How Humans Sank New Orleans

Pocket Worthy – By Richard Campanella – Sat Oct 16, 2021

Engineering put the Crescent City below sea level. Now, its future is at risk.

Below sea level. It’s a universally known topographical factoid about the otherwise flat city of New Orleans, and one that got invoked ad nauseam during worldwide media coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its catastrophic aftermath in 2005. Locally, the phrase is intoned with a mix of civic rue and dark humor.

It’s also off by half. Depending on where exactly one frames the area measured, as of early 2018, roughly 50 percent of greater New Orleans lies above sea level. That’s the good news. The bad news: It used to be 100 percent, before engineers accidentally sank half the city below the level of the sea. Their intentions were good, and they thought they were solving an old problem. Instead, they created a new and bigger one.

In the spring of 1718, French colonials first began clearing vegetation to establish La Nouvelle-Orléans on the meager natural levee of the Mississippi River. At most 10 to 15 feet above sea level, this feature accounts for nearly all the region’s upraised terrain; the rest is swamp or marsh. One Frenchman called it “Nothing more than two narrow strips of land, about a musket shot in width,” surrounded by “canebrake [and] impenetrable marsh.”

The entire delta, under natural conditions, lay above sea level, ranging from a few inches along the coastal fringe to over a dozen feet high at the crest of the Mississippi River’s natural levee. Nature built lower Louisiana above sea level, albeit barely—and mutably.

Native peoples generally adapted to this fluidity, shoring up the land or moving to higher ground as floodwaters rose. But then European imperialists came to colonize. Colonization meant permanency, and permanency meant imposing engineering rigidity on this soft, wet landscape: levees to keep water out, canals to dry soil, and in time, pumps to push and lift water out of canals lined with floodwalls.

All this would take decades to erect and centuries to perfect. In the meantime, throughout the French and Spanish colonial eras, and under American dominion after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, New Orleanians had no choice but to squeeze their booming metropolis onto those “two narrow strips of land” while eschewing the low-lying “canebrake [and] impenetrable marsh.” Folks hated every inch of that backswamp, viewing it as a source of miasmas, the cause of disease, and a constraint on growth and prosperity. One observer in 1850 unloaded on the wetlands: “This boiling fountain of death is one of the most dismal, low, and horrid places, on which the light of the sun ever shone. And yet there it lies under the influence of a tropical heat, belching up its poison and malaria … the dregs of the seven vials of wrath … covered with a yellow greenish scum.”

Construction of the new drainage system began in 1896 and accelerated in 1899, when voters overwhelmingly approved a two-mill property tax to create the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board. By 1905, 40 miles of canal had been excavated, hundreds of miles of pipelines and drains had been laid, and six pumping stations were draining up to 5,000 cubic feet of water per second. System efficacy improved dramatically after 1913, when a young engineer named Albert Baldwin Wood designed an enormous impeller pump that could discharge water even faster. Eleven “Wood screw pumps” were installed by 1915, and many are still in use today. By 1926, over 30,000 acres of land had been “reclaimed” via 560 miles of pipes and canals with a capacity of 13,000 cubic feet of water per second. New Orleans had finally conquered its backswamp.

The change in urban geography was dramatic. Within a decade or so, swampland became suburbs. Property values soared, tax coffers swelled, and urbanization sprawled onto lower ground toward Lake Pontchartrain. “The entire institutional structure of the city” reveled in the victory over nature, wrote John Magill, a local historian. “Developers promoted expansion, newspapers heralded it, the City Planning Commission encouraged it, the city built streetcars to service it, [and] the banks and insurance companies underwrote the financing.” The white middle class, eager to flee crumbling old faubourgs, moved into the new “lakefront” neighborhoods en masse, to the point of excluding black families through racist deed covenants. And in a rebuke of two centuries of local architectural tradition, new tract housing was built not raised on piers above the grade, but on concrete slabs poured at grade level. Why design against floods if technology has already solved that problem?

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Posted by Teri Perticone

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