras.
Although about 80 percent of New Orleans was underwater, large sections of the historic French Quarter and Garden District were spared major flooding. The city, home to about 484,000 people, sits 6 feet below sea level on average.
The aid price tag already runs tens of billions of dollars. In the days since the hurricane, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., has questioned whether the worst-flooded areas should be rebuilt.
"There's a lot of history, but the fact remains that it remains below sea level," said Kate Rehfus, a Republican from Fort Thomas, Ky., who loves New Orleans for its blues, beignets and Cafe Du Monde coffee. "It wouldn't be the same by any means, but if it could be done, that would be best. This would never happen again."
Early reports of the survey results prompted angry phone calls from displaced residents of New Orleans. Among them was a tearful Mary Dawn Pugh.
"My first reaction is, where? Where would you move it? There's water everywhere," said the recent law school graduate, whose New Orleans home is submerged.
Pugh complained about public reaction to recent TV coverage of the worst moments of a city known worldwide for its romance and charm.
Lehman says residents have seen flooding before and they should eventually come back.
"I've heard so much hatred spewed about New Orleans, people talking about what they've seen," said Pugh, who wondered which people were polled. "It could be backwoods Minnesota people thinking how their tax dollars are going to be spent."
Mike Kimble, who lives in the suburbs of New Orleans, said asking whether New Orleans should be rebuilt is ridiculous. "When there's an earthquake in San Francisco, when there's a riot in L.A., when there's mudslides out West, we still build houses on the side of the mountains with federal money," Kimble said. "If there's a Southern city in a Southern state that has a problem, then the question is, why rebuild it?
"New Orleans is a vital place to the country - the ports, the grain elevators, the oil refineries," he said. "Such a question like that should never be asked."
Just over half, 52 percent, said they disapprove of President Bush's handling of hurricane relief. Blacks were especially upset with Bush; 78 percent of blacks blamed the president for the poor response, compared with 49 percent of whites.
Two-thirds in the poll said state and local governments deserve much of the blame for the response.
Members of the New Orleans City Council are vowing to rebuild the city - a task that would cost billions of dollars. The Big Easy is a magnet for tourists, with more than 10 million visiting in 2004 and spending almost $5 billion, according to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.
More than four in 10 of those polled said they want the city rebuilt where it is, with its levees strengthened.
Residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, the coastal area of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle were not interviewed for the poll because of widespread damage to the communications systems in the states and the ongoing efforts by residents to recover from the storm.
The rapid rise in gas prices past $3 per gallon may have played a role in Bush's 39 percent job approval, the first time it has dipped below 40 percent since the AP-Ipsos poll was started in December 2003. Almost two-thirds say the country is headed down the wrong track and slightly more say they disapprove of Bush's handling of gas prices.
Despite their gloomy mood, people are donating to hurricane victims at record levels. Almost two-thirds in the poll say they have already given money - with about $600 million donated so far. Donations to Katrina victims are outpacing donations at a similar stage for recent disasters like the South Asia tsunami and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to groups that monitor donations.
"I sat there and cried, I still sit here and cry," said Joyce Jones, a retiree from Modesto, Calif., explaining her reaction to the plight of New Orleans hurricane victims. "I have donated, I plan to donate more. These people need it."
The poll of 1,002 adults was conducted by Ipsos, an international polling firm, from Sept. 6-8 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.