Sunday, December 18, 2005

Thoughts on Rebuilding (And Not Rebuilding) ...

Should New Orleans be rebuilt? Whose fault was the flooding? Jason Henderson, Assistant Professor of Geography at San Francisco State University, and a New Orleans native, warns the citizens of his home city that rebuilding all is a bad idea, and that the flooding was an act of public policy failure, not nature.

Henderson (2005) suggests that "The storm surges, overtopped and breached levees, and complete submergence of large swaths of greater New Orleans were predicted, modeled, and prophesied for decades. The usual political response was that we need to raise the levees higher and higher, build bigger, better pumps, and spend billions to accommodate the sprawl belt surrounding the city. Now we are hearing the mantra of "rebuild all" with bigger levees and improved pumps."

What this storm hit was largely American auto-centric sprawl that was largely below sea-level, wrapped by extensive levees, exposed to huge volumes of water, and sinking in the peat of the backswamps. This development pattern, and the resource extraction industries that supported it, created the conditions for this disaster to occur. This was not an act of God, nor a natural disaster -- this was a public policy disaster.

For decades pipeline canals, shipping channels, and oil platform access canals were built willy-nilly across the coastal marsh of Louisiana, giving the oil industry carte blanche to decimate the coastal wetlands that protect New Orleans from storm surges. Public policy kept the Mississippi River bounded in a swift and fast channel that precludes the necessary deposition of mud and silt that built Southeast Louisiana in the first place. This was done for shipping, refining capacity, and real estate development. Siphoning some of the flow of the river to replenish wetlands was considered anathema to free enterprise. Public policy -- not nature, not God.

In the last 60 years, the floodplain around New Orleans sunk by an average of 2-3 feet. The subsidence was especially problematic in difficult-to-drain backswamps.

These backswamps are geographically distinctive from the natural levees --like the slither of higher ground along both banks of the Mississippi, where, for example, the French Quarter is located. Incremental filling of the backswamp began in the early 1900's, took off in the 1920's during the first auto-oriented housing boom, and then accelerated rapidly after World War Two, driven by white flight, anti-urbanism, subsidized highways, mortgages, and flood insurance. Metairie, Chalmette, the West Bank, and eventually New Orleans East emerged -- all mostly in backswamp.

The massive levees built to protect this sprawl held the water in, allowing it to fester and stagnate, full of the toxic residue of sprawl -- motor oil, gasoline, lawn fertilizer, and so on. From a design perspective, the sprawl that is submerged looked similar to sprawl in Houston or Atlanta, no different from the sprawl in Dulles or Contra Costa, or Hoffman Estates, or Tempe. Auto dependent, hostile to pedestrians, low density, single detached homes, segregated land uses, segregated incomes and races, full of intrusive billboards, massive expanses of pavement -- the bland generic sprawlscape that engulfs almost every American city. Sprawl has been a national urban policy for at least six decades. This is the face of sprawl in New Orleans today -- a toxic cesspool.

Henderson, Jason "Thoughts On Rebuilding (And Not Rebuilding) New Orleans" September 26, 2005


jbv's Competitive Edge 


Blogger dillyberto said...

Mr. John, Kevin Wiseman here. You put together a fine, well-informed blog. I must suppose you are doing well.

Merry Christmas

2:26 PM  

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