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New Orleans: A U.S. Atlantis?

New_orleans_under_waterOur hearts go out to New Orleans today as they did to New York four years ago. We all have great sympathy and our attention is rightly focused on the human tragedy which is astounding and gut-wrenching.

But when the rescues have ended and the recovery has begun, the same question asked in New York will have to be asked in New Orleans.

Should we re-build?

My first reaction, like everyone’s, is that of course we should. New Orleans has always been a national treasure, and the very insanity of having a major city where New Orleans precariously sits has always been part of its charm. Still…

In 2001, FEMA warned that a hurricane striking New Orleans was one of the three most likely disasters that could befall the United States. Katrina was no sneak attack. We’ve known this one was coming.

Unlike New York’s debate about the World Trade Center Towers which was about the appropriateness of leaving the ground barren or building a memorial or re-building the Towers over again, this debate about New Orleans will be more focused on feasibility.

How we can do it, what it will cost, and how long it will last?

There is a fascinating article that was written for the insurance industry in December of 2000. It talks about new research by the U.S. Geological Survey which indicates that New Orleans is sinking faster than many realize and could be untenable within 50 years no matter what we do. Even before Katrina’s devastation, the city was facing a series of issues — disappearing wetlands that protect from hurricanes, levees that are too low to hold back flood waters, rising water tables, to name a few. The article concluded that New Orleans could suffer "the same fate as Atlantis." There’s a lot more, and I’m sure you’ll be hearing these themes over and over as the terrible tragedy moves into its next phase. Here’s a sample.

"Another factor in how the city survives a hurricane is the natural buffer between the city and the sea. Louisiana’s marshes are depleting at a rate of 25 miles to 30 miles per year, or the equivalent of a football field every 15 minutes. Since 1930, the state has lost well over 1,500 square miles of wetlands. Each year, New Orleans inches closer and closer to the Gulf of Mexico. The shrinking wetlands that bring the city closer to the coast are the same ones that have protected the city from catastrophic disaster in the past. Wetlands and barrier islands are a natural protection against hurricanes."

"New Orleans sits on a bed of silt, sand and clay, which historically has been rebuilt with each flooding; new silt and sand are deposited when the river floods. But the levees that protect the city from flooding also prevent the rebuilding of the silt. As a result, New Orleans is sinking at a rate of one-third of an inch per year, which is not good for a city that is already eight feet below sea level. To make matters worse, global warming is causing the sea level to rise."

If you would like to read the whole article, here is the link. The point is that re-building in the short term may be asking the Army Corps of Engineers to do things that cannot solve the long-term problem of a city built under sea level during a time of global warming that will always be at risk for being in the path of hurricanes.

Another prescient writer, Chris Mooney, just last May, discussed the possibility of losing New Orleans and concluded that, no matter what it takes, losing this city would be "out of the question." At the time, he was calling us to action to try to avert this catastrophe. Now that it’s happened, I wonder how he feels.

It will be an agonizing decision. I suspect we will re-build and it will be our children’s children who will one day be forced to give up the dream.

Sorry to digress. Pray for more survivors.

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  • RJ

    Logically, the city’s ruins should be stripped of everything of value, and then rebuilt nearby, on higher (and firmer) ground.

    But that ain’t gonna happen. Popular politics demands that the city be rebuilt exactly where it was prior to Katrina.

    And a few decades from now, the new New Orleans will probably be devastated again… :-/

  • Katrina Storm

    If we rebuild New Orleans, we should do so in a better spot, on higher ground to prevent a “New New Atlantis”. The sunken New Orleans may as well be left in place as a ruin. The ruin will be a permanent memorial to the dead, and a reminder of the fact that bad policy plus global warming (itself a result of bad energy policy) can have tragic results. It will remind everyone that tax cuts for the rich results in a lack of funds for needed public works projects. It mat actually hit home with neo-cons. It was neo-con fiscal policy that gave us our very own Atlantis for scuba divers to go to.

    The New New Orleans residents could benefit from eco-tourists taking submersible bus tours to the French Quarter and then tourists could blow money in the New French Quarter.

  • Heloise

    New Orleans: (pronounced No-aw-lens)
    Perspectives from one who’s lived there

    No one is surprised that Atlantis has come to New Orleans. There are many yahoo groups devoted to that very subject.

    But as a person who has actually worked in the Superdome, and lived there and whose entire maternal family was born, raised and died there I do have something to say. Are you listening?

