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August 31, 2005

New Orleans -- we gambled and lost

The scale is different, of course, but building a city where New Orleans sits is akin to building a fine new house exactly at the point where the Rock and Mississippi run together -- when the rivers are low.

Actually, it's worse. Most of New Orleans is below sea level, and the sea is very close. So is Lake Pontchartrain, 40 miles long and 24 miles wide. The Mississippi, carrying half a continent worth of water, runs through the middle of a town so low that it stores its dead above ground.

Other than that, it's a fine place to build a great city, one to control the mouth of a river that would carry half a continent's worth of goods to market.

So, being the optimistic, can-do bunch that we humans are, the city was built.

A French company headed by Scotsman John Law launched the effort in 1717. Though much of the work had to be re-done a couple of times because of hurricanes (fair warning), New Orleans was a fact within five or six years.

But Law and his investors were ahead of their time. Losing money, they ceded the area back to the King of France, who -- playing European politics -- gave it to Spain in 1763, which gave it back to Napoleon-ruled France in 1802. Napoleon, needing war money, sold it and much of its drainage to the United States for a song in 1803.

The British tried to take it from the U.S. in 1814, but were beaten off by Andrew Jackson, who rode the ensuing wave of fame into the White House. The city became a part of the Confederate States of America in 1861, but Abraham Lincoln, apparently more aware of its strategic value than was Jefferson Davis, dispatched a huge fleet against the lightly defended city and it was back in Union hands within a year.

Through it all -- wars, economic ups and downs, the floods, the hurricanes and the waves of swamp-fed disease -- the city grew and grew, into one of the world's great ports and most cosmoplitan places.

But it's always been a gamble, and New Orleans just shot craps for about six times in a row.

First Katrina, the direct damage of which would have been, relatively speaking, not that big a deal. But the levee system, reflecting 285 years worth of knowledge and effort, failed. The surrounding water is pouring into the city as though it were a bathtub. The water system is out of commission, as are the sewers and the electricity. Looters roam the streets, hauling off their prizes through chest-deep water contaminated by God knows what. Total evacuation looms.

It will prove to be the greatest disaster ever to befall any large American city. Grievous as was the wound inflicted on New York by 9/11, it left a functioning city in its wake. New Orleans no longer functions and won't for a good long time.

One can only be thankful that the Rev. Pat Robertson, having recently gotten creamed for talking stupid, will probably spare us his views on why God decided to destroy the city.

It wasn't God, of course. It was us. We gambled, and we lost.

But we'll be back at the table soon enough, optimistic, piling up more chips. It is, after all, a fine place to build a great city.

Posted by jcb at August 31, 2005 01:23 PM


Very well written, John. Thanks again for an insightful look at today's world.

Posted by: Chris Hendrickx at August 31, 2005 05:29 PM

Nice article John. What I hope comes of this though is the major industry and business center of NOLA shifts to somewhere else like Baton Rouge, leaving the original town a large tourist attraction.


It's good to see that, the evening after the hurricane strikes, our great leader is hunkered down and working on the myriad of problems this hurricane has presented the US with.

I get paid tomorrow and as much as I can give will go to the Red Cross and Second Harvest.


Posted by: t at August 31, 2005 11:26 PM

For once, I agree with t---your article in the Dispatch today was A+. It was intelligent and measured, rather than the hysteria in the national press. The Hartford CT paper is complaining that tax dollars should not be used to help people rebuild in risky areas---sound familiar?

Many are using Katrina to ride their personal hobbyhorses: Kyoto, Iraq, Bush Derangement Syndrome, etc. The most improbably article I saw about Bush-Bashing for Katrina was from Clinton operative, Sid Blumenthal, who somehow managed to work in the lack of condoms in Uganda to Bush and Katrina. You can't make this stuff up!

The most interesting article was in NYTimes today by David Brooks, who wrote about how natural catastrophies from Johnstown Flood to the NO flood of 1927 have caused "political disturbances". Katrina's political disturbances are still to come says Brooks. Here's the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/01/opinion/01brooks.html

But back to the Dispatch, mad props to Kurt Allmeier for his Gas Prices 101 article and to whoever chose the AP photo that appeared on the front page of Nureka Jacobs. From other blogs I know about the massive amounts of photos that come over the AP wire, and whoever chose this one, "done good".

Today, the Dispatch earned it's $200.

Posted by: paladin at September 1, 2005 01:21 PM

t, using the moment to re-think New Orleans would be great, but I'm entirely pessimistic that it will happen. The task would require great vision and sound execution, both of which are most apparent in their absence among what passes for leadership these days, at all levels of government.

The descent of New Orleans into anarchy is but one sad measure of leadership's failures. The details, as they emerge over the next several weeks, will leave people of reason shaking in anger and/or despair.

Posted by: jcb at September 1, 2005 04:18 PM

Which side of the Quad cities is built on the flood plain? Its the Illinois side isn't it? I forget.

Posted by: DownLeft at September 2, 2005 11:07 AM

Both sides, actually.

But, less so, on both sides. The drive here for 30 years or so has been to open the riverfront. Largely successful. If you haven't been around lately, come ride our great riverfront bikepaths, which stetch the length of every quad city, and a few other cities as well.

Buyouts of floodplain residential properties is proceeding as money permits.

With some exceptions (that casino hotel in Davenport for one big one) new building is retreating from the riverfront. Overall, the longterm trend, floodplain wise, is pretty sound.

Posted by: jcb at September 2, 2005 02:44 PM