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Geologic Column
New Orleans: Why Rebuild?
Fred Schwab

When we started to have kids, my wife and I did not anticipate the cases of comic books that threaten to take over our house, our sons' pleas for NBA game tickets at $100 each, or annual university costs approaching what we paid for our house. And that all occurred over the last 30 years. Imagine trying to look 100 or more years into the future. A hundred years ago, who would have guessed that Nouvelle Orleans, a quaint French colonial settlement occupying a small, emergent crescent of land, would become home to 1.5 million people, most of whom live 1 to 3 meters below sea level? As the saying goes, predicting is tough, especially the future!

Over the last four days of August, Hurricane Katrina, described by David Brooks in The New York Times on Sept. 11 as “the most anticipated natural disaster in American history,” devastated the Gulf Coast. Damage may exceed the $200 billion combined cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and reconstruction. Insurance might cover only one-fourth of the losses. Hurricane Andrew in 1992, at $38 billion in damages, and the Northridge, Calif., earthquake in 1994, at $34 billion in damages, are the next two most damaging natural catastrophes in the United States.

The Katrina and Rita disasters may be symptoms of a larger problem. Our national zeal for budget cuts has undermined safety because the public infrastructure (highways, dams, levees, ports and bridges) has substantially deteriorated. The American Society of Civil Engineers argues that more than $1.6 billion needs to be spent over the next five years to mitigate further deterioration (only $900 million has been allocated). Its executive director, Lawrence Roth, told The New York Times on Sept. 11 that “every natural disaster is going to be more destructive than it needs to be” until infrastructure updates are fully funded.

Government spending on infrastructure that in the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations averaged about 3 percent of gross domestic product has since consistently fallen below 2 percent. State-funded infrastructure is in worse shape. Most federally funded dams are in good shape, but more than 3,500 dams maintained by state and local governments are unsafe, according to the same article in The New York Times. Public water systems are currently being maintained or rebuilt at an annual cost budgeted at $850 million, only a small fraction of the $11-billion-per-year outlay recommended by the engineering community.

Humankind can learn from past errors to prepare for natural catastrophes. The 1900 storm that devastated Galveston, Texas (killing between 6,000 and 12,000 people), led to the construction of a higher, thicker, granite-block-based seawall 17 kilometers long. Galveston sits on a barrier island 2 to 3 meters above sea level. After the catastrophe, the entire city was raised 2 meters. Buildings were jacked up onto stilts and the space beneath was filled in with sand.

Similarly, the Dutch, devastated by a Feb. 1, 1953, storm that collapsed the levee system in 500 places and drowned 1,800 people, vowed to reengineer their country, where more than 60 percent of the population of 16 million lives below sea level. They constructed a massive system of dams, sea walls and sluices, maintained at an annual cost of $500 million — a fraction of a percent of Katrina's havoc.

But neither Galveston nor the Netherlands are appropriate models for a future New Orleans. Galveston was deliberately rebuilt mainly as a tourist and entertainment site. Commerce was wisely transferred to Houston, which remains the banking, medical, educational and industrial capital of the Gulf. The Dutch had no alternative; Belgium and adjacent France were not for sale. Realism sometimes triumphs, however. Pompeii, Carthage and Babylon correctly were left in ruins. We're not even sure where Atlantis lies!

Nevertheless, we are now swamped with expensive proposals for a new New Orleans. The New York Times on Sept. 10 included a variety of suggestions from Bruce Babbitt (“Make it an Island”), Craig E. Colten (“Restore the Marsh”) and Henry Petroski (“Raise the Ground”). One plan entails construction of floodgate-protected drainage channels, a new major ship channel, huge sea gates shielding Lake Pontchartrain from inrushing Gulf storm surges and revitalization of the city's levee and pump systems.

So, do we rebuild New Orleans, as we foolishly rebuild on the Outer Banks of North Carolina? Relocating the restaurants, jazz venues, hotels, restaurants and other businesses 100 kilometers upstream, and leaving only the port and refinery facilities in place, is more sound geologically, but probably not practical politically or socially. Reconstructing the city where it is presently centered will require substantial reengineering of the levee system and restoration of the surrounding barrier islands and marshes.

I don't think this will end happily, especially in light of the recent discussion that increases in both the frequency and intensity of hurricanes may be closely linked to natural ocean circulation cycles and (arguably) global warming (see story, this issue). Ellen Ruppel Shell, in The Washington Post on Sept. 4, was right: “Americans insist on defying nature…. the efforts we have made over the years with channels and levees and other great feats of engineering can contribute to greater catastrophes… . Katrina has sent us a sweeping message about learning to live with, instead of combating nature.”

I love hurricane cocktails, jazz in Preservation Hall and beignets at Café du Monde. Chefs at Antoine’s, Brennan’s and the Commander’s Palace helped me reach my target cholesterol level of 300! I’d love a viable New Orleans to reappear, but doubt that is a sensible wish.

Schwab is a geology professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. E-mail:


"Global climate affects storms?," Geotimes, December 2005.

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