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Watching the horrific events in New Orleans unfold before our eyes has certainly been a harrowing experience for most observers. However, the narrative of the past few days for those from the world of architecture has been even more surreal - it has thrown up questions beyond the sheer scale of the human disaster.

The first response from most members of the architectural world - when the horrific extent of the tragedy was still unknown - was concern for some of the most important buildings in one of North America's most interesting cities.

This, after-all, was the capital of the French American colonial empire and has, ever since, had an architectural style that never quite settled in the mainstream. Take the worldfamous Garden District and French Quarter, for example, where the damage is yet to be assessed.

What havoc could this terrible hurricane have wreaked in this wonderful Creole city, architectural historians around the world asked themselves?

These were reasonable questions to ponder, while the casualty count appeared surprisingly low. But then it began to emerge that this was more than a hefty gale ripping roofs off a few historic structures; this was humanitarian meltdown on an unprecedented scale in the Western world.

Thousands were dying and, all too often, because they were unsheltered. Suddenly a host of organisations from the architectural community swept into action.

Architects Without Borders attempted to mobilise local architects to help with the relief effort; Architecture for Humanity pledged aid, for both rebuilding and fund-raising;

and the American Institute of Architects promised the assistance of all its chapters in this affected area.

But this impressive and largely unprecedented response from America's architects is unlikely to be the long-standing architectural consequence of Katrina's wrath.

The most important is that a host of questions have been raised about the urban design, architecture and organisation of US cities that have been bubbling away since the LA riots of the 1990s and beyond, but which have largely gone unanswered to date.

For example, how can a country that prides itself on the principles of freedom and liberty countenance the ghettoisation of its urban poor?

How is it that the richest country on earth, blessed with some of the world's greatest architects and urban designers, will accept that the poorer members of its society should live in housing that would shame many third-world cities?

How is it that a region that suffered such drastic urban and social strife in the 1960s as a consequence of the failure to accept equal rights has put so little effort into regeneration?

And why did the US allow thousands to die because of how and where they lived?

If these questions can be answered - and they are all massively important - then there may be a positive to take from this tragedy.

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