September 4, 2005

"Why in the world is New Orleans below sea level to begin with?"

I was interested in this statement by Mike Tidwell, author of "Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast," who appeared on "Meet the Press" today:
Why in the world is New Orleans below sea level to begin with? I think the media has sort of accepted it uncritically that this city is below sea level which is why we have this problem. Miami is not below sea level. New York's not below sea level. It's below sea level because of the levees. The levees stop the river from flooding and the river's what built the whole coast of Louisiana through 7,000 years of alluvial soil deposits. And if you stop that flooding, the other second natural phenomena in any delta region in the world is subsidence. That alluvial soil is fine, it compacts, it shrinks. That's why New Orleans is below sea level. That's why the whole coast of Louisiana is--the whole land platform is sinking. An area of land the size of Manhattan turns to water in south Louisiana every year even without hurricanes.

You can't just fix the levees in New Orleans. We now have to have a massive coastal restoration project where we get the water out of the Mississippi River in a controlled fashion toward the Barrier islands, restore the wetlands. If you don't commit to this plan which is this $14 billion, costs of the Big Dig in Boston, or two weeks of spending Iraq, you shouldn't fix a single window in New Orleans. You shouldn't pick up a single piece of debris because to do one without the other is to set the table for another nightmare.
I expect to hear a huge debate about these environmental realities. There will be people who just want to rebuild and people putting immense preconditions on rebuilding. Restore the wetlands? "Get the water out of the Mississippi River"? The mind boggles.


Beth said...


Thanks for posting this. Today, for the first time, I'm starting to think about the future. We've been in touch with some civic leaders, and it will happen. And this is, I think, the key issue that will determine how it will happen.

Thanks again. You're providing a great forum here.

John Thacker said...

This reality is a large part of why environmentalist groups (and the New York Times) have long opposed various flood control plans, including here. Their criticisms certainly have strong points, too. It's absolutely the case that the very levees that prevent flooding make the long-term problem worse; I've heard the discussion many times. So what do you do? Try to adapt to nature and live with routine floods? Continually move the city as the coastline changes? Or commit to an unceasing effort to hold back nature, effort that has to increase because your own efforts make the problem worse?

Beth said...

It's the wrong forum, but I want to add something here in response to your earlier question about why have we seen so much tragedy and so little heroism. I just spoke with a tourism official who spoke with Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu today. He was in an airboat earlier this week and came across two young black men, teenagers, pushing an old white man in his wheelchair through the floodwaters. They both said, "Take him now, we'll be okay until someone else comes along." According to Mitch, this is happening all over town, white and black, hand in hand, walking through the flood, collecting food (yep, looting! One guy in the quarter has turned his home into a warehouse of supplies he gathered from stores and is sharing them with all who come by.

I think I owe Sloan an apology. A few days back he suggested the reports on violence and horror were overblown, and I disagreed. I still believe the events reported weren't fabricated, but they were the sole focus. That's okay, because it raised the stakes for help to get in as soon as possible. It was necessary. But the truth is broader. There is a small, very small, percentage of violent, lawless males that caused this predatory image. New Orleans is full of good people who have been resourceful, kind, and generous during this crisis. These stories will come to the surface.

I pray those stories get out, because the image that's out there now is unfair, and damaging. I don't blame the media, I blame the barbarians that ran riot in the streets and preyed on others. But I hope that this blog, and others, will get the broader truths out.

The good and the ugly are being reported in our local news:

Check out their update pages.

Beth said...

Let me clarify that the tourism official is my friend, and a coworker of my partner. We're talking and crying together, not spinning. This isn't PR.

Decklin Foster said...

Speaking of which, has everyone heard about this?

Deep Well said...

Did Icarus's wings melt for lack of federal funding? That is certainly how the today's media would have written that myth, I guess. To the contrary, what happened is because of federal funding, not the lack thereof.

The tragedy that is before us has been unfolding for decades and represents the culmination of years of accumulating pork, greed, denial and hubris. Now we are reminded that Nature Bats Last. And what could have been a mere double was turned into a grand slam all because we lobbed her a nice one right in the strike zone.

Unknown said...

The Dutch are already on it. I've been linking to this all day:
From Arjan at

"The US Army Corps of Civil Engineers has called for the help of the water management experts of the Technische Universiteit (Technical University) Delft. The latter suggest a New Orleans version of the Delta Works in this newspaper article. One of the Delft experts proposes building an American version of the Oosterscheldekering, which is something we're really proud of around here. Basically it's a dam which doesn't destroy wildlife in river deltas behind it. The Oosterscheldekering is a partially computer-controlled contraption which closes itself automatically during storms, so the environment in the delta behind the Oosterscheldekering remains largely unaffected under normal weather circumstances."

I hope they give ours an easier name. :)

John Thacker said...

The Delta Works is an amazing engineering marvel. It took almost 50 years to build, and was built in response to a storm and flood in the 50s that killed 2,000.

Now, they don't have to deal with hurricanes in the Netherlands, and they have Great Britain in front of their coast helping to absorb some storms, but I'm sure they can at least be helpful.

I don't think the Delta Works could help against a hurricane, but it could help prevent the levees and dams from making structural problems worse.

Bill said...

The French Quarter was the city of New Orleans circa 1701. If I remember correctly, the highest point in the Quarter is nine feet above sealevel.

Topwomen said...

I thought today's Meet the Press was quite informative, especially the fact that New Orleans is, as you said, below sea level. The Coast 2050 project is meant to address this issue, and should be seriously considered before, as one commentator said, "one pane of glass" is repaired. Otherwise, we're just throwing money away into another disaster.

Laura Reynolds said...

As bad as this was a potentially worse scenario geographically speaking, is in the cards. North of NOLA, the Mississippi River really wants to take the Atchafalaya River to the Gulf, a change of course it has taken many times in the past. So far the ACE has kept it on its much longer route through NOLA. If a severe enough flood were to occur and the river breaches the works in place, its hard to see a recovery.

Monty Loree said...

ann: Has there been mention of how much the feds have committed to fixing the gulf region.

There's just too much info to cover. I'm just wondering if you or another of your readers has heard a number.

along with the credit bureaus, I'm listening to news where the life insurance companies may start to balk at living up to their commitments. They're asking for government intervention for help.

Unbelievable. Although I'm not totally surprised.
Life Insurance Companies asking for help

Babylonandon said...

Why don't they just knock down the entire existing city including the levees and rebuild the whole thing or at least the residential parts of it peice by peice upon barges that can be floated into place?

Maybe they could move the whole thing out onto lake Ponchartrain and build a new levee (high enough to protect the lake from any surge) on the lakes southern edge and let the current area return to the wetland it should be to absorb any floods. What a tourist attractiona floating city would be.

Anonymous said...


Nancy Morris said...

I have a book published in the '30s or '40s that reports exactly the same thing. I read it decades ago, and that was why, when I heard about Katrina, I instantly knew what was going to happen.