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Replumbing Louisiana, Part 2

August Pollak (via Pandagon) has some harsh words for people (like myself, in the previous post) who have questioned New Orleans' location. He points out that there are significant geographical reasons for the city's location (i.e., it's the mouth of a major river), then says:

Granted, this is arguably the most devestating disaster to ever occur on U.S. soil, but to me saying that we should leave NOLA to rot because of the hurricane is like saying we should relocate the city of Los Angeles because of the earthquakes, or that we should never build anything where the World Trade Center once stood. You make it sound like a hurricane destroys the city on a weekly basis- "oh no, not again. Honey, we should really move up the street!" If we were to declare that any city or area damaged by the elements was an unlivable wasteland, half of Florida and California would be a John Carpenter movie right now.

If the argument -- and I gather from Pollak's piece that some people see it this way -- is simply that New Orleans is such a mess that we might as well just give up, that argument is wrong. Even if we move the city, the mess in old New Orleans still has to be cleaned up.

But in terms of my own rationale for contemplating moving the city, there's a key difference between New Orleans and the other disaster-prone cities that Pollak mentions. LA gets hit by earthquakes from time to time, but in between quakes it remains quite liveable. Once the rubble was cleared, the World Trade Center site was a perfectly good piece of real estate. The site of New Orleans, however, is not so resilient. Major deltas are geomorphologically unstable -- the city is literally built on shifting sand. By building levees to protect the area from flooding, we've opened the area to erosion of coastal marshes and land subsidence (downtown New Orleans wasn't four feet below sea level when it was originally built). And the problem of the Atchafalaya continues to loom over the region. The forces of geomorphology and hydrology will steadily undermine New Orleans regardless of how well we prepare for hurricane events.

Pollak is right that there's no justification for blaming the individual people of New Orleans for locating where they did. We also can't blame the oil and shipping companies that drew them there. As Pollak outlined, there are good reasons to have put a city just where New Orleans is. But on the other hand, we can't ignore the fact that the Mississippi river is inevitably making that location less and less suitable for a city. What's to blame is not human stupidity, but a structural mismatch between an economy that demands a permanent port infrastructure at the mouth of a major river near a large oil-producing region, and a geomorphology unsuitable in the long run for building permanent infrastructure.

To just propose moving the whole city is pretty simplistic. But it gets the facts of nature on the table and makes us think about the larger picture. It makes us realize that the ground New Orleans is built on is unstable, and that somehow we have to address that fact.


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