    Yes, we all know (I thought we did) that the people of NOLA are poor and living in a perpetual state of mental AND physical poverty. That is what folks don’t know. We who know NOLA knew that the Mayor Nagin would be the FU and not those he is accusing of a big FU.

    The French are really to blame for building those damn levees in the first place. It comes from the french word lever, which means to raise or lift. This has been going on for a long time folks.

    Since my NOLA family has lived through Betsy and Camille, many must have hesitated leaving. I may have many members of my family dead and don’t know it yet. Those who are related to me are artisans and own their own construction business etc.. They are the blue-collar folks.

    But let me tell you that the blacks, and they are black and have a preponderance of African blood, do exhibit a poverty in mind, body and spirit. That is why I absolutely could not live there more than the two years I did. I ran out of NOLA 30 years ago and have only been back to visit.

    Since these folks live on the edge and are NOT used to doing for themselves then it will be up to the largesse and goodness of white and black folks alike to save them.

    Can’t you hear them on TV, they are saying “save ME.” Well, that stupid ass Mayor could have saved them instead of now blaming Bush.

    How? They could have taken those same damn busses (that are now submerged) and took people to nearby Baton Rouge, loaded up the superdome with food and supplies from donors two days beforehand. The hospitals too should have been stocked. Listen there was NO damn food in the Superdome except enough for like one meal. Is that a people who plan I ask you?

    Most of them do deserve to die in those filty conditions because that is how they have lived. Yes, it is judgement day for many of them. But the vast majority, including my stubborn Creole brother have fled with his son and wife and now await money from the feds to rebuild.

    All I can say to news media is “Don’t make me mad!” by blaming white folks for this mess. I repeat this is how these people have lived all their lives with looting, killing, raping, filthy conditions, bastard babies, no education, never worked a day in their lives, and on (*&)(^^ welfare for 10 generations.

    The black leaders and governers were also complicit enough in their malaise (where the hell did they find this Blanco and Nagin?) to last the next 10 years that it will take to rebuild my beautiful New Orleans.


  • Heloise

    This is a funny comment:

    “The New New Orleans residents could benefit from eco-tourists taking submersible bus tours to the French Quarter and then tourists could blow money in the New French Quarter.”

  • Temple Stark

    BC Asst. Politics editor Lisa McKay chose this for a pick of the week. Click HERE to fnd out why.

    Thank you. EE Temple

  • Ben Miraski

    I agree with Ms. Storm, with apologies to Heloise, who I am sure would like to someday visit the homes of her relatives. New Orleans is, to put it bluntly and with no disrespect, lost.

    Just the coordination needed to bulldoze and then dispose of the neighborhoods which have been laid to waste would be impossible. They have already come out and said that the Superdome, the building which was supposed to save people during the storm (How come no one was moved there earlier?), will most likely need to come down when this is over. When your major protection against the storms is going to be gone, how can you hope to sustain a city when the threat of this occurring again is very real?

    Let’s move the city inland, 50 miles if possible. Save what you will, but rebuild, start anew. Leave the old city there to be retaken by nature as it will most likely be before we know it. Conduct the tours that Ms. Storm suggests. It will most likely give people a sad reminder of the interaction between man and nature and that NATURE WILL ALWAYS WIN!.

    Of course, first, the town will need to be cleansed as the amount of disease that is breeding there will make the area very dangerous to enter soon.

    This is a decision which needs to be made now, by those in charge of these people and this city. Mr. Nagin should stop blaming and start thinking, something that he was hired to do in the first place. Decide on the fate of your city Mr. Nagin. The country is looking to you to lead, and make the right choice. Don’t lead people back into another disaster waiting to happen. Do what you can to protect those who, in some cases, chose not to protect themselves.

  • Dave Nalle

    I have to point out that the French Quarter only got about 2 feet of water and will take minimal repairing. The Garden District is hardly damaged at all. The water went to the lowlands like the 9th Ward, where all the poor people lived in 100 year old shacks and crappy new low income housing, all of which isn’t worth rebuilding. So keep the French Quarter, Downtown and the Garden District and rebuild housing for the masses somewhere on higher ground – you keep the best of the city and the displaced end up better off.


  • Victor Plenty

    It’s the 21st century. Put a dome over the city. That should be easy with 21st century technology.

    Be realistic here. Stop wasting all that money on levees and river control systems. Don’t waste even more money trying to move the city somewhere else. Use that money to build something to really protect New Orleans. Completely cover the city with a waterproof dome designed to shrug off hurricane and tornado winds up to Category 7.

    I don’t care if Category 7 doesn’t exist. It will soon enough.