Living with WaterPrint
On Katrina’s tenth anniversary, the city enters a new relationship with water
By Wayne Curtis
August 27, 2015
A number of report cards have been issued by media outlets and think tanks leading up to the 10th anniversary of Katrina on Saturday. Subjects include Urban Crime (New Orleans gets a D+), Flood Engineering (B-), Housing and Redevelopment (C), and Cultural Preservation (A-).
Then there’s Aquatic Appreciation, where I’d award the city an “incomplete.”
Much about New Orleans surprised me when I moved here nine years ago, but perhaps nothing so much as the omnipresence of water. I knew the city was surrounded by surface water, of course—the Mississippi River, the various canals for drainage and navigation, the “lakes” that are actually coastal inlets and marsh.
But I didn’t quite realize how much water existed below and above the city. Below, the water table is the local version of bedrock; this is a city literally built on water. In much of America, if you dig down a few feet you hit rock. Here, you strike water. Basements are strange, magical things rumored to exist in the north. In New Orleans, the rumpus room is the street.
From above pour epic rains. When I experienced my first eight-inch rainfall in an afternoon, I was running around frantically thinking “ark” until I was calmed by my neighbors, who were all very blasé about it. Since about half of the city is below sea level, heavy rains pool in low neighborhoods and take some time to be pumped out. (The city can pump an inch the first hour, and a half-inch each subsequent hour.) So “street flooding” is akin to “blizzard snows” when I lived in Maine. We’re inconvenienced for a time, but then things get back to normal in a day or two. (Something I never saw in Maine: homeowners standing shin-deep in flooded streets pleading for cars to slow down, essentially creating an urban no-wake zone. Turns out, the small wakes can lap into homes, and a few miles per hour is the difference between having to replace a carpet or not.)
Historically, the city reached an early if uneasy detente with its water. The natural levees along the Mississippi River were raised and strengthened immediately after settlement in 1718, a process that has never ceased. But New Orleanians also understood that the levees would periodically fail and water would inundate the low spots. So they built on higher ground, and they later built homes atop brick piers. Floodwaters came, floodwaters went. All good.
Then a monumental, citywide pumping system was constructed at the end of the 19th century. It was a technological marvel that set the stage for hubris, which fully flowered in the 1940s. Cypress swamps were drained for housing. Homes were built on slabs rather than piers. And the whole region was honeycombed with drab concrete walls and canals to rush water out of the city expeditiously. It all seemed very modern and efficient.
Until Katrina. Not only did cracks appear in the city’s floodwall defense, but the city also started to view it skeptically, as the hubristic exercise it is. Instead of fighting water, several asked, why not find ways to work with it?
The most prominent advocates for changing the city’s troubled relationship with water have been those involved in the Dutch Dialogues. This was conceived by the local architectural and planning firm of Waggoner and Ball, which thought the city had much to learn from how the Netherlands, which is 20 percent below sea level, managed its relationship with water. A series of trips and workshops, cosponsored by the Royal Netherlands Embassy and the American Planning Association, brought together Dutch and American architects, urban designers, landscape architects, soils experts, and others to learn from one another. This dialogue has been supported by Greater New Orleans Inc., an influential regional economic development agency. In late 2013, this consortium issued a 223-page document, a “vision for long-term urban water management in the 21st century, and effectively the first regional urban water plan of its kind in the United States.”
The broad idea is to meld urban planning and water management rather than allow them to operate on separate tracks. “For a region built on swampland between river and lake, water is remarkably hard to find,” the group noted. ”Most of the region’s canals and other waterways provide little value as spaces for public life. The water infrastructure that exists today is in many places unsightly and dangerous. Cheaply constructed outfall pipes poke out from canal banks, ditches are often dry or smothered with weeds, water stagnates, and trash-strewn channels block access between neighborhoods.”
Among the central notions: let the water flow more naturally and attractively—rather than confine storm water to sewer-like outfall canals and underground tunnels, create parks and other urban resources around these open waterways. After all, in most cities water is an attraction—harbors and riverfront are where people congregate and cluster.
New Orleans was once laced with canals, but many were filled in and replaced by streets or railways when the modes of commerce changed. Some could be reopened, with homes or businesses built alongside. (See: Amsterdam.) Existing canals could be better integrated into the city’s fabric, becoming assets rather than liabilities.
What it comes down to is teaching the city to “live with water”—a phrase that’s heard often from advocates—rather than giving water the bum’s rush, as if it were an embarrassing and vaguely menacing uncle.
Living with water is an essential idea if New Orleans is to survive, and is as vital as restoring the coastal marshes that provide protection. Action needs to be taken if the city is to be anything more than an eerie relic visited by tour boat in a century’s time. The idea has generated some discussion, but it appears mostly mired in academia and other insular circles. And there’s little evidence that the city’s attitude toward water has been broadly recast.
Yet, it’s one of the grander and more compelling ideas to emerge in the decade since Katrina. Right now, however, it remains an excellent idea awaiting an embrace from city residents and policy makers, like a syllabus without a classroom.
Until it moves from idea to Instagram, consider it “incomplete.”
Wayne Curtis is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails and The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk from New York to San Francisco and Why It Matters Today. He has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Imbibe, The Daily Beast, and Garden & Gun, among other publications.