The Case for the Greater New Orleans Area: Why We Matter and Why We Should Exist.

After multiple hurricanes, severe flooding, staggering death tolls, expensive rebuilding price tags, and the likes, the critiques that New Orleans shouldn’t exist, be rebuilt, or similar sentiments, are gaining traction.  As Isaac just passed, people are voicing these opinions. Glenn Beck epitomizes this sentiment:

“I find it hard to feel sorry for New Orleans.” … “We should just walk away from that city. Why are we there?” … “I’m not sure if we should bother rebuilding it.” … “Why are we spending all this money in New Orleans? We shouldn’t spend a single dime of tax-payer money.” … “How much do I think should be spent on New Orleans? Zero. Nothing. Not a dime.” … “The Big Easy is a lost cause.”

So many from all over the political spectrum and various walks of life agree.  A lot less crazy people than Beck, as well.  These opinions may sound rational on the surface, but deeper analysis exposes its simplicity and absurdity.  I write this in a coffee shop, because my house has no electricity due to Hurricane Isaac, in an area that was obliterated by Hurricane Katrina. And less than ten minutes away from me houses in Braithwaite, Plaquemines Parish, are completely submerged.  Here’s my case:

Cities at Risk

New Orleans is nowhere near as much at risk to the problems we face and will face compared to other global cities.  According to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the rise of sea levels put multiple U.S. cities ahead of New Orleans in terms of risk.  The most at risk city in the world is Miami, followed closely by New York City and Newark.  Even around the world, the OECD puts Chinese cities Shanghai, Guangzhou, Tianjin, Hong Kong, and Ningbo more at risk than New Orleans.  Kolkata, Mumbai, Tokyo, and Bangkok were also ahead of New Orleans on the list.  So the notion that New Orleans is the most doomed city in the world and should simply be abandoned is unfounded.  In order for such sentiment to be logical, one must conclude that these cities should not exist as well, even more so than New Orleans.  If not, the hierarchy of what cities deserve the “right to exist” is illogical.  Nonetheless, who determines such a decision anyway?

Cities around the world are at risk from all sorts of disasters.  If you live in an earthquake prone area, you build infrastructure to withstand heavy earthquakes.  Dozens of cities around the globe and in the U.S., like San Francisco and Los Angeles, are built on fault lines. Unfortunately, if you do not build up to a certain code, for whatever reason, an earthquake could be disastrous.  We witnessed this in the Haitian Earthquake of 2010, where over 300,000 people died and over a million were left homeless.  That earthquake registered a 7.0 on the Richter scale. However, in Chile, an earthquake in the same year registering at 8.8 hit the country, but the death toll and damage did not even compare to Haiti.  This is thanks to Chile’s seismic building code adapted by Salvador Allende in 1972.  The logic is the same with cities along the coast.

Sea Level

Many who make the argument that New Orleans should not exist due to sea level are missing some vital information needed to maintain consistency.  The average sea level in New Orleans is one to two feet below sea level.  The initial flooding of Hurricane Katrina had nothing to do with sea levels.  It was not a natural disaster, it was an engineering disaster.  It had everything to do with a failed and outdated levee system, purposefully built weak and unmaintained to save money (something I will elaborate on later).  A recent study from Xavier and Tulane shows that more of New Orleans is above sea level rather than below.  Many places that flooded during Katrina were above sea level, including the Lower 9th Ward.  Many of the most populated neighborhoods in New Orleans are above sea level: the French Quarter, Uptown (up to 20 feet above sea level in some instances), the Marigny, Bywater, Treme, City Park (which has the highest point of 27.5 feet), etc. Many places around the world that are well above sea level flood.  In 2008, a levee breached in Fernley, Nevada, which led up to almost 3,500 residents requiring emergency rescue as water reached up to six feet.  Fernley is a soaring 4,200 feet above sea level.

