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New Orleans Should Not Be Rebuilt
Throughout history, humans have learned the hard way that living in some parts of the world is risky because of any number of factors, such as living near an active volcano such as Pompeii or earthquake- or flood-prone regions such as along the Yangtze where millions of lives have been lost over the centuries. In some cases, the geographic attributes of such regions are so compelling that people have ignored these dangers and rebuilt their cities time and again, only to have them ravaged by the destructive forces of nature. In other cases, though, the decision was made to simply abandon the affected area in favor of more hospitable living areas where Mother Nature was more amenable to human occupation and the chances of yet another disaster were far less. Today, the City of New Orleans is faced with this same type of decision as local, regional, and federal officials seek to identify ways to avoid a recurrence of the high-profile Hurricane Katrina and its heart-wrenching aftermath, but this hurricane is only one of the latest in a long series of weather-related events that have destroyed New Orleans over and over. This paper reviews the relevant literature to show that the decision should be made to abandon the existing city environs in favor of a more suitable location further inland at the earliest opportunity. A summary of the research and important findings in support of this thesis are presented in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Founded in 1718 by Jean Baptiste le Mayne and named for a regent of France (New Orleans history 2011), New Orleans has a long history of battling the elements for its survival. Indeed, this history has been fraught with the same types of disastrous events, with only the extent of the devastation and the dates being different from the most recent events such as Hurricane Katrina. In this regard, Colton (2005) provides a useful description of the devastation caused by one such weather-related event on the citizens of New Orleans: "The high water destroyed several bridges, interrupted business throughout the city, contributed to health problems, disrupted the lives of thousands, and caused extensive property damage throughout the city" (Colten 2005, 28).
Although this quotation appears to accurately describe the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in eerie ways (and it does), in reality, it is actually a description of the Sauve Crevasse disaster that occurred in 1849 (Johnson 2006). In fact, following the onslaught of a hurricane just a year after the establishment of the city, the construction of a massive system of earthen levees began in 1723 and, judging them inadequate, they were further reinforced by engineers in 1724 to protect the city which was already noted for the frequency of hurricanes (Clark 1970, 4). Described by Johnson as "one of many environmental events in the history of New Orleans that have either blown away or waterlogged part of the city," the Sauve Crevasse was the handwriting on the wall for all to see, but the warning signs were ignored to the peril of the citizens of New Orleans. As Colten puts it, "On 3 May 1849, a weakened portion of the levee on the Sauve Plantation 17 miles above New Orleans was breached, creating a 30-foot-wide gap. Water poured southward into the city, approaching the French Quarter by 17 May. The devastation was massive" (2005, 26-27).
If this was an isolated event, the Sauve Crevasse disaster could be written off as an anomalous event, but the historical record shows that this disaster was just the beginning of a long list of similar events that would destroy or cause massive destruction to the City of New Orleans over the years. In fact, hurricanes have ravaged the New Orleans area time and again over the years (Ludlum 1963, 55). In this regard, McCarragher (2011) reports that, "Louisiana was hit by 49 of the 273 hurricanes that made landfall on the American Atlantic Coast between 1851 and 2004. On average, one major storm crosses within 100 nautical miles of New Orleans every decade" (1).
The devastation that is caused by these weather-related events is due in large part to the siting of the city in the first place. For example, according to Dunlap, Johnson and Morse, "Starting in the 19th century, but especially in the 20th century, most neighborhoods of New Orleans were built below sea level in what were marshes (or bayous)" (981). The inevitable outcome of these misguided building patterns should have been apparent, but the historical record shows that the people of New Orleans are either unwilling or unable to admit defeat to the elements. For example, Johnson (2006b) emphasizes that the above-described Sauve Crevasse "incident is one of many that have periodically left water in streets and homes. For people living in New Orleans these events serve as historical benchmarks: 'Where were you during Hurricane Betsy? The flood of April 1983? The flood of May 1995?'" (139). Likewise, McCarragher suggests that, "New Orleans history offers its own perspective, including the four most destructive storms of the twentieth century: the Hurricane of 1947, Betsy, Camille, and Georges" (3). In fact, these hurricanes also exacted an enormous toll on New Orleans and its people, but they did not receive the same high-profile media coverage as Hurricane Katrina and have therefore been largely forgotten by the rest of Americans despite their severe impact (McCarragher 3). In this regard, McCarragher concludes that, "The people affected never forgot Camille, but the nation as a whole allowed the memory of the destruction, the importance of efficient preparation, and the cohesive recovery methods fade into the background" (4).
Admittedly, many places around the world experience harsh weather-related events that cause enormous human suffering, and it is reasonable to suggest that virtually every human habitat has experienced its fair share of such highly destructive events over the millennia. There are some spectacular success stories as well such as the large amounts of land reclaimed from the Zuiderzee in The Netherlands. Nevertheless, in some cases it just makes good business sense to cut the losses and move on rather than continuing to rebuild an increasingly expensive infrastructure that is doomed from the outset for a number of reasons, including the region's propensity to flooding because of its low elevation that is actually below sea level in many parts of the city. According to Johnson (2006b), "In the early days, New Orleans was principally concerned with flooding from the Mississippi River. Levees were constructed to hold back the water, but they could not be built strongly and extensively enough to contain all of the water all of the time, with the result that the city continued to experience periodic flood events" (140). Unlike the diligent Dutch, though, many of the citizens of New Orleans have earned a reputation for a devil-may-care attitude concerning the environmental threats that are arrayed against them that may at least be partially deserved and which may account for history repeating itself time and again. In this regard, Johnson emphasizes that, "New Orleanians historically have worried about their environmental circumstances, but not too much. In the city that 'care forgot' and in which 'let the good times roll' is an unofficial motto, it is easy to slip into a state of complacency about environmental hazards" (2006b, 140).
Such complacency, though, is clearly unwarranted even in a city where jazz, good food and good times are watchwords. After all, much of New Orleans remains highly vulnerable to devastation simply because of its lack of elevation. Notwithstanding the city's colorful history and the important part it has played in American history, the City of New Orleans is a veritable sitting duck waiting to be shot in the head once again by Mother Nature. For instance, Johnson (2006a) reports that, "New Orleans has every reason to fear the Big One. Much of the city lies below sea level and is surrounded by hurricane-protection levees" (326). In fact, with the highest points in the city being around just 15 feet above sea level, cemeteries in New Orleans are replete with above-ground mausoleums because of the low terrain, and the only terrain within the city itself that is actually above sea level are the levees alongside the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain that have been used to reclaim land and keep the ocean at bay over the years (Johnson 2006b, 326). The combination of factors creates an untenable situation for the City of New Orleans today. As Colten and Welch point out, "Very few places face the risk of experiencing the chaos and damage of a hurricane as much as New Orleans" (2003, 1).
Although hurricanes are a perennial threat for several months of the year, New Orleans is also confronted with constant weather-related threats. For example, Johnson notes that the city receives as much as 60 inches of rainfall a year and an elaborate -- and expensive -- system of pumps and canals are used to…[continue]
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