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Thoughts On Rebuilding (And Not Rebuilding) New Orleans

September 26, 2005, 5am PDT | Jason Henderson
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Should New Orleans be rebuilt? Whose fault was the flooding? Jason Henderson, Assistant Professor of Geography at San Francisco State University, and a New Orleans native, warns the citizens of his home city that rebuilding all is a bad idea, and that the flooding was an act of public policy failure, not nature.

 Jason Henderson New Orleans is listing, but this was not the "big one." The eye of the storm passed the city to the east. The city did get hit by the infamous storm surge and the waters of Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain inundated much of the city. The levees overtopped, the pumps lost power, and the city was submerged. The breaches came, and the "bowl effect" came into play. The backswamp of East Jefferson, Orleans, and St Bernard, covered in auto-oriented, low-density sprawl, went under. With nowhere to go, the water that flooded the sprawl then flooded older parts of the city.

The storm surges, overtopped and breached levees, and complete submergence of large swaths of greater New Orleans were predicted, modeled, and prophesied for decades. The usual political response was that we need to raise the levees higher and higher, build bigger, better pumps, and spend billions to accommodate the sprawl belt surrounding the city. Now we are hearing the mantra of "rebuild all" with bigger levees and improved pumps. It is important that before the majority of New Orleanians follow the mantra of "rebuild all" that they reflect. They should reflect on why this disaster happened, and why "rebuilding all" is a very bad idea.

What this storm hit was largely American auto-centric sprawl that was largely below sea-level, wrapped by extensive levees, exposed to huge volumes of water, and sinking in the peat of the backswamps. This development pattern, and the resource extraction industries that supported it, created the conditions for this disaster to occur. This was not an act of God, nor a natural disaster -- this was a public policy disaster. New Orleanians need to understand this in order to make well-informed decisions about what and how to rebuild. That means reflecting on public policies towards coastal erosion, the taming of the Mississippi River, sprawl, and sea-level rise due to global warming.

For decades pipeline canals, shipping channels, and oil platform access canals were built willy-nilly across the coastal marsh of Louisiana, giving the oil industry carte blanche to decimate the coastal wetlands that protect New Orleans from storm surges. Public policy kept the Mississippi River bounded in a swift and fast channel that precludes the necessary deposition of mud and silt that built Southeast Louisiana in the first place. This was done for shipping, refining capacity, and real estate development. Siphoning some of the flow of the river to replenish wetlands was considered anathema to free enterprise. Public policy -- not nature, not God.

In the last 60 years, the floodplain around New Orleans sunk by an average of 2-3 feet. The subsidence was especially problematic in difficult-to-drain backswamps. These backswamps are geographically distinctive from the natural levees --like the slither of higher ground along both banks of the Mississippi, where, for example, the French Quarter is located. Incremental filling of the backswamp began in the early 1900's, took off in the 1920's during the first auto-oriented housing boom, and then accelerated rapidly after World War Two, driven by white flight, anti-urbanism, subsidized highways, mortgages, and flood insurance. Metairie, Chalmette, the West Bank, and eventually New Orleans East emerged -- all mostly in backswamp.

 New Orleans Below Sea Level

source: Lousiana State University

The massive levees built to protect this sprawl held the water in, allowing it to fester and stagnate, full of the toxic residue of sprawl -- motor oil, gasoline, lawn fertilizer, and so on. From a design perspective, the sprawl that is submerged looked similar to sprawl in Houston or Atlanta, no different from the sprawl in Dulles or Contra Costa, or Hoffman Estates, or Tempe. Auto dependent, hostile to pedestrians, low density, single detached homes, segregated land uses, segregated incomes and races, full of intrusive billboards, massive expanses of pavement -- the bland generic sprawlscape that engulfs almost every American city. Sprawl has been a national urban policy for at least six decades. This is the face of sprawl in New Orleans today -- a toxic cesspool.

