New Orleans brings to mind several images dominated of course by the debauchery-riddled and flamboyant Mardi Gras. But death, destruction, despair, and desolate landscapes are far from your mind. The city stands on a rich cultural heritage and although (ecologically) as I argue, the city should not exist; it not only does but also prospers and throbs with urban vibrancy. However behind the glitz and glamour of the chic French Quarter with its colonial architectural trimmings lived one of America’s poorest cities. Crime was rampant and racial divisions were never more pronounced. I had stopped over for a night while traveling to Texas last year just before Katrina hit so it was an immensely sad experience to see a city shaken at its very foundations. We talked to a local architect who had nothing but frustration and disgust writ all over his countenance over the rest of the country’s apathy. And rightly so too. People seemed to have forgotten that this is just the beginning and the worst might be lurking behind the next hurricane.
The basin of the world’s third largest river (after Nile and Amazon), New Orleans and much of Louisiana stands on unstable ground that constantly changes its geographic form every thousand years. The mouth of the Mississippi has moved left and right since forever and it continually seeks to do so. But it finds itself restricted and controlled by the sub-standard levee system (the Dutch do it better). New Orleans is famously known to exist below sea level and if you look at the cross-section of the city, you will see a great depression in a bowl-like fashion protected by feeble contraptions erected by man. In spite of many warnings by scientists and climatologists, stubbornness of American people (in the region) often mistaken as resilience failed to inspire any preventive action. The result – Hurricane Katrina literally exposed the dangers of human impact on marshlands by destroying nearly 80% of the city. Levees snapped like twigs and all talk of their engineering prowess was muted.
We walked through the Ninth Ward and even after six months we could see destruction and wrecked home as far as our eyes could see. It is almost that this part of town has been declared a ghost town and no cares to rebuild. The catch however might be that probably the best option is not to rebuild. Easier said than done; this area was inhabited by mostly low-income people because no one else wanted to live on ‘that’ side of the town. The low-income people also happen to be mostly African-American so the issue of not rebuilding slowly transcends from that of rational thinking to resolving issues of social and racial equity. Can we genuinely deny these people from coming back? If we can stop them from living in this vulnerable location, where do we put them? Of course, New Orleans needs people who can work low-end jobs at the bars, restaurants, grocery stores and those people cannot live in flood-safe areas occupied by the middle- and upper-class residents. So technically, the low-income people have a choice of living in flood-prone areas that are cheap to build in but face risks of destruction almost every year or not living in New Orleans at all. So will New Orleans exist as an urban space without its share of poor people that are needed (relative and in an economic sense) in a society? Probably not; no matter how much the upper class of New Orleans citizenry secretly wishes. Hence my conclusion that New Orleans may or must not exist in its current urban form; it should either drastically evolve to live sustainably and densely so as to reduce its ecological footprint in a worsening ecosystem or in a worst-case scenario, count its losses, cherish its history, pack up and move on.
Cities have died before either gradually due to economic or social decline or suddenly due to natural cataclysmic changes. Our capacity to absorb havoc wrecked by nature might have increased and it might take one heck of a natural disaster to wipe off a city especially in a developed nation. As I mentioned, the next hurricane season is expected to be worse and so will be subsequent seasons; natural processes or global warming – the consequences are similar. If at all we choose to rebuild, the way we do it will be paramount in testing the hypothesis that man learns from history. Sadly, I think that we often prove that hypothesis wrong.