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Baton Rouge – The New, New Orleans

On September 7, 1900, Galveston, Texas, was a bustling, prominent seaport with a growing population of 40,000 people. The next day when the historic hurricane blew in, Galveston was reduced to a pile of rubble, and over 6000 people had lost their lives. In spite of promises to build bigger and better than ever, Galveston never fully recovered. Today it serves as a seaside tourist destination with a population of 56,000 people. Its seaport and commerce moved inland and became the cosmopolitan city of Houston, Texas, which is now the fourth largest city in the United States today. There has not been a deadlier natural disaster since then, that is, until Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. With the damage and loss of lives that occurred on the Gulf Coast, and the aftermath of the flooding of New Orleans, this storm will be remembered not just as America’s deadliest natural disaster, but its costliest as well.

As the breech in the levee is repaired and the water is slowly pumped out, there are cries that New Orleans will be rebuilt bigger and better than ever. As bare ground begins to reappear, local, state and federal agencies are harping each other in the blame game, and ultimately pointing a nasty finger toward President Bush. Such as it is when people experience strong emotions. Rational and calm thought in the face of such complete devastation becomes a rare commodity. Listen to any TV station, be it CNN, FOX, NBC or others, or any radio show, Imus or otherwise, and what you hear are pundits opining on who is to blame for the slow response to the flood that overwhelmed eighty percent of the city, sinking it into what will be remembered most certainly as an example of failed leadership. But as to who failed, or why, should not be the focus of attention, at least right now. Right now, we need to finish the job of making sure that the remaining residents have been evacuated safely, and that we as a nation welcome and absorb the residents of New Orleans who have been displaced by the flood.

Without question we will experience the effects—economically, psychologically and spiritually–of this disaster for years to come. Cities in our country have been destroyed and rebuilt before. Chicago in 1871 and San Francisco in 1906 come to mind, but it is hard to imagine how New Orleans could ever be rebuilt. Hundreds of buildings sitting under ten to twenty feet of fetid water simply do not dry out as if nothing happened. They do not burn or crumple into dust but instead stand as erect boxes of mush. With the exception of a few sections of the city that received little water damage, and a good section of the French Quarter that remained unscathed, there really isn’t much in New Orleans that will be salvageable. When the waters are finally pumped out, the shock of just how thorough and insidious the damage has been will become unbearably evident.

We can continue to argue over who’s at fault for New Orleans’ calamity and the social inequity that the flood seems to have exposed, but until the last drop of water is pumped out of the city, the real focus needs to be on, “What now?” How do we help the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been so incomprehensibly disrupted? How do we provide the jobs, housing and schools that they will need? How do we help them become acculturated with their new communities? For those who insist New Orleans be rebuilt as the cosmopolitan city it had been will see a process that will take years? Such an endeavor, though, would not seem very prudent, as it doesn’t make sense to rebuild a city that will still sit ten feet below sea level. After all, is it realistic to make that kind of financial investment when another hurricane of equal or greater force could easily breech the levees again?

And so, perhaps New Orleans should be relegated to become what Galveston, Texas became after 1900: a small, tourist city. Certainly preserving the French Quarter would lend to that. As to the port that that area will still need and the commerce it will generate, can anyone say, “Baton Rouge, the new, New Orleans?” Some might consider that to be a far stretch, but considering that Texas succeeded in building a port inland that’s protected from the Gulf, then what’s to stop Louisiana from applying the same level of ingenuity in finding a more permanent solution. The question is whether there will be the visionaries who can argue convincingly the necessity of practicality over nostalgia, for unless that is done; a rebuilt New Orleans will only stand as a glaring example of hubris, misallocated resources, and the potential for another cataclysmic, human tragedy.

About S L Cunningham

S L Cunningham is a freelance writer and has poems and feature articles published in several small press magazines and newspapers. His column, "Unburned Pieces of the Mind" has been featured in the Village Soup Citizen. A former resident of Belfast, Maine, he now lives in Houston.
  • RJ

    Superb post!

    New Orleans should become a tourist attraction, full of bars and restuarants and the like, but bereft of a residential district.

    That way, when the next monster storm strikes, and it inevitably will, no lives will be lost in the city, because there will be no people refusing to evacuate their homes, because there will be no homes to evacuate.

  • Bob A. Booey

    But then where will the many people who work in the hospitality/ food/ bartending/ stripping/ tourism/ entertainment/ service industries live, genius?

    Aha! Foiled yet again, fellow!

    That is all.

