Relying on the Mississippi to rebuild New Orleans
My office overlooks one of the great bends in the river — no one says the Mississippi here, it’s just the river — immediately below Jackson Square. Every few minutes an ocean-going ship or a tow pushing barges crosses the field of view; often two and occasionally three or even four vessels at a time negotiate the same stretch of water. They churn upriver against the current, or skid downstream around the bend. I say “skid” because that’s what they do, sterns sliding out from under, propellers digging for traction in the mud that passes for water to carry them past a collision with the Governor Nicholls wharf.
In fact, ships collide with the wharf there more often than on any other bend in the river. Sometimes the view is empty of ships, but more often it resembles a railroad yard more than a port. Several legally discrete port jurisdictions combine to make the riverfront at New Orleans the busiest in the world, and most years more tonnage moves through it than any other port in the world.
Tourists don’t see much of this aspect of the city unless they’re out on the river and look up to find a great steel cliff suddenly looming above them, or watch a deckhand check the tautness of the cables lashing barges together, or get splashed by a Coast Guard speedboat patrolling like a motorcycle cop. But the river has, of course, always defined New Orleans, and always will.
When I was young and first came here, it was that layered mesh of marsh, river, sea, and sweat that drew me. The music expressed all that, but the music was symptom, not cause, as were the bars that fed off the port. The Seven Seas, the Pair-a-Dice, and the Greek sailor bars with the unreadable lettering — up a flight of stairs on Decatur Street that did not even open until midnight — were all places that could teach a 19-year-old college kid something he didn’t learn in class (and the tougher he thought he was, the more he had to learn and the faster he had to learn it).
This was before container ships and modern management all but eliminated sailors and longshoremen. Those bars closed twenty years ago, several of them replaced by a single giant House of Blues (complete with gift shop and New York Stock Exchange listing), but the river still gives the city both its languid sinuosity and its nickname. Forty years ago someone overheard a black longshoreman say, “If you can’t make it in ‘the Big Easy,’ you can’t make it anywhere,” and repeated it to Phil Carter of the Greenville, Mississippi, family of journalists. Phil was then working for Newsweek, put “Big Easy” in the magazine, and it took off from there. Of course there’s nothing easy about the city anymore. That, too, is because of the river. The river is why New Orleans exists, and why it sits here, vulnerable if not innocent, like a high school girl drinking too much and trying to look older than she is at her first college fraternity party. But because engineers screwed with the river, the city was violated in the most intimate way in 2005, first by a storm, then by a dozen different governmental agencies, and by the Bush administration. As in most acts of violence, recovery is impossible unless we confront that history honestly and deal with it.
What happened to New Orleans in Katrina was not a natural disaster; it was a man-made disaster. By this I don’t just refer to the fact that New Orleans proper was devastated by the collapse of floodwalls so defective that, in the words of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers itself, they provided protection “in name only.”
It was a man-made disaster in a much larger context. To understand this first requires understanding what humans have done to the natural geology of the river. The Mississippi quite literally created New Orleans, and much more. It built it with mud — with the enormous load of sediment it carries. At one time the sea reached north to Cape Girardeau, Missouri; but as the ocean receded and sea level dropped, the river filled in, with sediment, the declivity left behind. In total, the river built nearly thirty-five thousand square miles of land in six states, stretching from Cape Girardeau south to the current mouth of the river, and, in the east, from barrier islands protecting the Gulf Coast of Mississippi all the way west to Texas.
Then, engineers began interfering with this sediment. First, to protect people and property hundreds of miles from New Orleans, they started preventing river banks from collapsing into the stream. Acres of land at a time once did so, with trees booming like artillery as they snapped.This occurred not only on the Mississippi itself, but on all the major tributaries — and those tributaries reach from just outside the suburbs of Buffalo, New York, nearly to Taos, New Mexico. Next, they began building flood control reservoirs on major tributaries of the Mississippi. Both of these actions deprived the New Orleans area of the natural supply of river sediment, cutting it by 60 to 70 percent. Levees built to prevent floods along the lower part of the river also prevent that sediment from replenishing the land.