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11,1:tektfte!U 4:4* CP: t-404 70110M *A*VIIVA: WeaM7 -k , BOOKS & THE CULTURE No Relief BY CHAR MILLER An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature By Craig E. Colten Louisiana State University Press 245 pp., $39.95 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 knewwomen, 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 commu xx U Y N METROPOLIS nity “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 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 0. Sauer Professor of Geography at LSU, Colten makes clear that for nearly 300 years an immense amount of human energy \(slave 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 entrepot. Introducing cattle, rice, and slavery to the landscape, French farmers altered its sustainabil ity: Rice production demanded a pli able river, precisely what the Big Muddy 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 23, 2005