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I n the years before Hurricane Katrina , residents of New Orleans sought solace in the belief that the Crescent City could build itself out of all environmental threats. Despite a sinking urban footprint, a shrinking coastal buffer and rising sea levels, they had faith that strong stormwater infrastructure was enough to keep them safe. The huge, federally built levee system encircling the metropolitan area enshrined that belief.
In truth, though, the fate of New Orleans was decided long before the storm hit. According to Richard Campanella, a Tulane University geographer, the full backstory of the catastrophe stretches back a century or more.
But that same infrastructure set in motion environmental shifts that made the city even more vulnerable to storms. We cannot just wall ourselves off from it. Levees have been reinforced to limit the chance of being washed away if overtopped by an especially high storm surge — a key improvement since Katrina. Construction on an enhanced drainage system, initially authorised in , continues. But such infrastructure carries unintended consequences. The levee system has also prevented the Mississippi from flooding and, in turn, nurturing the surrounding coastal wetlands that act as a buffer to storms here.
Between and , about 1, square miles of such land disappeared from southeast Louisiana, according to the US Geological Survey: Louisianans, who tend to scale the disappearance in terms of their favourite sport, put the rate at about a football field every hour. These natural levees were tallest near sharp bends in the river, one of which is where French colonists founded New Orleans in — hence its Crescent City nickname. Buildings were often designed with storm water in mind.
But massive drainage systems installed in the lateth and early 20th centuries emptied out city-owned cypress tree swamps behind the natural levee. New technologies opened up land that had previously been regarded as uninhabitable. And an increasingly complex, man-made levee system kept it dry enough for massive development. The drainage projects opened up air pockets in the soil beneath New Orleans.
The Making of an Urban Landscape. Federal housing policies, coupled with the postwar economic boom, allowed hundreds of thousands of residents seeking the middle-class dream to swarm into these areas. The result was a massive population shift into increasingly low-lying neighbourhoods. Historic neighbourhoods sitting on high ground, such as the French Quarter and Garden District, were relatively unscathed after the post-Katrina flooding. But newly built, low-lying neighbourhoods — Gentilly, Broadmoor and New Orleans East, to name a few — were devastated.
The great debate after the disaster centred on whether areas at such high risk should be redeveloped at all. But the public outcry at the suggestion, which would have affected predominantly African-American neighbourhoods, led city leaders to shelve the proposal.
Many of the residents who returned to those low-lying neighbourhoods have raised their houses off the ground — an expensive proposition. The Redevelopment Authority, headed by Hebert, has begun pilot projects for stormwater management, such as rain gardens. Its main drag ends as the Mississippi splinters; wetlands sprawl outward from both sides of the river as it snakes its way about 65 miles southeast of New Orleans, through Venice and on out into the gulf.
Experts hope that the understated vegetation in such areas can be the beginning of a more resilient region. The fate of these natural flood defences will decide just how often New Orleans is forced to fall back on its own, man-made systems. It is estimated that every 2. But over the past century, without seasonal flooding to nurture them with more sediment, land has eroded faster than the natural rate.
Construction of thousands of miles of canals to serve offshore oil and gas drilling sites only accelerated this pace. But the agency itself concedes in its proposal that this option creates land still at risk of erosion. The more difficult, but possibly more effective, route is to mimic the natural process through which the Mississippi created land over the past 7, years. The state would essentially cut through natural levees and replace their earthen material with gates to allow some water to pass through.
While controlled flooding will likely create new wetlands, it will have other repercussions as well — potentially disrupting fisheries, shipping lanes, even entire towns. The CPRA will spend the next year consulting with community members and modelling individual projects to minimise those consequences.
In the meantime, it will continue with more short-term measures. Tens of thousands who evacuated the city never returned. And many who did have faced a decade of toil to put their lives back together. Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter and Facebook and join the discussion. Topics Cities Hurricane Katrina: Flooding Natural disasters and extreme weather Hurricane Katrina Hurricanes news.
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