Swamped city: New Orleans and nature

July 13, 2005

At least once every hurricane season, the city of New Orleans finds itself in the national spotlight. Each time a major Gulf hurricane edges its way toward the mouth of the Mississippi, media from around the country descend on the city to capture footage of residents boarding up, packing up and preparing to face off against the worst nature has to offer.

Indeed, such scenes have played out on numerous occasions throughout the city's long history, and coping with nature has become second nature to the citizens of New Orleans. As LSU Geography Professor Craig Colten discusses in his new book, "An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature," the city, which sits well below sea level and is virtually surrounded by water, has been profoundly affected by its precarious location and the wetland environment from which it emerged.

"It basically tells the story of New Orleans as a place that was an ill-suited site to become a major metropolitan area, and how, for centuries, humans have struggled to convert, reshape and manipulate it into a place that could support a major population," Colten said of the book.

In the book, which is published by LSU Press, Colten covers a period from around 1800 to modern times, tracing the efforts by residents and government to "modify" New Orleans' natural environment. Perhaps the greatest challenge city leaders faced during this time period, Colten said, was water.

"The primary concern was how to deal with excess water, both in the form of the river and in the wetlands in the back of the city," he said.

Early in the 19th century, the Mississippi River was a primary source of flooding in the city, and the book describes the engineering efforts that slowly, but largely successfully, dealt with this problem.

"The river presented a hazard in terms of flooding, and I wanted to examine how society dealt with that and organized itself to begin building a barrier - a barrier that needed to be extended far beyond the city of New Orleans," he said. "How do you orchestrate that?"

Colten said that, in the early years, the construction costs were put off on to the local farmers and those who owned property, as all were responsible for building their own levees. Later, the state took over, creating "levee districts" to supervise and control the process, and, ultimately, the responsibility was passed on to the federal government.

"Exporting the costs of flood protection to the larger social unit provided the means to afford the huge costs of dealing with floods," Colten said.

Nevertheless, controlling the river didn't put an end to the city's flooding problems. After 1865 or so, Colten pointed out, the worst flooding in New Orleans came not from the river, but from Lake Pontchartrain.

"Before they built levees along the lakefront, they would sometimes have cold fronts blow in during the winter months, pushing water up Bayou St. John and flooding the low areas of the city," he explained. "These happened frequently up through the 1890s."

Colten's book also makes note of the social impacts or implications of the city's flooding problems.

"Oftentimes, the flooding tended to impact the poorest neighborhoods the most - not because floods are selective, but because people with the fewest resources tend to live in the most flood-prone areas where no one else wanted to live," he said. "Meanwhile, the wealthy would live uptown or up on the natural levee."

In addition to the various flooding issues, Colten said that the problem of what to do about the city's wet, swampy land was a key concern among city residents and officials.

"After the city was ringed in levees, people began asking: How do we pump the water out?" Colten said. "Massive amounts of federal money have gone into simply draining the city."

In the 19th century, Colten explained, public health officials believed that swamp lands were a source of fumes, or "miasmas," that caused disease. Thus, they believed that they needed to somehow remove excess water from the city, and this task proved to be a difficult one.

"Draining or removing wetlands from the city was a great challenge - one that is still a problem today," he said.

Early on, Colten said, city leaders attempted to control the excess water by imposing laws to control the dumping of sewage. He said they initially attempted to force individuals and business to find ways to send their sewage out of the city by routing it into the river. These efforts led to the creation of a "metropolitan style" system of drainage and sewage.

Organizations were also created to help tackle drainage and sewage problems. One such organization was the New Orleans Flushing Committee, whose members would go out in the evenings to hook up hoses to hydrants and "flush" the streets to get rid of muck and sewage.

Colten said that state and local public health organizations were also charged with developing plans for city drainage, in an effort to reduce the incidence of outbreaks of environmental diseases such as yellow fever. In the 19th century, he said, experts believed that swarms of mosquitos were a harbinger of yellow fever outbreaks, because, while they recognized a connection between the two, they were unaware that mosquitos actually carried the disease.

Colten also writes about how, through the years, attitudes about New Orleans' physical environment have changed. He cites efforts in the modern era to accept and even celebrate New Orleans' unusual natural surroundings.

"Now there are all kinds of efforts to bring the wetlands back into the city," said Colten, pointing out the example of the Audubon Zoo's large Louisiana swamp exhibit. "This is, in part, because people realize that wetlands serve functions that weren't recognized in the 19th century, such as helping to protect the city and coastline and serving as a wildlife habitat. They can also provide an educational experience for kids in the city who can't get out to see things like the Atchafalaya basin."

He added that there are now more than 20,000 acres of federally protected wetlands within the city limits.

In addition to the history of the city's flood control and wetland efforts, the book also addresses the larger topic of how nature and the environment play an important role in how cities function and take shape. Colten said that this is an idea geographers have often overlooked when it comes to their study of cities.

"One of the central tenets of geographers for many years is that cities were simply human environments, devoid of the natural environment," said Colten. "However, in the case of New Orleans, there was a constant interaction with the environment - every major effort in the city had to do with the environment in some way, shape or form."

Louisiana State University

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