The Battle of New Orleans

Nature 1, Man 0 in the fight to save the Crescent City

"The water's formation avoids the high and rushes to the low. So an army's formation avoids the strong and rushes to the weak. Water's formation adapts to the ground when flowing. So then an army's formation adapts to the enemy to achieve victory. . . . Those who are able to adapt and change in accord with the enemy and achieve victory are called divine."-Sun Tzu

As we watch it drowning on our TV screens, it's worth noting that New Orleans was born from water.

Millions of years ago, where the graceful city now stands there was only sea. But the mighty river flowing down through the North American landmass kept depositing silt as it emptied into the ocean, year after year, and eventually enough of the stuff accumulated that land peeked its head above water. This became the Mississippi delta, and part of it became New Orleans. So, the river gave birth to the land and, like any good parent, threatened ever after to overwhelm it. In the face of that constant risk, human settlers seeking to stay dry actually deepened the crisis.

The man who is somehow third in the nation's presidential succession, Dennis Hastert, rubbed folks the wrong way this week when he quipped that a lot of New Orleans looks like it ought to be "bulldozed." The House speaker's office quickly disavowed the impression that Hastert wanted to abandon the Crescent City. But Denny was on to something when he compared New Orleans' geographic predicament to San Fran and L.A.'s location on seismic faults.

Americans-and their pioneer ancestors-have always liked to build their cities where maybe there aren't really supposed to be cities. Boston is two-thirds landfill. Los Angeles is a metropolis of 2 million people nowhere near an adequate supply of drinkable water. Chicago had to be raised two feet and the flow of the city's river reversed. Las Vegas plopped right down in a desert. These cities are trophies in the contest of man versus nature. But in New Orleans, the fight was never clearly won.

Now the beautiful city must do in a few months what it took the river centuries to accomplish: getting land above the water. Even disregarding the harrowing human tragedy playing out in the streets and the Superdome, the physical obstacles to restoring normalcy are enormous. One of the breeches in the levee wall is at least 300 feet long. To plug the levee gaps, engineers want to ship enormous blocks to the holes, drop them in, and patch them up. But the New Orleans Times Picayune reports that the water is so high that the barges carrying the blocks can't get under the bridges, so now the Army Corps of Engineers has to raise the bridges.

And even if they plug those holes, more could open up because the levees have become saturated and, possibly, weaker. Meanwhile, the city's system of pumps--which have kept it dry every rainy day for decades--has nowhere to throw the water, because Lake Ponchetrain is too high to take it. They can't even use the last resort strategy for drainage-punching holes in the levees to let the water rush out-because there's nowhere for the stuff to go.

Everyone has heard by now that New Orleans had always tempted this watery fate; this was the storm "that most of us have long feared," as Mayor Ray Nagin put it before Katrina struck. What's less well known is that by simply trying to exist, New Orleans upped the stakes of the inevitable disaster. By building a levee to keep the river out, the land under New Orleans dried, contracted, and sunk. So the levee process pushed even New Orleans further under sea level. The canals and pumps installed to pipe rainfall into Lake Ponchetrain exacerbated this process.

Meanwhile, the Corps of Engineers had to construct and maintain an elaborate river control system to prevent the Mississippi from changing course and flowing down the Atchafalaya River; that means the normal process of sedimentation has been interrupted. Add to that the environmental impact of industry lower down in the delta, which depleted the marshland and reefs that served as a natural buffer to storm surges, and the manmade part of the problem becomes clear.

And all this complicates the problems of drying the city out now, because in the years it will take to rebuild the Big Easy, coastal depletion will have continued and the threat of another big flood will be that much larger.

Because, like Sun Tzu said, water likes it easy, and there's no beating it. Perhaps that's what makes the spectacle of suffering in Louisiana so devastating to see. It's a story about the irresistible forces of fear, hunger, thirst, and water. New York had one consolation on 9-11 that New Orleans doesn't: At least you can kill terrorists.

 
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