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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 flood was voracious; it swallowed whole neighborhoods, ending hundreds of lives. But the battered levees have been repaired. They again stand between New Orleans and catastrophe, holding the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain in check. The antique drainage system, too, is back online. Any water that falls in the city, every drop of rain or tear shed, ultimately flows through canals until it's pumped over the levee into the lake. This is how New Orleans has been engineered: to control stray water, to clarify the border between the city and its surroundings.

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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It has been a losing battle. And yet, though it sounds particularly odd following Hurricane Katrina, the city's efforts have been spurred by the notion that nature favors it. From New Orleans' founding near the mouth of the Mississippi in 1718, the city has banked on geography to sweep it to greatness. Long before technologies circumvented the vagaries of geography, boosters claimed the city would reign over a commercial empire. But the local environs rarely cooperated with imperial visions. The lake and river loom above the city. Much of New Orleans lies below sea level, atop a high water table; there's no natural drainage. And pestilence thrives in the steamy delta. Scholars call this the disjuncture between "site"--the actual real estate a city occupies--and "situation"--an urban area's relative advantages as compared with other places. New Orleans, with access to the river and the gulf, enjoys a near-perfect situation. But it has an equally horrid site.

Geographer Peirce Lewis sums it up: New Orleans is "impossible" yet "inevitable." He means that if a city's situation is good enough, people will improve its site--no matter the costs. New Orleanians historically have done this by segregating spaces: at first not socioeconomically or racially but environmentally. In New Orleans there are spaces for nature: outside the levees or within the canals leading from the city. And there are spaces for human endeavors: within town. People here, nature there. The idea is simple, its execution impossible.

For now, water in the city seems under control again, back where people want it: in showers stripping away lingering grime, in strong coffee and confined behind the levees. Still, there's danger. Facing the challenge of rebuilding, New Orleans seems stuck in the mud--not just mired in the muck caking the city but also trapped by centuries of policy mistakes, especially the fantasy that it can be separated from its surroundings. This notion has been as destructive as the worst flood, and as difficult to avoid.

The people charged with rebuilding New Orleans seem enthralled by this mirage. They serve on committees--Mayor Ray Nagin's and Governor Kathleen Blanco's--with overlapping purviews and dubious authority. But despite their rivalries, the committees agree on at least one point: Levees must be top priority. Scott Cowen, Tulane University's president and part of Nagin's commission, suggests that without better levees other proposals--"world-class public education," improved housing, burnishing the city's "cultural ambience"--will be pointless. Andy Kopplin, executive director of the governor's panel, concurs: "We have to rebuild levees first, so people believe they're safe." To anyone familiar with the city's ecological history, this sounds like a recipe for more disasters.

From the first, New Orleanians augmented the levees. The project accelerated after an 1849 flood soaked the city for months. Federal authorities, alarmed by the inactivity of the nation's busiest port, sponsored two river studies. The first advocated multi-tiered flood control: levees, spillways and "reservoirs," swaths of wetlands acting like sponges. The second, penned by a future head of the Army Corps of Engineers, was more palatable at a time when wetlands were deemed wasteland. So began a policy known as "levees only." By 1900 New Orleans had levees taller than nearby houses. The river and lake had disappeared behind miniature mountains.

Just one problem: They didn't work. The river became more dangerous, and New Orleans less safe. With its water trapped behind levees, the Mississippi rose higher than ever. But you couldn't tell that to New Orleanians. Not even the huge 1927 flood fully changed their minds. That year the city dynamited a levee fifteen miles downstream, lowering the engorged river and destroying Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes. The city had purchased its safety by sacrificing its poorer neighbors. (This event has fueled rumors in the Ninth Ward, where some residents and evacuees believe the levee fronting their district was destroyed after Katrina to protect wealthier, whiter areas.)

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