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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 collapsedif only temporarilyunder 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. 0. 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 bedforgetting that it is fed by over 1500 streamsregardless 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 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 allas 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 undeniablein the nineteenth century it was the gateway to the North American interior; today, a third of our oil flows through southern LouisianaNew 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 “Em]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 terrainand 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 whether repairing New Orleans made sense. It did not, at least not to one deeply frustrated resident trapped in the hellish Superdome. ground like rats,” fumed Marc Levy to an AP reporter. “I say burn this whole 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. SEPTEMBER 23, 2005 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 25