Don't blame nature for this disaster

September 04, 2005|By Ari Kelman

WITH HIS hometown under as much as 20 feet of water in places and little relief in sight, New Orleans' former mayor, Marc Morial, probably should be excused for saying, "We're looking at the worst natural disaster in American history."

And yet what we're witnessing, most of us secondhand, along the Gulf Coast is not natural so much as a product of a combination of bad decisions, willful disregard for environmental limits, and hubris. The disaster, in sum, is human-constructed, even if the hurricane was natural (and even that is not certain, given the current state of climate science).

Before the shouts of outrage become too loud, let me explain.

As many people now know, New Orleans sits well below sea level and the Mississippi River is its western boundary. Lake Pontchartrain lies at the city's rear, also high above New Orleans. As a result, from its earliest period of European settlement in the early 18th century, engineers struggled to build artificial levees to keep water out of town.

To understand the awe-inspiring results, you have to imagine a bowl, with a raised rim, sitting in a pool of water. New Orleans sits inside that bowl, looking up at its levees and the river and lake beyond. Water is poised above the city, waiting for a chance to flow, as gravity demands, down the slope and into town.

Unfortunately, in raising the levees, as so often happens with technological fixes to complicated environmental dilemmas, generations of engineers made another problem even worse. Again, because the city sits below the level of the nearby lake and river, there is almost no natural drainage in New Orleans. So as the levees grew higher, this hydrological problem became even more severe.

Today, any water that falls into New Orleans must eventually be carried over the levees by a system of enormous pumps, many of which were constructed about a century ago. This is all well and good, or at least tolerable - unless, as has happened since Hurricane Katrina struck, the levees, pumps or both fail. Then a city that has expanded steadily for nearly 300 years, gobbling up what used to be wetlands, fills with water, which has nowhere to go.

So it is that New Orleans can't wring itself out now. It is a tragic and horrifying situation, but it is not natural in origin.

Why, then, does this point matter? Surely New Orleans has suffered enough that its former mayor should be allowed a bit of leeway to make a time-honored mistake in his phrasing, really more of a clichM-i than an error of intellect or analysis. But words have consequences. Mr. Morial is just one among many politicians and pundits calling New Orleans' woes "natural."

To make such a claim is to deflect blame from where it lies, from those people - engineers, politicians, business people - who have made the decisions over time, no matter how well-intentioned, that have brought New Orleans to this precarious place. Calling Katrina's aftermath and the devastation of the city natural lays the blame at the feet of the nonhuman world, suggesting that nothing could have been done to prevent the catastrophe.

Nature, whatever we might mean when we use that complicated word, surely is powerful enough to bear this burden; I don't worry on nature's behalf. Instead, I worry for the people who were evacuated from the Superdome and bused to the Astrodome in Houston. I worry for the people who have lost loved ones and who won't be able to return home to begin rebuilding their lives for what might be months. I worry for the residents of a city that still lies in harm's way and might not grapple with the precariousness of its position so long as it has nature to blame for its problems.

People must accept responsibility if New Orleans is to be safer in the future.

Ari Kelman teaches history at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans.

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