BY CHAR MILLER
He woke with a start. “I felt something cold, looked down and there I was with water in my lap,” reported a man who had drifted off as the storm raged. Now, what had been outside was inside, and when he pushed through the door to escape the dark waters surging into his house, he was stunned: “God, it was like one giant swimming pool as far as the eye could see. There were people I knew—women, children, screaming, praying… A woman who lives down the block floated past me, with her two children beside her.” Others had loved ones ripped from their arms. Mourned a father, who had struggled to hold on to his five children as Lake Pontchartrain rampaged into the city: “I couldn’t do it. I had to let two of them go.”
With its levees breached and infrastructure torn apart, with power gone and effluent coursing along once-dry roads, sweeping up corpses, automobiles, and the odd runaway boat, New Orleans was caught in a tangle of flotsam and jetsam. Fetid and foul, looters donned stolen scuba gear to evade police surveillance, helping turn the tourist Mecca into an urban nightmare mere hours after the Louisiana governor had boasted it had been made impregnable. “We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to protect ourselves from water,” the Pelican State’s chief executive assured an anxious citizenry. “We have cut the Mississippi in many places so the water can get faster and quicker to the gulf. We have built levees up and down the Mississippi… and now we are almost completely protected.”
Days later, on September 9, 1965, Hurricane Betsy slammed into southern Louisiana and sliced through the defenses that Governor James J. McKeithen had so touted. It splintered coastal communities, submerged tankers and barges, swamped oil refineries, busted pipelines, and flushed sewers, leaving the Crescent City to flounder in its own filth.
Help arrived quickly. President Lyndon Johnson landed within 24 hours, touring the devastated community “to see with my own eyes what the unhappy alliance of wind and water have done to this land and people.” His generosity of spirit was backed up by federal largesse; within a month Congress had appropriated $250 million for Louisiana, 20 percent of which was targeted for New Orleans’ complex levee system. It should be noted that there was a little self-help in this massive outlay. Observes historian Todd Shallat, author of a superb chapter on Betsy in Craig Colten’s compelling anthology, Transforming New Orleans and its Environs (2000), “the storm had landed hard where an influx of Texas investors, Lady Bird Johnson among them, planned to levee off 32,000 acres for 250,000 people in a new suburb and industrial park.” And so the city was rebuilt, its economy fueled by petrodollars, convention cash, and tourist leavings, a buoyancy that depended on thicker levees and higher embankments, concrete channels and state-of-the-art pumps. Yet this set of technological responses, one New Orleans resident confided to Shallat, “which brings prosperity and security to humans is literally costing them the earth beneath their feet.”
Why that is so is reflected in the title of Colten’s haunting new book, An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature. Formerly on the faculty of Texas State University, and now the Carl O. Sauer Professor of Geography at LSU, Colten makes clear that for nearly 300 years an immense amount of human energy (slave and free), along with equal parts of human ingenuity and idiocy, have been manifest in the incessant effort to plan, construct, and reconstruct, configure and reconfigure, the wetlands and bayous within which the city was first platted.
Naturally, the French are to blame. In 1722 they identified the most elevated terrain they could find along the lower Mississippi, once a Quinipissas village, as the most suitable location for a new entrepôt. Introducing cattle, rice, and slavery to the landscape, French farmers altered its sustainability: Rice production demanded a pliable river, precisely what the Big Muddy was not, and stable riverbanks, which grazing cattle weakened. To strengthen the levees that were soon required if the colonial experiment was to endure, slaves were put to work with shovel and pickax, building up flood-control structures even as they increased the acreage under cultivation, which further threatened the ability of these levees to protect the expansion-minded settlers.
That logic, frequently self-defeating, has resurfaced time and again. What would happen, for example, when levees were constructed in one area but not another? Floodwaters were pushed into unprotected zones, and then swirled around and behind the leveed terrain. To prevent a reoccurrence, more barriers were erected, so that by the mid-1730s a 44-square-block area was completely circumscribed, giving its inhabitants an eagerly embraced sense of security. Their newfound faith in the engineered solution collapsed—if only temporarily—under the weight of the 1735 flood that burst over the walls, inundating the community. The rush to pile up ever-higher levees, which triggered demands to extend their reach up and down the river along both banks, accelerated regional water woes. As the walls rose from four feet to six, enclosing high waters in a smaller, more narrow, space, flood levels rose proportionally, as now-Spanish New Orleans discovered to its dismay in 1785 when a massive surge crashed over and through the earthworks.
