An Ecological Vision for Rebuilding New Orleans
Planning for a cleaner, greener Crescent City.
By Alex Wilson
NASA LANDSAT Project Science Office and USGS National Center for EROS
It is easy to see what led to the catastrophe Hurricane Katrina wrought on
New Orleans: a city of a half-million people at an average elevation of six
feet below sea level; wetlands that have been disappearing for decades for
lack of replacement silt from the Mississippi River’s annual flooding; a city
that has been sinking as its silt soils compress; levees that are designed
to withstand only Category 3 hurricanes in an age when global climate change
appears to be spawning more catastrophic storms; and years of inadequate funding
to maintain even the existing Category 3-rated levees that were built to protect
the Crescent City.
In the aftermath of the devastating late-August storm, discussion is well under
way about what to do next in heavily damaged New Orleans—and in nearby cities
including Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi. New Orleans is the first large
American city to be devastated by a catastrophic event since a mammoth earthquake
and subsequent fires destroyed much of San Francisco in 1906, leaving three-quarters
of its population homeless. Before that, the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 destroyed
a third of that city. From the San Francisco earthquake, we learned to build
structures that were more earthquake resistant, and we instituted seismic
building codes. From Chicago’s fire we learned to replace wood-frame structures
with masonry and steel, and we instituted rigorous fire codes. What will Katrina
In many respects, New Orleans should not be rebuilt in its
present location—a lowland bowl situated between a lake and a river channel
where the largest of America’s rivers forms its delta. There are very good
reasons for accepting the reality that subsiding land, rising sea levels, and
the effect of shipping channels in funneling storm surges into New Orleans make
long-term survival of the city either very doubtful or highly expensive.
Serious consideration should be given to relocating the city to stable land,
either somewhat inland from the coast or farther from the delta, where it can
be better protected. But there’s almost no chance of that happening. New
Orleans will be rebuilt where it is. Our nation has learned a lot in its
200-plus years, but we’re neither that smart nor that bold.
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