Will Hurricane Katrina demand several cities be razed and wiped from the earth and rebuilt from the ground up in the interest of public health and safety? Should places like New Orleans — a living suicide trap of a city dangerously poised below sea level between walls of water — even be rebuilt?

New Orleans Drowned

From a Public Health perspective it is difficult to see how the cities like Gulfport, Biloxi and New Orleans can survive without being completely torn down first. I was born in tornado country and while tornadoes are terrible, once they touch down they are basically gone and you clean up. Tsunamis and Hurricanes are worse than tornadoes because of the water factor. When the storm is over, the water stays.

Standing water is an open Petri dish of disease. Parasites quickly breed. Human waste is mixed in the rising sludge. Dead bodies float in the muck. The lack of a potable water supply sets off a chain of major public health crises that will be difficult to reliably overcome any time soon. When you need to get people healthy the first assumed line of defense is access to clean water. Once the water recedes there is still the question of rotted wood and malformed materials and mold and structural building integrity that will all likely demand total demolition of everything left standing. Water is insidious as it supports life and drowns deaths.

Water seeps everywhere. Water shatters places that cannot withstand its force. Mississippi is already short on blood and IVs. How can you begin to heal the ill when you can’t reach them and they can’t reach you and even if you were in the same room together you don’t have a way to disinfect and begin the process living all over again. Water is a sleek and powerful delivery system but when the water is bad it is a silent and efficient killer.

27 Comments

  1. I say don’t rebuild New Orleans. Yes, there is history there. Yes people live there. But why, with our modern day understanding of water and commerce and weather prediction, would we rebuild something guaranteed to come tumbling down again with the next levee break?

  2. Hi AdjunctX —
    I am inclined to agree with you on New Orleans because the future risk of life is too great to warrant the rebuild.
    Political pressure will, of course, command the city to rise again from the water but it will surely sink later because the nature of water is to make itself even — even if it mean flowing down into a city at 75 feet per minute.

  3. I think the question is should any town be rebuild after a natural disaster. Of course! No matter where you live, you are going to be prone to some natural disaster. West coast has earthquakes/hurricanes, east/gulf coast has hurricanes, middle of america has tornadoes, north has snow storms. I doubt one could find a spot where no natural disaster happens and be safe. Unfortunately for New Orleans this time around, I think they are going to be in for more trouble before it will get better if that other levee breaks as well. Insurance companies have already done a pre-estimation and the coastal communities are looking at 50 Billion+ across Lousiana and Mississippi. It will take years for these cities to be rebuilt but I believe once they are rebuilt, they will be making a statement like “You might tear our cities to pieces but we shall overcome!”

  4. hterry!
    I am all for building the spirit of overcoming despair and natural disaster.
    The unique problem with New Orleans, however, is unlike a tornado or a blizzard where one never precisely knows where or when the event will happen; New Orleans is a sure bet sitting duck of a city waiting to incite another disaster just by its geographical location.
    No city planner would build a New Orleans today because the risks to life and property are foolishly high and predictable. Are we not allowed to learn from history and the mistakes of the past or are we blindly required to rebuild them?
    New Orleans tempts its future every day by sitting in a bowl with water being held back by a levee system that failed. The new levee system New Orleans just installed to withstand a category 5 hurricane failed with a category 3 hurricane.
    Do you continue to throw good money after bad or does there come a time to say, New Orleans was great while it lasted, but now it’s time to sink our money in something that has a more reasonable opportunity for not going under again?

  5. Why does anybody build near the ocean? It’s the attraction for tourists, the attraction for the beauty of what they can see outside their own windows. Charleston is below sea level and constantly floods whenever there is even just the normal thunderstorms. Hurricanes have come and gone and it keeps getting rebuilt. Overall there might be a choice of whether we should put more money into a city when it’s doomed to fall again from another catastrophy but the politicians won’t let that happen. It must be rebuilt to prove that nothing can keep them down (more so for the politicians) but for the residents/workers who live here/there and for the overall beauty of living near the ocean, there usually is no question. They WANT to rebuild even though they know it might/will happen again.
    New Orleans has it even more rough with a couple of levees which we do not have but overall it’s the same, the people WANT to rebuild and that’s what you have to look at. How and where are you going to displace that many people to find a new place to live and a new job to find?

  6. On the one hand, if they rebuild, they’re just asking for it to happen again. On the other, if they don’t, millions of people are homeless, jobless and possession-less (okay, it’s not a word, but it’s parallel!). I heard on CNN last night that we’re talking about a million people having nowhere to live.
    If they don’t rebuild, not only are they losing a home, but they have no livelihood. Where will these people go? How will they earn a living? Imagine living your whole life somewhere and having your memories drowned by Mother Nature.
    Is it dangerous? Sure, but who wants to look all these people in the eye and say “It’s hopeless. You’re going to have to find somewhere else to live”? I sure don’t.

