Finding A Home In The New Atlantis

<p>In the first of his postings for Grist Magazine, author Wayne Curtis sets the watery stage of his new home in New Orleans.</p>
May 30, 2007, 2pm PDT | Michael Dudley
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"New Orleans is an island, and then some. The Mississippi River wraps in a wide arc around one side of the city, and two saltwater lakes border much of the rest of it. But the city also literally sits atop water: we learned that houses here don't have basements because water lurks just below the surface. Digging down evidently provokes it.

New Orleanians deal with street floods the way people in Maine deal with two-foot snowfalls: they prepare for it, then wait it out. Many older houses, including ours, sit atop brick piers designed to let the water in, and then let it out just as easily.

But getting the water out of the city is where that great faith comes in. Left to its own devices, water will loiter here, pooling in the lowest neighborhoods, like Broadmoor and Gentilly. About half of the city sits below sea level, so there's nowhere for water to flow without human intervention. The lower neighborhoods were mostly developed in the early and mid-20th century, when they were carved out of drained cypress swamps. Stout levees of earth and grass -- the pinnacle of medieval technology -- and more reliable mechanical pumps had made widespread flooding seemingly a thing of the past. The city is still dependent on the descendants of these pumps, although they're rather less revered since Katrina stormed the gates and overwhelmed them.

Given the rich history of city and river, I'll admit I felt a bit cheated when I first moved here. The river is not terrifically impressive as it flows past downtown.

[O]ver the next several months, I'll be reporting back on what I've learned about my soggy new home."

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Published on Thursday, May 24, 2007 in Grist
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