Shortly after Jean Baptiste Lemoyne founded New Orleans in 1718, a priest-chronicler named Charlevoix described it “as a place of a hundred wretched hovels in a malarious wet thicket of willows and dwarf palmettos, infested by serpents and alligators.” From its origins in a hollow at the angle of a deep three-sided bend in the Mississippi River, New Orleans slowly spread out for miles on a narrow alluvial strip between the River and Lake Pontchartrain. Today most of New Orleans lies either below sea level or at least below the level of the River and Lake. Only the levees, most of which were constructed beginning in the early part of the twentieth century, have kept the city dry.
Until Katrina! Mother Nature has a unique, and sometimes deadly, way of reminding us of the penalty for defying her will. New Orleans, geographically, can best be described as an historical mistake. It would be unthinkable to construct a city in such a location now. Even if private developers wanted to do it, the political environmental lobby existing in America today would never tolerate such a violation or exploitation of the Mississippi River's wetlands. For decades governments have restricted or outright forbidden any sort of habitable development of America's wetlands. America's wetlands have become “sacred ground” to be preserved in perpetuity by the force of government edicts.
So what's going on in the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans? Governments are about to spend billions of taxpayer dollars to reconstruct a city in a geographical depression below sea level next to an ocean subject to hurricanes. To describe the land area of New Orleans as merely wetlands is the ultimate understatement. Much of the city would be part of the ocean but for the levees! In fact, the whole of Louisiana from the existing site of New Orleans south is slowly returning to the sea. Virtually everyone knows the entire area is a high-risk area to both hurricanes and continual flooding from the Mississippi River. If nothing habitable existed there today, nothing ever would under existing governmental edicts protecting wetlands. So, why is government about to expend tens of billions of dollars to do something which they would forbid any private developers to even consider doing now?
Nobody is asking that question, let alone answering it. Even to ask the question subjects one to criticism for not being compassionate toward the refugees evacuated from the cesspool which once was New Orleans. Guilt is imposed upon anyone who would selfishly suggest it's an insane idea to rebuild another city in an ocean. And yet it is! Why build a government-funded city where it can only survive until another failed levee again returns it to the sea? Why build a government-funded city below sea level when dry land exists all over America not exposed to flooding or hurricanes? And finally, why should Americans be taxed billions of dollars to build an “American Venice” facing annual hurricane risks?
Perhaps the most serious question which must be asked is why anyone would choose to live below sea level next to a high hurricane-risk ocean? The historical reality is New Orleans evolved through inertia more because that's where it began three centuries ago than because that is where it would be built today. The demographics and economic circumstance of New Orleans in recent years has made it into a modern day anachronism. While the Crescent City was quaint and colorful, it's hardly a geographical location toward which people would gravitate today if it didn't already exist.
The funding of a new government-built city on the old location of devastated New Orleans can only be viewed as an act of historical restoration underwritten by taxpayers and/or as a response to the perceived compassion of the American people for the plight of the refugees. Certainly it would never occur if dependent upon the marketplace to voluntarily fund it. Sadly, what people would never do with their own wealth, their government is about to do with wealth exacted from them by taxation.
Can governments save New Orleans? Of course not! That which has been destroyed can never again be recovered, by a government or anyone else. The question is why consume resources, either public or private, to rebuild anything which will only be destroyed again by the forces of nature and government neglect? While Katrina got all the attention, it was the breeching of the government levees that destroyed New Orleans. Nature's wrath started the holocaust, but it was the failure of government dikes that flooded and destroyed the city.
For those who argue the city must be rebuilt a final caution: At what cost, who pays, and what will be forgone from doing so? Already estimates of $300 billion are anticipated just to recover from the damage. That's over $1,000 for every man, woman, and child in America today. Is a new government-funded New Orleans worth foregoing all the potential benefits every man, woman, and child in America could enjoy if that same $1,000 consumed by government for a below-sea-level building project in Louisiana was left in their pockets?
One tends to have a different perspective toward feelings of compassion and guilt when the cost of building a below-sea-level city next to a hurricane-prone ocean is coming out of the pockets of people who have chosen to live out their lives on high ground out of the path of an angry sea.
So, why do it?
September 10, 2005