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In the Shadow of Disaster | The Nation

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In the Shadow of Disaster

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The call now for improved levees is predictable. Joe Canizaro of the mayor's commission worries that nobody will return until they "feel safe." He's right. But what if people feel safe yet aren't? Before Katrina, disaster amnesia and denial allowed people to ignore the danger. Past disasters, says engineer Robert Bea of the University of California, Berkeley, were "alarm bells, but New Orleans kept hitting snooze." The city now has to rethink flood control.

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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Like most engineers, Bea is certain that levees can be constructed to withstand a Category 5 storm. "It's just a matter of political will and funding," he says. But the funding isn't pocket change; the project requires billions. No one knows where that money will come from. While President Bush has promised the Feds will pay for levee repairs, he hasn't made the same promise about levee improvements. If the money is found, the political will must be sustained across fifteen years, the time needed to build levees to a Category 5 standard.

Even if those levees finally get built, they won't do the trick by themselves; engineers will have to learn to work with the city's peculiar ecology rather than trying to dominate it. "Wetlands must be part of the solution," Bea says. If swamps aren't reintroduced, storm surges will overwhelm even the best levees. And if ocean levels keep rising and New Orleans keeps sinking, the city will drown again.

Craig Colten, a Louisiana State University geographer, agrees. He insists low-lying parts of the city shouldn't be rebuilt. His proposal is extremely controversial, with displaced residents understandably invoking their "right of return" and with most members of the reconstruction committees reluctant to reintegrate wetlands into the city after Mayor Nagin got burned for suggesting that the Ninth Ward might not be rebuilt. But Colten still believes that part of the backswamp should ooze into selected low-lying areas. An equitable method, he believes, would be to "take land from many neighborhoods--Lakefront, Ninth Ward, Gentilly--and relocate rich, poor, middle class to denser settlement on higher ground." Colten's "new New Orleans," then, would resemble the old New Orleans--from an era before wetlands vanished. It would also touch off battles over whose neighborhoods should be abandoned.

Danielle Taylor, dean of humanities at Dillard University, is certain that the outcome of such fights would favor the powerful. Returning urban districts to swampland, she contends, will shred the urban fabric, wrecking communities that made the city what it was. This echoes the views of Ninth Ward residents, who believe the city's elites saw the flood as the first in what will be waves of urban renewal. Absent affordable housing, redevelopment would leave no room for the poor and people of color, Taylor says. New Orleans would become a sterile--and white--preservation mall, with the French Quarter its anchor store. Colten sympathizes but says that allowing people to return to the lowest land would be "irresponsible."

What's certain is that segregating spaces hasn't worked. As Katrina demonstrated, it's impossible to separate social and environmental issues in this city. New Orleans isn't just a human artifact. Nor, of course, is it wholly natural. It's both: a network of human and nonhuman intermingled, straddling the nature/culture divide. The city must be rebuilt on a more solid foundation: the understanding that allowing no room for nature is as counterproductive as it is unlikely to succeed.

A fresh approach might yield sustainable urban spaces and environmental justice. But this would require hard choices unlikely to be made by committee. Sadly, New Orleans seems destined to find itself where it always has been: in harm's way.

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