City pays high price for long-ago error

Hazards of flooding ignored in 1700s when New Orleans laid out

Katrina' Wake

August 31, 2005|By Kevin Sack | Kevin Sack,LOS ANGELES TIMES

In 1718, French colonist Jean Baptiste LeMoyne de Bienville ignored his engineers' warnings about the hazards of flooding and mapped a settlement in a pinch of swampland between the mouth of the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico and a massive lake to the north.

Ever since, the water has both sustained New Orleans and perpetually threatened it. Somehow, until this week, the mystique of the water had always washed away the foreboding of disaster, as if carrying the city's worries downstream. That was true even early Monday morning, when Hurricane Katrina's last-minute veer to the east convinced many New Orleans residents they had once again eluded the Fates.

But when the rainfall brought by Katrina breached levees and overwhelmed the city's pumping stations, the catastrophic consequences of Bienville's miscalculation could no longer be ignored.

New Orleans, a city that has struggled to keep its head above water, physically and economically, is now a city submerged.

City officials estimated that 80 percent of the town was under standing water yesterday, with some areas beneath as much as 20 feet. Water coursed through the French Quarter, one of the highest points in a city that is largely below sea level.

In broad swaths, the flooding submerged low-lying neighborhoods up to the rooftops and left one of America's most enchanting cities a sodden ruin.

For locals, it is a cruel paradox. The water that has given New Orleans its very life - its commerce, its cuisine, even the meandering flow of its daily pace - has now rendered their beloved city almost unrecognizable.

The charming quirks of its geography - like the practice of entombing the dead above ground because high water tables make burial a short-term proposition - may no longer seem so charming. The water, cherished by Bienville for potential to open the region to commerce, has now all but strangled access. Bridges and causeways are shredded and city streets, already heavily pockmarked, are buried in debris.

"The river gives and the river basically takes away," said novelist Richard Ford, who lived in New Orleans with his wife, a former city planner, until last year. "There really isn't a vocabulary that I have access to that describes this. And as always, it's the least able to recover from this disaster who will suffer most intensely."

Ford, like other New Orleans devotees, said it is a facet of the city's famed insularity that residents manage to avert their attention from impending disaster.

"If you live in New Orleans," he said, "you've decided that whatever it is about that city that you like is more important than whatever anxiety you feel."

Curtis Wilkie, an author and journalism professor who has lived in the French Quarter for 12 years, said he has always found a sense of comfort in the water around him.

"It's always been part of the attraction of New Orleans - the river and the lake and the Gulf," he said. "Whatever peril there was, it was outweighed by the charm of the city. But there's no city in America that has quite the relationship with water that we do. And everybody knew that this was a potential disaster."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.