Tuesday :: Aug 30, 2005

What is in the future for New Orleans?

by CA Pol Junkie

24 hours ago, we were all breathing a sigh of relief because the worst of Katrina passed east of New Orleans. Although the city had sustained major flooding, it appeared as if it had been spared the catastrophe which had been predicted. Then early this morning, a levee broke, letting Lake Pontchartrain flood into New Orleans. In spite of heroic efforts to drop 3000 pound sand bags into the levee breach from helicopters, it appears the water level in New Orleans will have to equalize with the water level of the lake.

The Jones Tract of the Sacramento / San Joaquin River delta in northern California was in a similar circumstance a year ago. Like New Orleans, the land of the tract is below sea level and gradually subsiding. Like New Orleans, it no longer receives the regular influx of silt from flooding to build up the land. In June of 2004, the levee protecting Jones Tract breached, letting water pour in through a 300 foot gap. In spite of working around the clock, it took 27 days to seal the breach and start pumping out the water. It took 6 months to pump out all the water and clean up the mud left behind.

Unfortunately, what is happening to New Orleans isn't really a surprise, as it was only a matter of time. The city was built on the alluvial plain of the Mississippi River delta. It's an excellent spot for commerce and shipping, but a difficult place to live in the long-term. Floods are a natural part of the environment here, with each flood building up the land. Marshes abound naturally in the shallow water, providing food and cover for wildlife and acting as a buffer against the sea. Since regular flooding is incompatible with city life, the Army Corps of Engineers has channelized the Mississippi River to keep it from flooding. As a result, New Orleans and southern Louisiana in general has been sinking for decades without replenishment of silt from floodwaters. The sea level in Lake Pontchartrain is a foot deeper than it was 50 years ago. Marshes have disappeared as shallow water becomes deep water. Louisiana is losing about 35 square miles of land each year.

The humanitarian disaster of New Orleans is something Americans are accustomed to hearing about only from Bangladesh or some other land far from our experience. What countless thousands of residents of New Orleans face now is the inability to go home for months, and the prospect of finding very little when they return. After the media grows bored and moves on other things, the people of New Orleans will have a long and difficult road to follow. Until now, the city had to do everything within its power to maintain an unsustainable status quo. Out of disaster, the opportunity arises to rebuild a new city more in tune with its environment. You are in our thoughts and prayers, New Orleans. May you have the strength to overcome and create a bright future for your city.

UPDATE: There are photos, maps, and good commentary about what is happening with the levee breaches here.

UPDATE: The water level has equalized with Lake Pontchartrain, which unfortunately is unusually high (6 feet above sea level) thanks to all the rain. The water level in New Orleans can only drop now.

CA Pol Junkie :: 12:11 PM :: Comments (9) :: TrackBack (1) :: Digg It!