Katrina Plus Ten: September 12, Landfall + 14 : What Kind of City Will New Orleans Become?
Ten years ago, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Louisiana Gulf Coast. What followed was a disaster of unparalleled magnitude in recent United States history, an event and its aftermath that forever changed ideas about urban resilience, the relationships between cities and the water bodies on which they are located, the roles of race and class in disaster response, even whether some cities in vulnerable locations should even be restored after disaster struck. The Mississippi River was almost an afterthought during and immediately after the storm; the river itself did not flood the city and the most damaging levee breaches occurred in other locations. Nevertheless, we feel that serious, sustained examination of the relationships between communities, water systems, urban space, and lived experience in the 21st century should start with at least a rudimentary examination of Katrina and its aftermath.
This is the third of ten blog posts examining crucial facets of the online coverage a decade after the storm.
By this point, two weeks after Katrina made landfall in southern Louisiana, the immediate humanitarian emergency had largely receded from the headlines. The people sheltered in the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center had been moved to other locations. Reports of shots being fired all over the city had dwindled, and people, from whatever vantage point their circumstances could allow, could ask themselves “Now what?”
An estimated 40% of the city remained underwater, a reminder to many that, whatever else happened, there needed to be some reckoning with the city’s location. The city was founded in 1718 along the lower Mississippi River, and for decades natural levees kept the water more or less at bay. Geographer Richard Campanella writes that city leaders and engineers consistently saw the city’s survival as a battle with water, both from the river and from Lake Pontchartrain to the north. Essentially, the city was treated as a giant bowl, higher ground closer to the water and reclaimed swamp land forming lower neighborhoods established more recently. The priority was to keep water out, necessitating a vast and complex system of levees, gates, and canals.
It was this system that broke during Katrina, leading to a reconsideration of how to rebuild to protect a city, much of which lay below sea level.
A number of articles associated with the storm’s tenth anniversary have pointed out the change in urban philosophy that is embodied in the city’s new water plan. Called “Living With Water,” and highlighting the changed relationship signified by the preposition “with,” the plan was developed in close consultation with Dutch engineers and urban planners and designers, many of whom have decades of experience at designing human landscapes that take the presence of water for granted. It’s still too early to tell exactly how the plan will shape the future footprint of the city, but its very existence points to one of the enduring “positive” legacies of Katrina: if New Orleans truly can come to terms with its proximity to water, those lessons may well be very important models for other coastal cities as a changing climate causes seas to rise.
Innovations in urban design are one thing; characterizing the rebuilding of a city and the systems that make up the structure of daily life as an “experiment” is quite another. There was a lot of talk after the storm about New Orleans becoming a “laboratory” for rebuilding school systems, transportation systems, political and community engagement systems, and on and on. The pushback was immediate from black and poor residents who pointed out the long sordid history of “experimentation” on the poor and people of color. A well-detailed story from CityLab, the Atlantic’s urban-oriented site details how the city was, and remains, an “experimental site” to many reformers, well-meaning and otherwise.