  • steve

    they should not build housing again in New Orleans. that would be a bad idea. it will only be so long before an event like this happens again. where will all of the Louisiana refugees move to?

  • Suellen

    I don’t normally participate in blogs, but I stumbled across this and felt compelled to reply.
    With all due respect, I don’t think you guys get it. New Orleans is special because of its culture, its way of life. It’s the different attitudes of all the different neighborhoods that help make the city what it is. It’s all the different cultures coming together there that helped create the cuisine and the music and the infectious outlook on life that they have there. (I know–I lived there for five years and cried when I moved away) That can’t be sustained if you turn New Orleans into some sort of shell city for tourists. It would be hollow, like visiting a Disney World reproduction of the real thing.
    Not to mention, how in the world would they be able to put on Mardi Gras?

  • DrPat

    Mardi Gras is not a place — if it were, there’s always Rio de Janeiro

    That New Orleans attitude you find so special, Suellen, will not be back, not for dozens of years (if ever). That’s a big, muddy mess there now — the Big Easy is gone.

  • S. L. Cunningham

    Yes, it is sad that New Orleans has been devasted, and yes it did have a special ambiance and sense of place unlike anywhere else in the world. The problem with so complete a flood, and so many buildings standing not in a water, but a toxic cesspool, is that it makes it highly unlikely that those buildings will ever be repaired. The only areas salvagable are the French Quarter and a few outlaying neighborhoods. In geographic region with high humidity, it will take months before any real drying can take place. In the meantime buildings that have been saturated with water become a host for a variety of molds. Once you get mold going in a building, especially in that region, you don’t get it out. Most of what has been standing in the water will have to be torn down. Yes, it would be nice to restore what was lost, but is it really practical to do so? With the billions that it will cost, it would seem to make more sense to invest it in infrastructure that’s already established and can be further developed.

  • A. Gauthier

    You just don’t get it.

    Rational thought has nothing to do with New Orleans. People shouldn’t live there. People shouldn’t have lived there for years. It’s below sea level, it was already filled with a toxic soup, the levee and pumping systems are outdated.

    None of that matters.

    The French Quarter is still there. Bourbon Street is still there. The historic districts are still there. The Audubon Zoo is still there. THE PORT OF NEW ORLEANS IS STILL THERE.

    Money will pour into New Orleans, people will fight over who gets to live there. The Casino’s are already trying to figure out how they can get in there.

    There will be parades in New Orleans this Mardi Gras. Next year the parades will be bigger. Within five years the hotels will be back, and Mardi Gras will be bigger than ever.

    And if you think Mardi Gras in Rio is the same as Mardi Gras in New Orleans, then this Christmas you should go and have your holiday dinner with some family other than your own. After all, Christmas is the same, no matter where you are, right?

  • RJ

    “But then where will the many people who work in the hospitality/ food/ bartending/ stripping/ tourism/ entertainment/ service industries live, genius?”

    Well, they will live where they live – somewhere outside of NO, which would have no housing in my scenario.

    Perhaps you meant, where will they work? Well, it’s certainly better to get an unemployment check than to die and lose all your worldly possessions…

  • Bob A. Booey

    Well, those would be long commutes if they’re living nowhere near a New Orleans without residential areas.

    I meant where will they LIVE if they work in all that’s left of New Orleans under your scenario, entertainment districts.

    That is all.

  • RJ

    Well, I think a new city could be built. It’ll take a lot of money, but then again, so would rebuilding New Orleans in the same below-sea level spot.

    And commutes are never fun, but most people are able to deal with them.

  • Sally

    New Orleans was very devastated after Katrina hit. They don’t even have drinking water yet. What i am saying is, we need to donate as much as we can to help the devastated people so they can get back to their crummy lives!!

    p.s. all of your ideas suck

  • Bobby

    i agree with all of you

  • Mike (from South Louisiana)

    I wonder how many time this has happened to New Orleans before? Of course, it probablly hasn’t happened to this extent, but these kinds of things all ways happen along the Gulf Coast. More and more people are moving here, and I don’t think that this will stop anything. The private sector wil step up (and put up), which will infuse the area with the jobs, money, projects, and most of all, the desire, to build better than ever. Now, if only we can keep our dumbass polititians from stealing all of the money…… As for Galveston, they didn’t have the room for all of the people that the oil boom was to bring to the area, nor the proximity. Where would you fit a port on Galveston Island? Oh, and by the way, the entire area of San Jacinto Bay/ San Jacinto River could be considered part of the port area, it is not confined just to the Houston Ship Channel as alot of people would have you believe.