An area can be below sea level while being heavily protected.  24% of Holland is below sea level, yet the area remains dry due to an incredibly well-built levee system.  Rotterdam, Netherlands, contains areas of the city some 22 feet below sea level, while the lowest part of New Orleans is seven feet (New Orleans East).  The Port of Rotterdam is the largest and busiest port in Europe, and second in the world.  Places around the world, from Israel to China and India to Germany, have areas with lower elevations than New Orleans.  The success of Rotterdam proves that such a feat is possible if done correctly.  It also proves the sea level argument is overly simplistic and not well researched.

Levees and Pumping System

Another typical argument centers on the selfish notion that tax-dollars should not go to pay for levees or pumping systems that protect other people, primarily in a place like New Orleans.  Many major cities around the world require sophisticated pumping systems to stay dry, from New York City to London, which has some of the largest and most refined pumping stations in the world.  These people fail to realize that 43% of the U.S. population lives in a county/parish that depends on federally funded levees to stay dry, according to the report “The National Levee Challenge: Report of the Interagency Levee Policy Review Committee” by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  28 states require levees.  To deny New Orleans levees seems outright insensitive and unsympathetic.

Before we continue, the main purpose of this article is not about Hurricane Katrina, but so many naysayers point to the event as evidence why New Orleans is a pointless cause, so myths surrounding it must be addressed and squashed.  Many of our levees are built due to the fact that the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) built canals through our neighborhoods and the wetlands for oil and shipping industries to shorten the route to the Gulf of Mexico.  They put profit over people and the people protested it.  The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) was built in the ‘60s to help cargo ships reach the Gulf quicker.  The local residents, especially in St. Bernard Parish, protested it from the start, rejecting the notion that it would bring economic booms (which it never did).  I remember as a kid going over the bridge that crosses the Industrial Canal, or the “Green Bridge,” and seeing my father point in the general direction of MRGO and saying that if it does not close, it is going to drown us.

The MRGO mixed fresh water with salt water, which caused massive wetland erosion further eradicating our natural barriers against hurricanes, grew wider than the Panama Canal, caused us millions for dredging purposes, and was hardly used.  In 2005, the MRGO caused massive flooding in the 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish, and funneled water to other canals connected to it which led to the flooding of Lakeview, the New Orleans East, and other areas of the city.  The flooding did not come from the Mississippi River, but the canals undemocratically built around the city.  After the citizens were proved correct, the government closed the MRGO after Hurricane Katrina.  A little too late after at least 1,836 people lost their lives.  To suggest multinational corporations and the federal government should be allowed to build these canals yet the people who lived here for centuries are not allowed to have protection from those canals is both callous and illogical.

The reason these canals flooded in the first place was due to poorly built levees by the ACOE.  In 1985, the ACOE research branch funded an investigation, dubbed the “E-99” test, and concluded the levees will certainly fail if a major hurricane hits New Orleans.  Feeling it was too expensive; the ACOE did absolutely nothing to fix the situation.  The levee failures ended up costing more than $100 billion in damage, when fixing the levees would’ve just cost millions.  In 2006, the Chief of Engineers for the ACOE, Carl Strock, admitted the ACOE had a “catastrophic failure” in regards to the levees.  He resigned soon after.  In 2009, the ACOE was found guilty for the poorly built levees.  U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval, Jr. stated, “…the corps not only knew, but admitted by 1988, that the MRGO threatened human life… and yet it did not act in time to prevent the catastrophic disaster that ensued with the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina.”

The flooding of New Orleans was an engineering disaster, not a natural one, which could’ve been prevented with properly built and maintained levee and pumping systems.  Unfortunately, the media and politicians continue to say the opposite, despite the overwhelming evidence, even at the highest levels of government.  President Obama stated at one point, “I think that Katrina was really a wake-up call for the country — about our need to fulfill our commitments to our fellow citizens, a recognition that there but for the grace of God go I, that all of us can fall prey to these kinds of natural disasters.”

Many other major cities rely on levees as well: Detroit, Louisville, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Memphis, Baltimore, Kansas City, Portland, Seattle, Honolulu, Washington D.C., Omaha, Jacksonville, Savannah, Albuquerque, Tampa Bay, and especially Sacramento, who has the most at-risk levee system in the U.S.  Why should anyone in New Orleans, or any of these cities, not have functionally levees?

