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In the Shadow of Disaster | The Nation

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In the Shadow of Disaster

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Still, the levees grew after 1927, despite federal inquiries in which conservationists testified that wetlands loss had exacerbated the disaster. The Army Corps of Engineers still refused to add wetlands to its arsenal. Instead, it built New Orleans a spillway that could shunt part of the river into Lake Pontchartrain--and, through the 1950s, continued to raise the levees.

About the Author

Ari Kelman
Ari Kelman, author of A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans, teaches history at the University...

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Meanwhile, the city went on a building binge abetted by a drainage system constructed early in the twentieth century. For 200 years New Orleans had been trapped--a long, thin city on a narrow strip of relatively high ground shadowing the river. The Mississippi had flowed on one side, and a cypress wetland, the "backswamp," had stood on the other. After 1900, though, the city began reclaiming wetlands and expanding onto lower ground. By the 1960s the Lakefront neighborhood, the Lower Ninth Ward and other areas had replaced the backswamp. Ecological constraints had again yielded to ambition in a city captivated by its situation. With levees towering and wetlands gone, the segregation of landscapes seemed complete.

Sorting space had two other byproducts. First, more segregation: racial and socioeconomic this time. Before the 1950s New Orleans was a mixed city. Rich, poor, white, nonwhite--all were neighbors. This wasn't by choice but necessity; with development confined to high ground near the river, there wasn't room for people to move into socially segregated enclaves. But when developers started building tract housing on drained land in the city and nearby suburbs, New Orleanians became stratified, with poorer people of color often concentrated on low land and affluent whites typically occupying higher ground, if not the 'burbs.

The second consequence: Controlling nature became harder. Swamps disappeared, both because of urban reclamation and because levees diminished wetlands by keeping floodwaters from recharging the ecosystem. Oil exploration caused coastal erosion and swallowed thousands of acres of wetlands. For every foot the levees grew, it became that much harder to pump water out of the city. Finally, New Orleans began to sink as its watery foundation was replaced by spongy reclaimed land that compacted beneath the city's weight. Urban-environmental feedback loops caused the very problems New Orleanians had been trying to engineer out of their city's site for centuries.

In this setting Katrina made landfall. Its storm surge was too much for the levees. Water overtopped some; others collapsed. The pumps couldn't keep up, and New Orleans filled with water. Mostly the poor, people of color, the infirm and the elderly were left behind. Many died on low ground. The Brookings Institution reports that thirty-eight of greater New Orleans' forty-nine poorest districts flooded. In the city proper, 80 percent of the flooded neighborhoods were majority nonwhite. Segregation--environmental, socioeconomic and racial--resulted in segregated suffering.

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