    PS I have lived in numerous places in South Louisiana, including N.O., Baton Rouge, Lafayette (where I now reside), as well as Houston, Tx (actually, Sugar Land and Texas City).

  • tariq

    i think that they shouldnt rebuild that bitch. they have always put new orleans on an higher level than baton rouge, but now they cant accept that baton rouge is owning the state now! well, they can try as hard as they want, but no one can withstand a hurricane.

  • charles

    Well here it is, two years later, and New Olreans is being rebuilt!

    Although things have been anything from smooth-running, I can say that we have confounded the odds and are achieving what many thought to be impossible. And we aren’t going anywhere.

    I would like to dispell a few myths:

    First, the myth that that calamities such as Katriana happen often here. We had no major hurricane event for over forty years before Katrina, and it (Hurricane Betsy)did not cause anywhere near the kind of flooding on the scale of Katrina, except for in the lower Ninth Ward (which is only one small part of the city).

    Before Katrina, New Orleans had never before had a cataclysmic event of that scale in its whole 300 year history.

    That is not to say that we are not well aware of the risks of living on the Gulf Coast. It’s just that we understand that, with better levees and restored wetlands, we will be much better able to manage these kinds of events in the future.

    We are not the only city on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Large parts of Houston and almost all of Mobile, Tampa, Miami, Jacksonville,and Charleston are located directly on the Gulf and Atlantic. If a major hurricane hit any one of these cities directly from the wrong angle, they could be largely wiped out (not just flooded).

    Whereas, New Orleans is locted slightly inland. In spite the fact that about half of our city is below sea-level (not all as is commonly believed), we are the only major city in the country that actually has some form of hurricane flood protection (a hurricane levee system). And while it needs vast improvements, it is already far better than what any of the other aformentioned cities have (nothing).

    The author thinks we should find a way to move the port of New Orleans up to Baton Rouge. He says that would be comparible to when Galveston’s port activities moved up to Houston.

    But there is something he does not understand: There is no parallel between the two situations. Houston shares Galveston Bay with Galveston. Deep channel shipping vessels do not have to pass through Galveston to get to Houston. They can simply go straight to Houston.

    Whereas, the Mississippi River is much narrower than Galveston Bay. Baton Rouge is much farther away form New Olreans then Galveston is from Houston. North-bound ships that go to Baton Rouge first must pass through New Orleans.

    Deep draft vessels cannot go that far upriver. New Orleans is as far north as is possible to accomodate deep draft traffic. And even then, most of that activity is on docks in the downriver parts of the city and south of the city.

    New Orleans has one of the most strategically-located ports in the world. It has one of the world’s only multi-navigational axis. It has a seaport located at the Gulf/Atlantic on mouth of the largest river of commerce in the world.

    It has a north-south river port (the Missississipi River) as well as an east-west river port (the Intracoastal Waterway). Ship traffic an travel near-infinitely in all four directions. There is no other port in America that has this kind of intermodal access.

    New Orleans has the largest rail hubs in the Gulf South. We have the only major international airport in the region.

    Obviously America’s economic strength is largely dependent on our port. 70% of the midwestern farmers’ grain comes thrugh our port to go overseas anually. Our port moves large amounts of steel.

    Furthermore, the Louisiana coastline is the largest oil producer in the United States. 30% of domestic oil consumed, anually, comes from Louisiana (and if you knew how much tax revenue from oil we send every year to Washington, and how little we get to keep compared to all other oil-producing states you would be shocked). Port activity needs to be as near as possible to the oil wells. Baton Rouge would be too far away.

    But, the author foolishly thinks that it would be feasible to just move all of this infustructure to Baton Rouge. Does he have any idea of how much money that would cost and how inconveniencing that would be even in the unlikely event it was even remotely possible?

    It would be far cheaper and easier to just build category 5 levees and restore the wetlands to protect New Olreans. Dutch engineers have made it clear that this is possible. If this was done New Olreans would become the safest city on the Gulf/Atlantic coastline against hurricanes.

    Then we could have the added value of saving one of America’s great cities and also serving the vital economic and securtiy inerests of the country.

    After all it was to obtain the port of New Olreans that Thomas Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase. This enabled the westward expasnison of the United States. New Orleans has contributed in many ways to the strenth of our nation. And in this time of great challenges, we neeed the rest of the country to really to our support.

  • Brandon

    HELL YEAH!!!!!!!!

  • Tyler

    Well said Charles! Some people are just totally ignorant. How on earth can someone even compare Baton Rouge to New Orleans?