Badtux the Snarky Penguin

In a time of chimpanzees, I was a penguin.

Religious fundamentalists are motivated by the sneaking suspicion that someone, somewhere, is having fun -- and that this must be stopped.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Why New Orleans will be rebuilt where it is.

One of the whiny blame-the-victims talking points coming out of the right-wing can't-do un-Americans is that the people of New Orleans have only themselves to blame. They shouldn't have built in a swamp near the sea below sea level, say the can't-do un-Americans. Thus the rest of the United States shouldn't rebuild New Orleans, because it'll just get flooded again. They ask, Why would anybody build a city below sea level next to the ocean?

Ports have to be near the sea (doh). In the case of New Orleans, Bienville sailed up the Mississippi River looking for a place to found a port. He sailed past the current location of New Orleans, which was the first high ground he came to (the French Quarter being a lofty 12 feet above sea level), then he sailed on further and found nothing but swamps (the current Bonne Carre Spillway). So he turned back and, despite the rather, err, limited, amount of dry real estate, he decided to build at the current location of the French Quarter. It was the best place, he decided, to take the furs coming down the Mississippi River on barges and longboats, and put them into ocean-going vessels. In other words, it was all about commerce -- taking the goods coming down the river and putting them on boats to go elsewhere.

After the United States won its war of independence and settlers started moving west of the Appalachian Mountains, they needed to ship their goods to market. The Ohio, Tennessee, and Mississippi rivers (to which the prior two led) were the obvious conduits for trade. The barges would come down the river and unload their goods at New Orlean's warehouses, then the oceangoing ships would come up the river and pick the goods up to carry overseas. By 1840, New Orleans was the third-largest city and the largest port in the United States, taking the grain that came down the river on barges, loading it onto ships, and shipping it to the growing and hungry cities of the east coast, and sending manufactured goods back upriver when they were shipped back from the east coast. Then two disasters happened: the coming of the railroad, which took away a lot of the river traffic, and the American Civil War, which turned much of the South into a ruin. The city took over fifty years to regain its prosperity, but by 1910 was once again a major port, albeit primarily trading with Latin America by this time and receiving as many bananas coming in as it shipped corn outwards. The limited amount of land had become a major liability so ambitious farmers and land developers diked portions of the swamps, pumped them out to the nearest waterway, and either farmed the resulting land or built houses on it. Because this was mud, it did what mud always does when it dries out -- it shrank. Ending up below sea level. But the business of trans-shipping goods coming down the Mississippi River was not going away, and the people involved in that business needed places to live and shop, and shipping fresh vegetables long distance was not possible in that era prior to refrigeration so they needed places to grow fresh vegetables, so they made land where they could by building dikes and installing large steam pumps to pump out the water behind the dikes.

There was a major flood in the 1920's that overwhelmed portions of this haphazard dike system, luckily mostly only flooding farmers' fields, but it was clear that things needed to be regularized. One land developer was often pumping his storm water into another land developer's diked area! Thus the Corps of Engineers came in and designed the basic levee, dike, and storm pump system that is a direct ancestor of today's system, designed to carry storm water to the low points of the city where it would then be heaved over the dikes by first enormous steam-driven pumps, then later on diesel and electric pumps. Most of the area west of the Industrial Canal was drained during this time, and eager land developers plunked housing and shopping centers. The "new" downtown, in the newly drained area between the French Quarter and the Metairie Ridge (the natural levee of a stream which once ran down the center of today's New Orleans, and the only other part of New Orleans that is above sea level) was also built during the next 30-40 years that in many ways was the prime of New Orleans.

WWII brought major changes to New Orleans. The shipyards were building the ships that won this nation's greatest war, and the men (and women) who came to work in those shipyards needed a place to live. The lowest least desirable lands were drained and had housing slapped together on it in order to slam up temporary housing. Once the war was won, New Orleans attained its greatest population (approximately 650,000 people) and these people were demanding housing better than those enormous dormitory-style bunkhouses. The parts of the city to the east of the Industrial Canal were diked and drained at this time, basically reclaiming salt marsh and seabottom, and thus New Orleans reached its final size, as instant slums were slapped into that newly-diked "land" as fast as the wood could be floated down the Mississippi River to build them.

By 1955, New Orleans was at its peak. The current levee/dike/pump system was in place, basically remaining unchanged other than minor renovations here and there until 1995 when a major overhaul was undertaken. Two things happened in 1955: Brown vs. the Board of Education, and the start of a series of corruption scandals that continue unto this very day. The white population of New Orleans fled to the suburbs in order to avoid having their children be required to go to school with "niggers" (their word, not mine), destroying the city's tax base, and large national corporations that were set up in New Orleans started slowly drifting away because the combination of the tax base evaporating and the corruption caused the city's infrastructure to decay alarmingly, and also because they had trouble attracting employees from outside the South (often the best-educated employees) because the best employees usually did not want to live in a place full of what they considered inbred hate-filled bigots. That was an era where the national news showed pictures of fat-bellied Southern cops beating well-dressed (suit and tie) black people holding signs saying "I am a man" to the dirt for being "uppity niggers" (their term, not mine). Major companies didn't exactly want to be associated with those kinds of images.

So in the aftermath of desegregation, the tax base was a shambles, the city's infrastructure was a shambles, and the city was rupturing population. It still remained a major port, but the shipyards that had led to its greatest prosperity were largely gone. And that was the situation in 2005, before the city was basically destroyed.

To summarize: New Orleans is where it is because it's the logical place to trans-ship goods that come down the Mississippi on barges and go out the Mississippi on ocean-going vessels. The Corps of Engineers has now dredged the Mississippi to the point where ocean-going ships can make it further upriver all the way to the Port of Baton Rouge, but the river further north is not as wide and flows faster, so it is less economical to go further upriver in a big ocean-going ship. The downside of this is that in order to house the people needed to support a major port, swamps were diked off and pumped out and housing built there, and these swamps, when they were drained and the mud dried and sank, ended up below sea level.

So, to go back to that wingnut talking point: Does it really take hindsight to see that below sea level next to the ocean is not a good idea?:

Despite a-holes like Hastert whining that New Orleans (or, rather, the parts below sealevel -- the newer parts) should not be rebuilt, it *will* be rebuilt, even if not in its current form. The fact that the city flooded does not change the fact that it is *still* the only logical place to transship goods between barges and ocean-going vessels. We can only hope that whatever arises in the aftermath of this disaster is much better protected, with seawalls capable of withstanding even a Category 5 hurricane and pumps capable of handling even 20 inches of rain in a two hour period (as might happen during such a hurricane) and buildings designed to withstand hurricane-force winds. Because there is no doubt that *something* will get rebuilt at that point, because there just isn't any other logical place to put a port near the mouth of the Mississippi -- wasn't when Bienville set down there in 1718, still isn't today.

- Badtux the History Penguin

Posted by: BadTux / 9/04/2005 09:03:00 AM  


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