Thursday, September 01, 2005


The saga of New Orleans continues, and continues to worsen.

The situation inside the Superdome has been compared to hell, but the situation outside doesn't appear to be any better.

The scene begs two questions. First, why in the world does a city like New Orleans exist at all? Located in a bowl between Lake Ponchartrain and the Mississippi River, the city has always existed a hair's breadth away from exactly this type of disaster. Should the massive levee & pumping system surrounding the city fail -- well, you know the rest.

Ari Kelman in Slate has a good analysis of the why surrounding New Orleans. He discusses the distinctions between the city's "situation" and its "site":
In 1718, when the French first settled New Orleans, the city's earliest European inhabitants saw riches inscribed by the hand of God into the landscape of the vast Mississippi valley. The Mississippi river system takes the shape of a huge funnel, covering nearly two-thirds of the United States from the Alleghenies to the Rockies. The funnel's spout lies at the river's outlet at the Gulf of Mexico, less than 100 miles downstream from New Orleans. In an era before railways, good highways, and long before air travel, much of the interior of the nation's commerce flowed along the Mississippi, fronting New Orleans. The river system's inexorable downstream current swept cotton, grain, sugar, and an array of other commodities to New Orleans' door.

Over time, New Orleans developed a divided relationship with the environment: Nature, as embodied by the Mississippi, promised a bright future. But it also brought water, wind, and pathogens, elements of a fickle environment that in the past as now turned cruelly chaotic.

Geographers refer to this as the difference between a city's "situation"—the advantages its location offers relative to other cities—and its "site"—the actual real estate it occupies. New Orleans has a near-perfect situation and an almost unimaginably bad site. It's because of the former that people have worked endlessly to overcome the hazards of the latter.

In short, New Orleans' strategic location made it valuable, even as that location made it increasingly untenable without greater and greater intervention. Which brings up the second question. What now?

Clearly, three massive jobs will take up the near term, all at the same time: evacuate the living, account for the dead, stem the flood and begin draining the swamp that the city has become. Once that is done -- and this will take a while -- the question of clean up awaits. It seems pretty clear that much of the city will simply need to be bulldozed. It's inconceivable that anyone could return to live in the houses that will have been feet deep in standing water for weeks & possibly months. So the question will be less on of cleaning up than of massive rebuilding, and the ultimate question will be to what end? Will it be worth it to rebuild a city so precariously perched on the cusp of reprised ruin? There will certainly be enough saying yes that it will be done, but ask yourself -- would you want to live there?

In the meantime, say a prayer that the city is evacuated before it descends even further into complete chaos.


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