August 22, 2019

Is There a Future for New Orleans?

“Just over a month into the 2019 hurricane season, New Orleans is already flooding. The Mississippi River is 10 feet higher than usual for this time of year and the arrival of Tropical Storm Barry from the Gulf of Mexico threatens to build the river’s surge to 20 feet, enough to overflow the sodden city’s levees on Saturday. Some New Orleans streets were under four feet of water by Wednesday, half a week before the downpour’s peak.

The National Weather Service says Barry’s effects may be “unprecedented,” a designation that had a lot more power to shock a couple of decades ago. These days it seems like unprecedented floods are nothing so much as normal. Maryland’s Ellicott City, where stormwater surges down Main Street’s charming, historic, death trap of a man-made gulch, has 1,000-year storms with a ruinous frequency. Houston suffered in 2017; Washington this past week threatened to literally submerge in its usually metaphorical swamp.

But New Orleans is a special case, both because of the lasting trauma of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and because so much of the city is uniquely vulnerable. About half of New Orleans is below sea level, and it’s sinking. The soil is soft, and unwise development choices shifting water drainage patterns have made it unstable. Then there’s the river, five feet above a rising ocean. New Orleans has flood defenses, but they “can’t stop rain falling from the sky,” so the city “fills up like a bowl.””

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