The End of New Orleans

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Refugees are arriving in Lafayette — two hours to the west of New Orleans — and deciding to stay. They are enrolling their children in schools, buying houses and looking for jobs. Think for a second that we’re referring to Americans as “refugees,” and then consider that many are never returning to New Orleans. Think that we may be witnessing the end of a city, the 39th largest in America, but the one that we all love the most.

How could this even possibly be true? How did we get here? We read that it’s stupid to build a city underwater, but is that what happened? New Orleans, for most of its life, was two islands — Uptown and the French Quarter — and a port on a floodplain. We made it more vulnerable when we settled the plain; we made it more vulnerable to the lake when we built levees to keep out the river; we made it more vulnerable when a city began to compact the mud on which it stood.

Too much of what we hold dear comes from New Orleans to lose it, and yet we might and, if we’re more honest with ourselves, we will. It is almost too much to bear.

Bill McKibben

Environmental journalist and author of The End of Nature. He’s been trying to puzzle out how Katrina fits into our history of hurricanes — and he feels the past is, in fact, no longer a guide to our future because global warming has changed the planet so fundamentally.

Leslie Schilling

Director, Humanities Center, University of Louisiana

From Brendan’s pre-interview notes

What’s different about this is that the floodwaters are coming in from the lake. The levy system that we have on the Mississippi river is established to control the river, to keep the water in the river. Money to fix lakeside levee, budgeted 03, 04, would have been budgeted, 217 million was taken for Iraq.

Not real fond of the Army corps of Engineers, but they’re the best we got. The Handicapping of Inequity,the people of this area believe that flood control will save the city, what is protected is navigation economy.

The policies were set in place in 1927, all they talked about was that we needed more levies, taller levies, so what we’ve done over fifty years is raise the level of the river, its bottom five or six feet from where it was in twenty seven, depending on the flow of the current in the river to scour the bottom.

We could have handled a spring flood, we couldn’t have handled a category four. Fifteen miles closer, and there would have been nothing to recover.

Mandatory evacuation should provide for the people who have no means to evacuate. The people who stayed behind had no means. they either didn’t own a car, were tourists. Although there were thirteen other shelters established in Orleans Parish, the Superdome was considered the refuge of last resort.

The Superdome, there’s no way I would have gone there, I wouldn’t have gotten so far out of New Orleans, it would have made your head spin. The storm comes through, as bad as it is, the wind damage, the whipping rain, incidents of very low level street flooding.

When New Orleans was being laid out originally, there were two different towns. uptown was where planters put their summer homes. They had plantations up and down the river, you don’t find beneath blue collars, you find less than blue collar in the ninth ward, and that’s the sump of the bowl.

If you’ve got flood waters to the roof of a house, black mold problem, a toxic mix brewing, insects, in less than two weeks we’re going to have a wonderful crop of mosquitoes. Doesnt’ seem to be a way to stop the water.

After ’27, it was just a rising tide, it was not so instantly, Good Friday was when the flood started, took time for the waters to get so horrible. When it was realized that New Orleans would be so flood, to blow up the poydras street levy, it did release the pressure. There were still a half-million refugees, the red cross tended to 325,000, there were 143 locations for a tent city, lived until may of 1928, the day the flood control act was effected.

I don’t know how they’re going to clean that city. You’d have to be crazy or dumb to go in to a city where there’s that much toxicity and health hazard, to clean up, God, everything that you can imagine. It’s easier to blow it up and start over.

New Orleans in the earliest days of its founding was about a foot below sea level. Do we want to build nine feet of foundation to the city so that in the next twenty-five years a hurricane can come again? It’s now basically five to eight feet below sea level now.

James Hebert

Operations Manager, public radio for Acadiana, broadcast out of Lafayette, LA

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