  7. Heya Carla —
    I think if one could ever write off New Orleans as a hopeless cause as a long-term city of the future, the time to do that is now when the people are out and the town is dead and all the jobs and memories are already gone.
    Starting over elsewhere or in a rebuilt New Orleans begs the same difference. 🙂
    Oh, and why would anyone WANT to ever live below sea level anywhere? Because you can? Because disaster has yet to strike you? Because you know nothing else?

  8. Seattle was in the same situation at the turn of the century, until they finally wised up and created Seattle v2.0 *above* the high tide swellings of Puget Sound.
    I think it will be fascinating to watch the reconstruction effort; surely it will be rebuilt, but as they say, Mother Nature doesn’t eff around, so it’s going to require a bit of extra engineering to get it to be safe for the future.

  9. I am not a nihilist, but rather an optimist by nature, so give me a reality check if my comments come across as negative.
    We humans are irrational. Apart from New Orleans, why would I choose to live along one of the biggest earthquake faults (San Andreas) in the world in Davis, California? We think out here that we also live in an agricultural oasis (the central valley). Why would someone choose to live in the shadow of an active volcano that erupts every five to ten years? (The Big Island, Hawaii). Why would someone live in a rapidly growing desert community with no independent source of water? (Las Vegas, Phoenix, Palm Springs).
    I know that the locals in New Orleans are very proud of their community, the culture, the history. Before the Civil War, the area between New Orleans and Natchez, LA housed over half of the millionaires in the United States. I will take the Devil’s Advocate position and on behalf of the locals of New Orleans, I will be outraged that we would even think the city should be razed.

  10. Hi Ron! — Thanks for the primer on the history of Seattle and you made my point better than I did. 🙂 I agree human engineering can do miraculous things and recreating the old, beloved, New Orleans from scratch will, indeed, something to watch because, as I understand it, the city thought they had already properly prepared for this kind of catastrophe.
    Jeff — You are coming across more cranky than negative. 🙂 Perhaps the ground was shifting under you as you were typing? 🙂 All the questions you ask are indeed fascinating and I have no idea why people would actively choose to live in the shadow of an active volcano, let alone a common floodplain.

  11. Well, the reason people build near the ocean or near water (and nearly ALL historical cities are on a river or on the ocean) is because the ocean is an important source of jobs and food and income and in turn, there are accepted dangers to that. New Orleans is one of the U.S.’s most important port cities! And though it may be a sitting duck, I heard that the levees were originally built only to withstand a certain category of hurricane and not beyond that. They’re going to need stronger levees and I say rebuild as well because it is a powerful cultural landmark in an otherwise kind of empty area of the south, and we need a port there anyway, and think about it. Could we ever really abandon a city, particularly an old, culturally rich one like N’orlins? Cities absorb the personalities of their inhabitants over time and develop their own personalities. To me, you might as well tell people to pack up and leave Paris if the Seine flooded it.

  12. Hi Blair, it is nice to hear from you again!
    I understand the historical need of building near the water for ease of commerce and transportation but private homes on the ocean today appear a bit foolhardy with the changes in weather patterns the increased viciousness of storms that regularly batter our coastlines. Finding pleasure in tempting nature is fine; just don’t complain about getting washed away later.
    The New Orleans levee system was rebuilt last year but it obviously didn’t work.
    The old New Orleans is gone. Should the next version be rebuilt exactly where it was or should the whole idea of a New Orleans and what is now represents in the past tense be moved to higher, safer, ground?

  13. Eek! That doesn’t sound good at all. 😆 New Orleans belongs in its home state and original place. I’m not sure how they’re going to do it, but it needs to be done.
    BTW, it’s good to be back here again. 🙂

  14. Wasn’t some government funding denied to N.O. recently? From Salon.com, “In 2001, FEMA warned that a hurricane striking New Orleans was one of the three most likely disasters in the U.S. But the Bush administration cut New Orleans flood control funding by 44 percent to pay for the Iraq war.”
    Besides, isn’t it part of human nature to do the undoable, to climb Mt. Everest? So a few million folks get caught up following the idiots who thought they could stop the sea.
    Great blog, just found you on blogexplosion.

  15. Well, I’m not so sure myself if levee-land is the greatest place to build a major city, but snow does tend to rust all that beautiful wrought iron. There’s so much upkeep! Put your thinking cap back on, David.

  16. Garnet – Nice to have you here! Thanks for the kind comments on this blog. Yes, the numbers you state are right. Yes, human nature can be silly and robust but we have never been able to defeat the power of nature 100% of the time.
    Paula — I’ll keep thinking! 🙂