National Geographic : 2007 Aug
"Floods are 'acts of God.' DAVIDRUMSEYMAP COLLECTION An 1863 Civil War map shows New Orleans clinging to the high ground by the river. In the 20th century the city expanded into nearby swamps-areas that flooded during Katrina. Corps of Engineers now estimates it will take until after 2010 to strengthen the levee system enough to withstand a 1-in-100-year storm, roughly the size of Category 3 Katrina. It would take decades more to protect the Big Easy from the truly Big One, a Category 4 or 5-if engi neers can agree on how to do that and if Con gress agrees to foot the almost unimaginable bill. For now, even a modest, Category 2 storm could reflood the city. The long odds led Robert Giegengack, a geol ogist at the University of Pennsylvania, to tell policymakers a few months after the storm that the wealthiest, most technologically advanced nation on the globe was helpless to prevent another Katrina: "We simply lack the capacity to protect New Orleans." He recommended selling the French Quarter to Disney, moving the port 150 miles upstream, and abandoning one of the most historic and culturally significant cities in 42 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * AUGUST 2007 the nation. Others have suggested rebuilding it as a smaller, safer enclave on higher ground. But history, politics, and love of home are powerful forces in the old river town. Instead of rebuilding smarter or surrendering, New Orleans is doing what it has always done after such disas ters: bumping up the levees just a little higher, rebuilding the same flood-prone houses back in the same low spots, and praying that hurricanes hit elsewhere. Some former New Orleanians may have had enough. More than a third of the city's pre-Katrina population has yet to return. Those who have face deserted neighborhoods, surging crime, skyrocketing insurance, and a tan gle of red tape-simply to rebuild in harm's way. IFPARIS, AS HEMINGWAY SAID, is a movable feast, then New Orleans has always been a floating one. Born amid willow and cypress swamps atop squishy delta soils, the city originally perched on the high ground formed by over-wash deposits from annual river floods. Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, actually had to wait for the water to recede before he could plant the French flag in 1718. A flood destroyed the village the year after he founded it, and hurri canes wiped it off the map in 1722 and again a year later. In its 289-year history, major hur ricanes or river floods have put the city under 27 times, about once every 11 years. Each time, the fractious French, Spanish, blacks, Creoles, and Cajuns raised the levees and rebuilt. Until the 20th century, they kept to the high ground along the Mississippi River and on three nearby rises-the Metairie, Gentilly, and Espla nade Ridges. But in the early 1900s a brilliant city engineer, A. Baldwin Wood, invented mas sive pumps, up to 14 feet in diameter, that were used to drain the great cypress "backswamp." The booming metropolis began spilling north toward Lake Pontchartrain. As the swamp soils dried, they shrank and compacted, slumping below sea level. In every flood since, the newer, lower neigh borhoods suffered the most as the waters found their former haunts in the old swamp.