Aldo Marcon’s house was under water, his restaurant damaged too.

Tinkering with a stubborn boat motor to try surveying the damage, he pondered starting over in a city where one good wallop from a hurricane wiped out most of it.

“I don’t know,” he said shaking his head. “I have to think a lot.”

His restaurant co-owner, Valentino Rovere, didn’t have to think at all. “Wherever I’m gonna go, I’m gonna restart, so I might as well restart here,” he said. “This is one of the greatest cities in the United States. You can’t allow fear to control you.”

Italian immigrants and business partners, Marcon and Rovere voiced two common sentiments in an urgent discussion emerging here about what New Orleans may become. Uncertainty dominates.

“We’re on pins and needles, asking ‘What does this mean?’ ” said Richard McCarthy, who works for an economic development organization that runs the Crescent City Farmer’s Market.

For some whose homes survived wind, flood and looters, jobs are now uncertain.

Some residents are ready to flee for good, Katrina’s flooding the final straw in a place where rampant poverty, a poor education system and government corruption were already taking a toll. Many of the displaced poor may not have the means to return if they wanted to.

Others, especially middle-class families who have lived here for generations, aren’t shy about their firm resolve to stay. They are confident the city will become economically stronger, even if its population is smaller.

Still others are waiting to see who and what returns before deciding if it’s a place where they want to continue living. It may take years to know the outcome.

“There’s no question that every business that once was here is going to wonder whether it can be sustained,” McCarthy said. “It’s going to be a moment of truth.”

Main industry intact

Economically, New Orleans was lucky in important ways: Its main industries of tourism and its port are still intact. Most of the French Quarter, Garden District and Uptown, where tourists often linger, were relatively unscathed, battered mostly by winds and looters. Last year, 10.1 million visitors spent $4.9 billion, according to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Mickey Palmer, who has part ownership in 15 hotels, including the Best Western Parc St. Charles and the Astor Crowne Plaza, sat at a French Quarter sidewalk table with a Dixie beer in his hand recently and proclaimed that he wasn’t worried. The tourists would be back because “you can’t reproduce this,” he said, arms outstretched to the blocks of balconies, clubs and shops surrounding him.

Though he knows business could be slow for a while, he said he will survive.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a thousand ways,” he said. “Talk to your lenders, be good to your employees and things will turn out OK.”

Chef Paul Prudhomme, who owns a signature French Quarter restaurant, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, and a company that manufactures seasonings under his name, planned to reopen his restaurant as soon as possible. “There’s gonna be a huge amount of people working and there are gonna be a lot of people that are hungry,” he said.

Ties that bind

Emotion is driving many back.

Bob Patience, who owns a coffee shop in the Faubourg Marigny, the district next to the French Quarter, looked forward to returning “Long term, I think it’ll be OK,” said Patience, born and raised in the city. “People with deep roots and emotional ties and mortgages and businesses that are site-specific, they’ll be back.”

Amy Jensen, a neuroscience researcher whose job may be in jeopardy, said she’s determined to resume her life in the city where she grew up. “Honestly, I can’t think of a place where I would rather live,” she said. “Even though I’m sure there will be things that will change about the city, I would like to go back and be part of the rebuilding process.”

Her ex-husband, the father of their 11-year-old son, isn’t making the same call, she said. Unlike her house, his was flooded and he’s looking to move elsewhere, as are some of her friends.

“It makes me sad,” she said. “I can understand. That’s a different situation than I’m in and I appreciate that.”

Emotional ties may not carry the day for those who do not have the means to come back. That is another social tragedy visited on those already in poverty, said Ari Kelman, a history professor at the University of California, Davis, who wrote a book about New Orleans and its environmental history.

“New Orleans is one of the most affordable metropolitan areas in the United States,” Kelman said. “If they [poor people] were just scraping by there, how are they going to make it in Houston? San Antonio? Somewhere in California? ... Are we really committed to these people? Are we really going to see to it that they don’t have a massive insult to the injury?”

For the returning, the question remains: What will they come back to?

New Orleans will be a smaller city than the nearly half-million residents it used to house, experts and residents agree. Alan Berube, who studies city demography at the Washington think tank Brookings Institution, called a 25 percent decline in the city’s population a conservative estimate. The enormous flood has washed away or soaked much of the city in toxic water: poor neighborhoods crowded with brightly painted shotgun-style houses and cottages, post-war brick homes built along tree-lined streets, expensive mansions erected in recent years atop a wide, grassy median.

If bulldozers are forced to claim much of those swaths, what will be built to replace them? Will big-money developers move in, buy up the land and build modern structures? Will federal or local authorities take over planning, mapping out communities? Or will so many people abandon the city that it will be a shell of its former self?

“I just don’t think that there’s a quick or easy answer,” Kelman said. “I think there’s a legitimate concern right now that basically New Orleans is going to turn into a history theme park: Garden district, French Quarter and the port.”

Berube said the disaster will bring new opportunity to get things right. “Rule No. 1 is to try not to repeat mistakes that were made in the past,” he said. He urged planners to desegregate new neighborhoods, and get rid of housing and schools that are substandard: “New Orleans should resist the temptation to rebuild the city back exactly as it was.”

Lifelong resident Tim Parfaite grew up in the Ninth Ward, one of the hardest hit by flooding. He agrees that things need changing. Shooting video for National Geographic last week, Parfaite, 40, said his house was flooded in New Orleans East and he’s thinking about buying one out of town while his family waits to see what happens.

“If it’s politics as usual, there’s no use coming back,” he said, “We need better schools, better infrastructure unless you see that’s fixed, it makes no sense to come back here.”

Back in business?

With so many residents on the fence about leaving, businesses are in precarious positions, too. With fewer patients in the city, doctors and other medical workers are wondering which hospitals will survive. The Times-Picayune daily newspaper took a hit as well, with its circulation and advertisers displaced overnight.

Christine Briede, president of a restaurant equipment company, said she’s afraid a lot of smaller restaurants will not return. “Some smaller businesses may be forced to rebuild,” she said.

In the midst of it all, some entrepreneurs see new possibilities. “It’s a whole new world coming,” said Finis Shelnutt, a property owner in the French Quarter. “You’re buying a piece of history.”

There is no map for the road ahead, Kelman pointed out: “All we have right now are profound questions that have to be asked.”