"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.
The call to rebuild New Orleans' levee system may be mooted if its evacuated residents decide not to return. The federal government, which runs the flood-insurance business, sold only 85,000 residential and commercial policies—this in a city of 188,000 occupied dwellings. Coverage is limited to $250,000 for building property and $100,000 for personal property. Because the insured can use the money elsewhere, there is no guarantee they'll choose to rebuild in New Orleans, which will remain extra-vulnerable until the levees are rebuilt.
Few uninsured landlords and poor home owners have the wherewithal to rebuild—or the desire. And how many of the city's well-off and wealthy workers—the folks who provide the city's tax base—will return? Will the doctors, lawyers, accountants, and professors have jobs to return to? According to the Wall Street Journal, many businesses are expected to relocate completely. Unless the federal government adopts New Orleans as its ward and pays all its bills for the next 20 years—an unlikely to absurd proposition—the place won't be rebuilt.
Barbara Bush will be denounced as being insensitive and condescending for saying yesterday that many of the evacuees she met in the Astrodome would prefer to stay in Texas. But she probably got it right. The destruction wrought by Katrina may turn out to be "creative destruction," to crib from Joseph Schumpeter, for many of New Orleans' displaced and dispossessed. Unless the government works mightily to reverse migration, a positive side-effect of the uprooting of thousands of lives will to be to deconcentrate one of the worst pockets of ghetto poverty in the United States.
Page One of today's New York Times illustrates better than I can how the economic calculations of individuals battered by Katrina may contribute to the city's ultimate doom:
In her 19 years, all spent living in downtown New Orleans, Chavon Allen had never ventured farther than her bus fare would allow, and that was one trip last year to Baton Rouge. But now that she has seen Houston, she is planning to stay.
"This is a whole new beginning, a whole new start. I mean, why pass up a good opportunity, to go back to something that you know has problems?" asked Ms. Allen, who had been earning $5.15 an hour serving chicken in a Popeyes restaurant.
New Orleans won't disappear overnight, of course. The French Quarter, the Garden District, West Riverside, Black Pearl, and other elevated parts of the city will survive until the ultimate storm takes them out—and maybe even thrive as tourist destinations and places to live the good life. But it would be a mistake to raise the American Atlantis. It's gone.
Apologies to Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Ernie K-Doe, Allen Toussaint, Tipitina's, Dr. John, Clarence "Frogman" Henry, Jelly Roll Morton, Jessie Hill, Lee Dorsey, the Meters, Robert Parker, Alvin Robinson, Joe "King" Oliver, Kid Stormy Weather, Huey "Piano" Smith, Aaron Neville and his brothers (falsetto is the highest expression of male emotion), Frankie Ford, Chris Kenner, Professor Longhair, Wynton Marsalis and family, Sidney Bechet, and Marshall Faulk. I await your hate mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)