Geographical Reflections on the "New" New Orleans in the Post-Hurricane Katrina Era

Article excerpt

People can be forgiven for growing weary of the headline "Hurricane Katrina, the Costliest Natural Disaster in U.S. History." Compassion fatigue has set in among caring people who are desperate for a headline that announces a return to "normal." And then there are the inevitable questions about what the new normal may be, why people would live in such an environmentally endangered place in the first place, and what insanity would cause them to want to rebuild in the same location. The purpose of this brief essay is to comment on what happened to the New Orleans Metropolitan Area, to look at why such a tragedy was hardly unexpected, and to speculate on some of the geographical possibilities of a post-Katrina New Orleans. These comments are by necessity preliminary and incomplete, based on early reports from journalists and researchers and on personal experience.

WHAT HAPPENED?

By the morning of Friday, 26 August, Hurricane Katrina was heading northward into the Gulf of Mexico, with a predicted landfall on the Florida Panhandle. Throughout the day, the projected course of the storm shifted to the west, so that by Friday evening the target zone was approaching the New Orleans area. This was far from the first time that New Orleans had been in the bull's-eye, but earlier storms had veered away from the city at the last minute or turned out to be only a nuisance. This time felt different. Given the category 5 status of the storm--meaning that winds of more than 155 miles per hour and a storm surge generally of at least 18 feet could be expected--and the steering currents guiding it, a growing sense of dread descended on New Orleans that Katrina might be the "Big One."

New Orleans has every reason to fear the Big One. Much of the city lies below sea level and is surrounded by hurricane-protection levees. The only areas above sea level within the city itself are on the natural levees along the Mississippi River, on old river distributaries such as the Gentilly and Metairie Ridges, and on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, much of which is artificially created land. In most of these locations "high ground" is defined as anything above sea level; the truly "alpine" parts of the city rise to about 15 feet next to the river (Figures 1 and 2). The remainder of the city was built by draining wetlands and clearing land for development, which led to soil subsidence and life below sea level for many neighborhoods. Rainstorms are a constant threat; rainwater is removed from below-sea-level areas using 180 miles of canals, 22 pumping stations, and a water-removal capability of 30 billion gallons a day (Campanella 2002; Lewis 2003; Colten 2005; Pittman 2005,12). It has long been feared that the Big One would not only exceed pumping capacities but disable the pumps altogether.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

By Saturday, 27 August, New Orleans was implementing its evacuation plans. All interstate-highway lanes were converted to outbound only to help the hundreds of thousands of motorists who were fleeing the metropolitan area. For those without vehicles, evacuation was much more problematic. Public transportation was extremely limited, if it existed at all. Perhaps 150,000 people either could not evacuate or simply refused to leave (Kent 2005, 3; Renne 2006). Evacuation exacted hardships not only on evacuees but also on the surrounding communities to which evacuees relocated. The city of Baton Rouge swelled to nearly double its population (Dyer 2006); virtually every motel room in southern Mississippi, southern Alabama, eastern Texas, and inland Louisiana was taken; and highway rest stops became makeshift evacuation areas.

On 29 August Katrina made a direct strike on the coast of Mississippi, which experienced massive devastation even though what was initially a category 5 storm had weakened to a strong category 3 by landfall--with winds of 111-130 miles per hour and a storm surge generally of 9-12 feet for a category 3 storm. …