Enough has been said about global warming by the he media. Global warming makes New Orleans even more vulnerable to storms like Katrina.

The disaster in New Orleans should be a national wake-up call to the dangers of ignoring global warming. The national response to this disaster should be to implement public policies that reduce our carbon emissions and direct us to re-orient our cities in an ecologically sustainable and socially just manner.

How to Rebuild?

Public policies centered on resource extraction and auto-centric sprawl largely created this disaster, so it is important to learn from this when rebuilding New Orleans. These are some brief thoughts on approaches to rebuilding New Orleans.

What should not be rebuilt is the sprawl surrounding New Orleans. This includes New Orleans East, Metairie and Kenner [this includes razing what sprawl is currently intact]. Repeat same exercise on the West Bank and in St Bernard Parish. Get the sprawl out of the backswamps and recreate a cypress swamp buffer zone. The removal of the sprawl should be done in a methodical and coordinated manner, and with ecological restoration as first priority. Retreat, replenish, regenerate - and reconstruct the "old" New Orleans.

In New Orleans there is a natural levee of past bayous called the Metairie-Esplanade-Chef Ridge. The city should be reconstructed south of this ridge. Greater New Orleans reconstructed would straddle the Mississippi River on the high natural levee, from the St Charles Parish boarder with Kenner to Chalmette on the East Bank and from Avondale to Algiers on the West Bank, and would contain a population of roughly 500,000. Most of these sections of the city are still intact.

The future New Orleans economy would center on the port, tourism, arts, university, seafood processing, light manufacturing, and shipbuilding. Construction and craftwork will be very important in the decade after this storm. The port would remain critical to the nation. The city would implement a new housing policy that requires inclusionary zoning, so that people of different incomes can return to the city. The "old" New Orleans would have a systematic bike network, bus lanes, and expanded streetcar. Parking would be reduced city-wide, former parking spaces converted to housing and mixed-use developments. Access to the city would be primarily by rail, but smaller-scale highways would also be rebuilt.

The balance of the New Orleans population (approximately 500-600,000) would relocate to Baton Rouge, Hammond, and Lafayette, along existing highway and rail routes. Frequent 24-hour passenger rail would be established between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Hammond, and Lafayette,New Urbanist designs. Baton Rouge would become the regional economic hub, and experience major densification without expanding its physical footprint. The city currently has extreme low density and ample room for infill, and should be reconfigured into a compact city of one million with development focused on arterials that would be transit oriented.

Bus rapid transit, with priority bus lanes, signal priority, proof-of-payment and low-floor platforms would be constructed throughout the city. The city would also build a comprehensive network of bike lanes and sidewalks. The infill strategy for Baton Rouge would be repeated in Lafayette in Hammond, albeit at a smaller scale. A regional government should be established in Southeast Louisiana. Regionalism would counter the parochial competition between New Orleans and its hinterland. The backbone of this regionalism would be a regional passenger and freight rail network that focuses development around stations.


This disaster was largely caused by public policy. These policies included using Louisiana as a major refining center for domestic and imported oil, requiring access for ships and pipelines. These policies centered on a national urban policy of promoting and subsidizing low-density, automobile oriented sprawl such as that built in the backswamps surrounding New Orleans. These policies included refusing to cooperate globally on climate change and refusing to regulate carbon emissions. These national policies allowed much of New Orleans' poor to be left behind while sprawl was subsidized.

For this reason the funding for the rebuilding of New Orleans, including densification of Baton Rouge, Hammond, and Lafayette, should be financed by a nation-wide 50-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline. This 50 cent gas tax would be used for disaster relief, clean-up, remediation, rebuilding, and densification. Price caps on the cost per gallon will be imposed, to reduce the impact of the increase on the middle class. Low income motorists would be exempt. Public policy was the root of this disaster. Public policy must confront and resolve it. A 50 cent gas tax is a good place to start.

Jason Henderson is an Assistant Professor of Geography at San Francisco State University and a native of New Orleans.

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