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Here’s to a wet New Orleans

By Christopher Morris

In the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac, Jack Payne of Delacroix, which is a tiny fishing village in the wetlands of the Mississippi delta below New Orleans, explained to Bob Marshall of the Times-Picayune, that “Everything I rebuild will either be on pilings or wheels. It’s gotta be higher than storm surge, or something I can pull outta here. This is our future, man. We know it’s gonna happen again and again — and just get worse.” Marshall used his report on Payne as an opportunity to admonish his readers: “Storms like this are to New Orleans what blizzards are to Chicago and heat waves are to Phoenix. Get used to it — or move.”

The people of New Orleans used to be used to it. In the 1849 flood, probably the worst until the post-Katrina flood of 2005, certainly people carried on as if they were used to it. People donned outwear made of India rubber — what the locals called caoutchouc — and waterproof “California” boots, and trudged through the water. Elderly women propped themselves in front porch rocking chairs and knitted, their houses surrounded by three feet of water. Elderly men fished out windows. Young gentlemen rowed young ladies about on outings and sightseeing excursions through city streets. Children played with snakes. Not all was fun and games, of course. Hundreds fled the city, including many renters, though they faced lawsuits for breaking leases. Many lost all they owned to water damage. Food prices rose dramatically at local markets. The poor suffered the most because they lived in the lowest-lying areas, but all New Orleanians were inconvenienced, to say the least.

Still, they persevered, many with a smile. Under the heading “Yachting in the Inundated District,” The Daily Delta observed that surprisingly few had in fact left the city, none who had upper stories, and that everyone seemed resigned to the flood. Commenting at some distance on reports from the flooded city, an editor for the Savannah, Georgia Republican concluded that “The people of New Orleans, though doomed to a sort of amphibious existence, are not overwhelmed by the flood that threatens to submerge them. On the contrary, they bear the inconveniences of the present situation with a most commendable spirit, and exhibit a faculty of adapting themselves to circumstances.”

In centuries past, native inhabitants of the lower Mississippi Valley responded to periodic flooding by packing up and moving to higher ground, returning when the water receded, just as Jack Payne plans to do. In French colonial Louisiana, people set their homes on pillars, above tidal surges and spring floods. In the city, those who could afford it built two-storey homes and lived upstairs when necessary. They may never have gotten used to floods, but in the past few were surprised by them. Floods in New Orleans were, as Bob Marshall says, like blizzards in Chicago and heat waves in Phoenix.

So what happened to transform the people of New Orleans from environmental realists to dreamers? Engineers, urban planners, and politicians promised to keep the city safe from water, to make New Orleans permanently dry. And people bought it, in large part because those who made the promises delivered on them. Regular flooding ceased. The city flooded occasionally, of course, but occasional floods began to seem like avoidable accidents. A dry New Orleans became the new normal. Suburbs spread out into wetlands re-imagined in the new normal as dry lands. Houses came down to the ground because there was no need for stilts or second stories in a dry city. Shot-gun shacks on the ground or close to it became the new “traditional” style of home, although many eschewed tradition and built homes that looked just like those of suburban Chicago or Phoenix or any other dry American city. But New Orleans was not dry, never has been, never will be. Delacroix, not New Orleans, is what is normal.

However, there are some indications of change in New Orleans. The often-maligned Make It Right homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, also known as the Brad Pitt homes, came through Isaac all right. Like homes from earlier eras, they are elevated, although there was little flooding in the Lower Ninth this time, and they are sturdy. With Kevlar window covers, they are built to withstand high winds and blowing debris. A few of the homes were up and running when Hurricane Gustav hit New Orleans in 2008, and according to residents they performed as promised. One resident told me after Gustav that she was actually quite thrilled to watch from within her well-elevated and dry home as Gustav’s water rose over her bottom step.

The homes may be an aesthetic affront to those who prefer New Orleans architectural styles of the twentieth century, when the city was told it could be dried, but in important respects — elevation, sturdy construction, and on some a steeply pitched roof — they resemble homes from days when New Orleans flooded regularly. There are new houses less controversial in design than the Brad Pitt homes, the Habitat homes of Musicians’ Village in the Upper Ninth, for example. They too are elevated and sturdy, built for the natural environment of the delta. So let the debate over aesthetics continue. But let the new homes of whatever style be built with the expectation that there will be high winds and lots of water in the city’s future. Let the debates continue over whether to dismantle existing levees and restore wetlands, or build new ones that are bigger and stronger than ever. So long as all understand that big levees or no levees, New Orleans is a wet and often a very windy place. Rebuild a New Orleans for which hurricanes and the frequent presence of great amounts of water are the new “old” normal. And may the people of New Orleans learn to accept and live with that new “old” normal.

Christopher Morris is Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at Arlington. He is the author of The Big Muddy: An Environmental History of the Mississippi and Its Peoples from Hernando de Soto to Hurricane Katrina and Becoming Southern: The Evolution of a Way of Life, Vicksburg and Warren County, Mississippi, 1770-1860.

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Image credit: Looking southeast down the flooded and aptly named Canal Street in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Photo by joeynick, iStockphoto.

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