The region’s levees-only policy remained unchanged when the United States occupied Louisiana in the early nineteenth century, although in 1846 the state engineer, P. O. Hebert, raised serious doubts about its ramifications. Believing that higher levees increased “the danger to the city of New Orleans and to all the lower country,” he proposed instead that “we should… endeavor to reduce this level, already too high and dangerous, by opening all the outlets of the river. We are every year confining this immense river closer and closer to its own bed—forgetting that it is fed by over 1500 streams—regardless of a danger becoming more and more impending.” Few listened, even after the disastrous 1849 flood, in which upwards of six feet of water covered 200 square blocks.
Nor did any in the drenched community pay much attention to the social inequalities that the repeated flooding revealed. As Colten notes, there is a direct relation between wealth and water: The poor got wet, the rich remained dry (or drier). In 1849, for instance, more than 12,000 inhabitants of the city’s tenements either became refugees or, as one contemporary account put it, were forced to “live an aquatic life of much privation and suffering,” an amphibian existence that was their lot again after the 1890 flood.
The disadvantaged also suffered disproportionately from disease, carried by mosquitoes which thrived in the swamps and stagnant bodies of water above which New Orleans rose barely at all—as Colten notes, the only visual relief in the city’s otherwise flat landscape are the levees themselves. Yellow fever, for one, was especially prevalent in impoverished backwater neighborhoods, not incidentally those areas with the least steep grade and thus the most clogged drainage ditches, a topography that created a network of “open-air septic troughs.” By the late 1930s, a WPA-funded sewage system went on line, but not everywhere. The most low-lying, poor, and African American wards remained unsewered. This deliberate policy of exclusion reflected the city’s long-established pattern “of turning low-value land associated with environmental problems over to minority populations,” thereby intensifying the deprivations daily visited upon those least able to escape them.
Not much has changed in the succeeding 75 years. Still sited on sodden ground; still segregated, and tightly so; still vulnerable to the punishing blows of Gulf storm and river flood, yet with “situational advantages” that are undeniable—in the nineteenth century it was the gateway to the North American interior; today, a third of our oil flows through southern Louisiana—New Orleans hangs on for dear life. How much longer it can do so is anyone’s guess. But a source of its potential demise seemed clear enough to Colten when he wrote the epilogue to An Unnatural Metropolis, published but eight months before Katrina crashed into “The City Care Forgot.” Noting that its increasing physical instability, marked by its steady subsidence, when linked to its proximity to the “[m]assive and shallow Lake Pontchartrain,” placed the community in dire straits, he predicted: “Should a Class 5 hurricane blow water over the lakefront levees, the city could find itself under water for months. Evacuation would face serious bottlenecks due to a limited number of escape routes across the water-logged terrain—and some of those raised highways could be over-topped by storm-driven waves. Recent popular accounts paint a dire picture and suggest that federal authorities might not be willing to make the investment necessary to save a city that cannot protect itself. Global warming and sea level rise make this grim forecast all too likely.”
In Katrina’s aftershock, his insights have proved eerily prescient. While our Nero fiddled, House Majority Leader Dennis Hastert (R-IL) wondered whether repairing New Orleans made sense. It did not, at least not to one deeply frustrated resident trapped in the hellish Superdome.
“We’ve been sleeping on the (expletive) ground like rats,” fumed Marc Levy to an AP reporter. “I say burn this whole (expletive) city down.” Water, not fire, may do his bidding. Of the many aerial shots of New Orleans that have become the staple of television-news reports since August 29th, some of the most powerful are those by dawn’s early light. Then, the city glistens; a silvery sheen ripples along its once-fabled streets and lurid back alleys, resembling nothing so much as the wetlands they have been built upon. Nature is reclaiming its own.
Contributing Writer Char Miller is professor of history and director of urban studies at Trinity University, and author of Deep in the Heart of San Antonio: Land and Life in South Texas and editor of Fifty Years of the Texas Observer.