(For more information about New Orleans levees visit http://www.levees.org.)

Port and Economy

Now that we dispelled those myths, we have not even touched on the surface about the positives of New Orleans.  Economically, the Port of New Orleans is one of largest ports in the U.S. based on volume of cargo.  The Port of South Louisiana is the largest port in the Western Hemisphere.  Together, these ports make up one of the largest in the world.  New Orleans enjoys an incredibly strategic position located at the mouth of the Mississippi River, where it is wide enough to maintain intensive traffic.  It is the only deep-water port in the U.S. that serves six railroads and brings in iron, coffee, steel, coal, timber, chemicals, more than half of the nation’s grain exports, etc. to our nation.  If you lose New Orleans, you lose the port that brings us some of our most important supplies and raw materials.

We have other economies that help the U.S.  Metropolitan New Orleans is the center for the U.S. maritime industry.  We supply a significant portion the nation’s oil refining and petrochemical production.  Louisiana ranks 5th in oil production and much of it comes from the New Orleans area.  We are a city of higher learning, with over 50,000 students in the university system.  Our multi-billion dollar tourist industry is massive and one of the largest in the U.S.  We are also home to numerous headquarters for various companies.

Culture

To those from New Orleans, you do not need to read this, as I cannot possibly capture the soul of our culture in this short amount of text.  People wrote books on it and felt unsuccessful.  As Chris Rose, a famous local journalist, once put it:

“I’m not going to lay down in words the lure of this place. Every great writer in the land, from Faulkner to Twain to Rice to Ford, has tried to do it and fallen short. It is impossible to capture the essence, tolerance, and spirit of south Louisiana in words and to try is to roll down a road of clichés, bouncing over beignets and beads and brass bands and it just is what it is. It is home.”

New Orleans has a lure which brings people from all over the world to visit and settle.  My great-grandfather came from Sicily to New Orleans in the early 20th century and could not imagine living elsewhere.  We have some of the best food in the world.  Ever had etouffee, gumbo, jambalaya, shrimp and grits, muffulettas, po-boys, boiled crawfish, raw oysters, beignets, and the likes?   We love to eat, drink loads of alcohol, and have a great time.  We love the outdoors.  Ever rode on a boat and watched the sun come up through swampy trees while listening to the sounds of pure nature? Should I even mention the music or does that go without say?  We have Mardi Gras.  We have eclectic accents spread out around the city.  We have Spanish and French architecture not found in the rest of the U.S.  We are the epitome of a melting pot.  Our history is so extraordinarily rich with tales of success, tragedy, resistance, and triumph.  People are still charming and laid back, giving us the term “The Big Easy”.  It is addicting and captivating, and if you don’t live around here, it might be hard to understand.  But like Mr. Rose so eloquently put it, I won’t “capture the essence” realistically, so why bother continuing?

Perhaps a friend who was not born here can summarize it better:

“I remember seeing New Orleans for the first time when I was 14 and barely able to construct an abstract thought. I remember that moment because I had never in my life experienced a ‘knowing’ that I was about to experience something magical. I LIVE for the strange synchronicity that New Orleans freely gives. I LIVE for stopping on the street to speak to whoever has something to say. I LIVE for New Orleans rhythm… rhythm that is full of life. Both good and bad. New Orleans is ALIVE! And anybody who believes different is a sad individual that has lost their own meaning.”

Conclusion

There are no logical and well thought-out reasons why New Orleans deserves to be left to drown.  It is a city that must and should be protected.  With rising sea levels and waters getting warmer, investing in smart building is the right thing to do, and we know it can be done.  We will continue to rebuild, preserve our heritage, live life to the fullest, and move forward.  It’s going to take a lot to wipe us off the map, and we are not going anywhere anytime soon.  Laissez les bon temps rouler!

-Chris Dier

… we may have our struggles, more than other places in the U.S., but pushing through them demonstrates our love for this area.

“People don’t live in New Orleans because it is easy. They live here because they are incapable of living anywhere else in the just same way.” -Ian McNulty

And as my good friend Amanda Roark puts it, “I’d rather struggle in New Orleans than make it anywhere else.”