The City of New Orleans
Jack Shafer in Slate dares to suggest that New Orleans is not worth rebuilding, and he makes a powerful if at times cynical argument. First, he correctly notes that overdevelopment and poor land and water management conspired to make last week's catastrophe inevitable. To wit:
Nobody disputes the geographical and oceanographic odds against New Orleans: that the Gulf of Mexico is a perfect breeding ground for hurricanes; that re-engineering the Mississippi River to control flooding has made New Orleans more vulnerable by denying it the deposits of sediment it needs to keep its head above water; that the aggressive extraction of oil and gas from the area has undermined the stability of its land.
"New Orleans naturally wants to be a lake," St. Louis University professor of earth and atmospheric sciences Timothy Kusky told Time this week. "A city should never have been built there in the first place," he said to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Why was it? Settlers built the original city on a curve of high flood land that the Mississippi River had deposited over eons, hence the nickname "Crescent City." But starting in the late 1800s and continuing into the early 20th century, developers began clearing and draining swamps behind the crescent, even dumping landfill into Lake Pontchartrain to extend the city.
To chart the aggressive reclamation, compare this map from 1798 with this one from 1908. Many of New Orleans' lower-lying neighborhoods, such as Navarre, the Lower Ninth Ward, Lake Terrace, and Pontchartrain Park, were rescued from the low-lying muck. The Lower Ninth Ward, clobbered by Katrina, started out as a cypress swamp, and by 1950 it was only half developed, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. Even such "high" land as City Park suffered from flooding before the engineers intervened. By the historical standards of the 400-year-old city, many of the heavily flooded neighborhoods are fresh off the boat.
But Shafer doesn't stop there. New Orleans, writes Shafer, was a morass of corruption and dysfunction. It's plagued by crime and failing schools, and its housing stock was crumbling even before it was washed away by the floodwaters. It's a city whose only real purpose anymore is to serve as a playground for decadent tourists. Shafer even comes to the defense of Barbara Bush, who suggested that the city's impoverished residents likely would be better off:
Only a sadist would insist on resurrecting this concentration of poverty, crime, and deplorable schools. Yet that's what New Orleans' cheerleaders—both natives and beignet-eating tourists—are advocating. They predict that once they drain the water and scrub the city clean, they'll restore New Orleans to its former "glory."
Implicit in Shafer's argument is that, absent the hurricane, New Orleans' decay would have continued unabated. A city on the upswing, no matter how many problems it faced, would have a much better shot at recovery, and the case for abandoning it under these circumstances would be harder to make. But New Orleans wasn't working. Its government failed it before the storm, and now that failure is complete. It sounds cruel to describe the storm as "creative destruction" as Shafer does, but here he makes an excellent point: Unless we can eliminate the poverty that plagued New Orleans in short order--which we likely can't--why stick it back in one place again? The poor are ill-served by being herded together, where they can be conveniently ignored by the rest of us. Shafer points out that many displaced residents already are settling down in new communities, with no plans to return. Who can blame them?