Reflections on Hurricane Katrina from a Native of New Orleans
By Avis Moore, Friends of the Earth Board of Director & New Orleans’ Resident
Hurricanes were hitting New Orleans, of course, while I was growing up there in the 1930s. We called them “September storms.” I don’t remember one in any other month. A bad one came before my 1947 wedding, before they started to name them. Early named ones that did a lot of damage were Betsy 1965 and Camille 1969. Back then the names didn’t go very far in the alphabet–we had only a few storms each year.
The recent inundation was entirely the result of the storm surge from the hurricane. The Mississippi River levees held, and no river water flooded the city.
French traders explored the Mississippi River system from Canada. To control river traffic, they wanted to plant a French city at the mouth of the “Father of Waters.” Two Canadian brothers, Iberville and Bienville, led the expedition to the Gulf of Mexico. Among all the apparent mouths emptying into the Gulf, they had to search two years to find the Mississippi’s actual mouth. Then they sailed 109 miles upstream before they could locate a patch of solid ground suitable for their settlement. The city of New Orleans was established in 1718 located in what is now known as the “French Quarter.” It is still about the best piece of solid ground in the city today. However, a strip of high, dry ground runs on both banks of the river upstream for several miles.
After the American revolution Anglos poured over the Appalachians. Their flat boat traffic hit French territory at New Orleans. In 1803 Thomas Jefferson sent representatives to Paris to try to buy the “Isle of Orleans” for three million dollars. Yes, “the Isle”–the city was then completely surrounded by swamps, rivers, lakes, and bayous. Napoleon needed money and offered to sell the whole drainage basin of the MississippiRiver, up to Canada, for fifteen million dollars. No one then knew how far west it extended. The ministers were in a quandary because that vastly exceeded their authority of three million. Getting approval from the U.S. by sailing vessel would have taken months. They signed nonetheless.
In 2003 we celebrated the bicentennial of the Louisiana purchase. Still today, Strategic Forecast writes that it is imperative to have a port near the mouth of the river for imports like oil and exports like grain, and to have the homes, schools, markets, and healthcare services needed for port workers.
The U.S. recognized land grants of the French and Spanish crowns and continued to make land grants themselves. The grants were typically a measured distance along the solid ground beside a river or bayou and, between parallel lines, back to the swamp. Builders cut cypress logs from the swamp, but nobody thought of building there.
The lower Mississippi is a mature stream meandering in countless loops over its flood plain. Each Spring when snows melt along the northern tributaries, high water comes down. This had been going on for thousands of years, leaving an annual silt deposit along the banks that gradually built up to several feet. Consequently the highest ground in southern Louisiana is along river banks. Falling rain drains away from the rivers and bayous into the swamps at the rear.
The Mississippi had many distributaries downstream. One of these was its former course; others were additional outlets or mouths. Silt built up firm ground along their banks, too. The Army Corps of Engineers has gradually closed most of these, to keep a strong, fast current in the main stream to carry the silt out to sea. The resulting loss of annual replenishment of the land by spring floods has caused widespread subsidence around New Orleans and farther downstream.
The oil industry created channels which fragmented the salt marshes and fresh water swamps. These caused the loss of many miles of wetlands that used to absorb the surge of approaching storms. Channels into freshwater marshes permit entry of salt water which kills the freshwater vegetation, letting the Gulf come in ever farther. Offshore barrier islands are being washed away by increasingly furious and frequent storms. Even before Katrina, Louisiana had lost 35 miles of these protective barrier lowlands, leaving it much more vulnerable than before. Louisiana had asked for federal help to stop this erosion of barriers, but none was forthcoming.
New Orleans may not be literally an island any more, but you can’t leave it in any direction without driving over bridges and causeways. That hampers evacuation.
Until the 1900s, people built only on the firm river and bayou banks. The swamps were undeveloped. In the 1930s, WPA money was used to build a concrete sea wall behind New Orleans separating Lake Pontchartrain (really an arm of the Gulf) from the swamp which surrounded it. A drive and picnic facilities created a linear park. We then drove past several miles of swamp on weekends to reach the park and swim in the lake. After WWII the city drained the swamp between it and Lake Pontchartrain, but did not fill it. Lots were laid out, businesses and homes were built on this land below sea level. Water from heavy rains has to be pumped out by enormous pumps designed for the purpose. The water is pumped through canals up to Lake Pontchartrain. Levees on those canals gave way after hurricane Katrina, inundating the former swamp. Building in the swamp should never have been allowed. The government should buy the lowest land for open space.
FRIENDS OF THE EARTH’S WORK
For decades Friends of the Earth has advocated policies to maintain natural barriers to storms and warned of the dangers of compromising wetlands and rampant oil and gas exploration. Now extreme weather has come to my home town and hundreds of thousands of people have suffered as a result. It has been a great tragedy. But we must move forward with sensible plans to protect ourselves from future devastation.