New Orleans has always had a complicated relationship with the water surrounding it. Everyone told the first settlers it was the wrong place to build a city. And Time—in a July 2000 cover article about "Life on the Mississippi"—pretty much nailed what was going to happen in New Orleans. The inside article was called "The Big Easy on the Brink" and sub-titled, presciently, "If it doesn't act fast, the city could become the next Atlantis."
The article gets right to the point and gets that point right-on. It opens like this:
If a flood of biblical proportions were to lay waste to New Orleans, Joe Suhayda has a good idea how it could happen. A Category 5 hurricane would come barreling out of the Gulf of Mexico. It would cause Lake Pontchartrain, north of New Orleans, to overflow, pouring down millions of gallons of water into the city. Then things would really get ugly. Evacuation routes would be blocked. Buildings would collapse. Chemicals and hazardous waste would dissolve, turning the floodwaters into a lethal soup. In the end, what was left of the city might not be worth saving. 'There's concern it would essentially destroy New Orleans,' says Suhayda.
The man quoted—Suhayda—a water-resources expert at Louisiana State University, had concluded that New Orleans might not even exist as a city by the end of the century. His prediction, in light of recent events, even raises questions about whether or not the city should be re-built (although for political reasons it almost certainly will). Remember, this is a city that, in the old days, after a heavy rain, bodies actually washed out of the cemeteries. The article makes the point that what is threatening New Orleans is a combination of two man-made problems: more levees and fewer wetlands.
The levees installed along the Mississippi to protect the city from water surges have had a perverse effect: they have actually made it more vulnerable to flooding. That's because New Orleans has been kept in place by the precarious balance of two opposing forces. Because the city is constructed on 100 feet of soft silt, sand and clay, it naturally "subsides" or sinks, several feet a century. Historically, that subsidence has been counteracted by sedimentation: new silts, sand and clay that are deposited when the river floods. But since the levees went up—mostly after the great flood of 1927—the river has not been flooding, and sedimentation has stopped.
You've read the upshot. The city has been and continues sink about three feet a century, bad news for a city already eight feet below sea level. Factor in global warming that may be raising the sea as much as three feet a century. Then there was the wetlands issues. The Louisiana coast, according to Time, was losing 16,000 acres a year, mostly as a result of population expansion into once pristine areas, destructive oil and gas drilling, pollution and land loss through lack of sedimentation.
As it turns out, barrier islands aren't just nice to look at; they are also a key natural barrier to hurricanes. (Every 2.7 miles of wetland absorbs a foot of storm surge.) As the wetlands go, the chance of a hurricane blowing the city away grows.
The article makes clear that engineers were frantically trying to come up with solutions, but that the big sticking point was money. The price tag for a complete solution would have been as much as $14-billion in federal and state money. (Of course, if we re-build, that may look like a bargain.) Here is the article's conclusion:
So far, little has been done. Part of the problem, of course, is that excessive worrying and planning are radically at odds with the spirit of the Big Easy... New Orleans is still a place where the primary meaning of hurricane is a fruity rum drink the law lets you carry openly as you carouse in the French Quarter.