However, the damage along the Gulf Coast this week is much worse than I went through, and much more than a natural disaster; it is a very human one. I am not referring to the horror, misery and heartbreak of the victims. I am writing of the human decisions to build inappropriate structures in inappropriate places. I am writing of inadequate preparation and poor execution of emergency plans. I am writing about the private wealth and public poverty that turns unavoidable acts of nature into avoidable tragedies. I am writing about New Orleans.
As heart rending are the stories of Mobile, Slidell and Gulfport, the breaching of the levees around New Orleans and the slow covering of the city with floodwaters after the hurricane had passed has become the focus of our attention. Maybe it should. Few other cities provide a better example of poor city planning, with science and solid engineering taking a back seat to ignorance, greed, and the worst of U.S. politics.
In order to understand what is going on in the Big Easy now one must understand a little history, a history of the river and those who would "tame" it. I would recommend as a starter John M. Barry's 1997 book, Rising Tide: the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America.
New Orleans itself was spared damage from the flood of 1927, caused not by a sudden hurricane but months of rainfall in the upper midwest. But nearby, down river St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes were deliberately flooded by a levee breach carried out by the leading power brokers of New Orleans. As Mr. Barry tells the story in an interview found on the PBS web site:
You know, the 1927 Flood was two stories. It was man against nature, but it was also man against man. And part of the story in man against man involved the city of New Orleans, which in 1927 was a much more vibrant and vital city than it is today. It was, by far, the leading city in the South, economically dwarfed, literally double and triple Miami, Houston, Dallas, Nashville, Louisville, any of its rivals. And one of the things that the people in New Orleans who ran the city were concerned about was fear of their investors, who were mostly in New York and Boston, of what the Mississippi River might do to New Orleans in a big flood. So here, you had this tremendous flood coming down the river and, oddly enough, it didn't threaten New Orleans. And the reason it didn't threaten New Orleans was because there was no possible way that that water was ever going to make it to New Orleans. The levees upriver had to break. They had to, as, in fact, they did. For example, the river spread out 70 miles from Vicksburg to Monroe, Louisiana. But before that happened, while people in New York were worrying about whether or not they should put more money into New Orleans and invest in the port and so forth, the city fathers decided to demonstrate that they would never, under any circumstances, allow the river to threaten the city. So what they did was decide to dynamite the levee about 13 miles below the city and flood out their neighbors. Race had nothing to do with this. They were almost all poor whites who were flooded out.There is much more to the 1927 flood, and Rising Tide, than this incident. After reading the book one understands much better just how New Orleans became ringed with levees and one gets a feeling what needs to be done to keep such a disaster from happening again.
INT: Describe what happens when levees break upriver.
JB: When the levees upriver break, it lets water out of the river. So, therefore, the level in the river gets lower. In fact, in every flood there's concerns about sabotage, 'cause if the levee on one side of the river breaks, that side floods, but the people on the other side of the river are safe. And, in fact, there were at least a dozen people killed in separate gun battles in 1927 over attempts to sabotage the levee. And, in fact, in Vicksburg, the record on the Vicksburg gauge is not 1927. The reason is the water had spread out to Monroe, Louisiana, 70 miles away. So, obviously, that's going to lower the water level.
INT: Tell me Jadwin's response and Hoover's response when they were asked to weigh in on the levy.
JB: Well, before the City of New Orleans could do this, they needed permission. And they needed it from both the governor and the federal government. Hoover was then Secretary of Commerce. He and Jadwin (Corps of Engineers) were actually coming down the river on an inspection boat and one of the New Orleans elite took a motorboat up the river to meet on board. And Hoover and Jadwin greeted this New Orleans delegation warmly and as soon as the people from New Orleans started to explain what they wanted, Hoover stood up and walked out. He wanted no part of it. He was already running for President and this was too dirty for him. He simply said, “That's General Jadwin's business,” ‘cause Jadwin had the legal authority. And Jadwin finally went along only if New Orleans promised to, among other things, fully compensate the victims of the dynamiting, which they freely promised. And, in fact, 54 leading men of New Orleans, the president of every major business, the president of every trade association, the city council, the mayor, and so forth, they all signed a pledge that they would, in fact, compensate the victims fully. A couple years later when the claims came in, they'd paid off pennies on the dollar and there were roughly 10,000 who were flooded out of their homes. When the water went through, there was absolutely nothing left. And their homes were gone, their means of making a living disappeared, and they got an average of $80 a person, something like that.
I could not help but remember the crime of those city fathers against their neighbors as I watched the waters rise this week on Canal Street. Maybe what is playing out today on the streets of New Orleans is a crude cosmic payback to the city, albeit a bit late. Sadly, once again, the poor are paying a disproportional costs of folly.