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The Future Of New Orleans

May 2024
5min read

Can the disasters that befell other cities help save this one?

Heroic measures: A man gives scale to the seawall Galveston built.
library of congress2006_2_24

When Hurricane Katrina battered down the levees that protected our most fabled big city last September, many of us familiar with America’s “can do” traditions figured it would be a matter of weeks, maybe even days, before the Crescent City was at least on the mend again.

More than five months later this is not the case, and it is not clear when it ever will be. The waters that left an estimated 1,300 of the people in New Orleans dead and the vast majority of the rest homeless have receded, but no fully formed plan to rebuild is in place. Most of the city is, by all accounts, still an eerie, devastated ghost town, littered with dead trees and overturned cars, coated with the toxic liquid stew that spilled out of a polluted Lake Pontchartrain. To be sure, the problem facing us is immensely complex, and any solution must undo years of feckless development and build a consensus out of myriad different viewpoints. Yet the defining image of the disaster in New Orleans remains that of a single steam shovel, methodically dumping one scoop of earth at a time into a gaping levee breach.

There is plenty of blame to go around for this, encompassing officials at every level, and in both parties. The abject failure to properly anticipate or react to the hurricane in the first place has now been matched by Mayor Ray Nagin’s silly announcement that New Orleans will always be “a chocolate city,” and the Bush administration’s empty pledges of money in lieu of any discernible action. The city’s plight was not even mentioned in the President’s 2006 State of the Union address. And we might ask what it says for Michael Chertoff’s Department of Homeland Security that one of our most vital, and most obviously vulnerable, ports can be snuffed out overnight without eliciting any kind of planned response. Nor are the rest of us off the hook. If no recovery effort in living memory has been so shamefully botched, it is also impossible to think of any that has been regarded with such general indifference.

Before Katrina, the sudden, catastrophic annihilation of a whole city seemed confined to the past. That this has proved not to be so would seem to make the contemplation of those past calamities all the more relevant.

No city, not even New Orleans, has ever sustained as much damage from a single hurricane as Galveston, Texas, did on September 8, 1900. This was before we started giving cute names to hurricanes, but the storm that began to come ashore that morning has never been forgotten. By the dawn of the twentieth century Galveston was the busiest port in Texas, a gracious, leafy town that served as a portal to both the South and the West. Some 1,000 ships a year plied its harbor, transporting $300 million in cargo, including 70 percent of the country’s cotton exports and 25 million tons of wheat and corn bound for Europe. Unfortunately, Galveston was built on an oversized sandbar, where no point of land stood as high as nine feet above sea level. When a vast storm blew in from the Gulf of Mexico at speeds that may have exceeded 140 miles per hour, the town was all but defenseless. In 24 hours’ time, wind and water had killed an estimated 6,000 people and destroyed more than 3,600 buildings. The grieving survivors were left to cope with a vast, noxious chaos.

Much as in New Orleans, reporters rushed to Galveston to repeat or invent lurid racist rumors of depredation when in fact—just as in New Orleans—the city’s surviving inhabitants generally reacted to the disaster with admirable courage and restraint. And just as in New Orleans, Galveston’s residents faced immense problems with little coordinated assistance from outside. In 1900 the federal government didn’t “do” relief. Private individuals and organizations throughout the United States and Europe rushed aid to the stricken city, but this still left many basic needs unmet. There was, for instance, no place available on a sandbar to quickly bury nearly one-sixth of the town’s population, and the city authorities ordered that all corpses be burned to stop the spread of disease. Even Clara Barton, the doughty septuagenarian founder of the Red Cross and a veteran of countless disasters, was appalled and almost overcome by the smell produced, remembering “the stench of burning flesh that permeated every foot of the city. Who could long withstand it?”

The received wisdom is that Galveston never really recovered from the hurricane of 1900 and that the disaster was why nearby ports—beginning with Houston, just up the bay—soon surpassed it in size and importance. This was not actually the case, as Herbert Molloy Mason argues in his history of the hurricane, Death from the Sea . Freighters were plying the harbor again within a week, but the city fathers of Galveston knew they needed to secure their town further. When no help for this was forthcoming from the federal government, the people of Galveston County took it upon themselves to raise some $1.5 million in municipal bonds and wrangled another $2 million in state subsidies, money that went to erect a large seawall and, in an incredible feat of engineering, raise the entire town by 8 to 10 feet.

This grand public-works project succeeded. The seawall withstood another ferocious hurricane in 1915. Galveston’s population and prosperity increased, and it remained Texas’s leading port into the 1920s. Its relative decline in later years was due not to any lack of will on behalf of its people but to the fact that, as Mason writes, “a narrow island has only so much space for expansion.” When Houston was finally able to dredge out a deep ship channel to the sea, Galveston could not match its larger, inland neighbor—but then, it was never going to be able to do so indefinitely.

A more common threat to American cities was that most ancient nemesis of the town, fire. The terrible Chicago fire of 1871 struck a city that was still wood right down to its sidewalks, killing an estimated 300 people, leaving nearly 100,000 more—or one-third of the population—homeless, and consuming three and a half square miles of the city, including 3,650 buildings. San Francisco in 1906 was a much more modern city, already full of elegant steel-framed buildings, but that made little difference once an earthquake of an estimated magnitude of 8 on the Richter scale ripped long rifts in its streets and tore apart both its gas and water mains. More than 50 separate fires sprung up around the city during the next three days, and the quake and the blaze combined to kill 674 people and raze 2,831 acres, including 28,188 buildings.

Many other cities, big and small, suffered losses that were less famous but nearly as traumatic. Portland, Maine, for instance, used to burn down once a century, almost like clockwork—at the hands of the Wabanaki Indians in 1676, the British in 1775, and its own citizens, celebrating the Fourth of July a tad too vigorously, in 1866. In each case the town was an almost total loss. Remarkably insouciant about its combustibility, Portland responded by building a large match factory in 1870. Portland would endure more oscillations of all kinds over the years but finally emerge, thanks to some smart planning, and federal aid, as that rarest of all American cities—a hip, arty cultural center that is also a working town, its port boasting the largest gross tonnage in the country.

This resilience was typical in disaster-stricken cities. Chicago barely paused in its spectacular rise. As Donald Miller writes in his lively history City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America , “more amazing than the destruction was the fire. The rebuilding began while the ground was still warm in the burned district, and within a week after the fire more than five thousand temporary structures had been erected and two hundred permanent buildings were under construction.” By the time the city hosted its famous World’s Columbia Exposition in 1893, “Chicago had the busiest and most modern downtown in the country, with a dozen and more of the highest buildings ever constructed.” This was accomplished mostly by private capital, a large relief fund, and emergency aid from around the country, although once again a key public adjustment was made, in this case stricter building codes.

San Francisco rebuilt almost as quickly even though, as a more modern city, it was faced with removing “countless tons” of stone and brick rubble from its steep hills. This time a more activist President, Teddy Roosevelt, helped coordinate relief efforts, and by 1909, according to William Bronson, author of The Earth Shook, the Sky Burned , “more than half of America’s steel and concrete buildings stood in San Francisco,” and “the assessed valuation of the City was half again as much as it had been before the fire.” By the time San Francisco held its own proud exposition in 1915, it had become once again—as it remains to this day—the most physically beautiful city in America.

Clearly, the lesson to be gleaned from all these very different cities that sustained disaster in very different locations and very different eras is that recovery depends upon determined local effort, combined with planning and/or public funding from one source or another. Each endeavor must complement, not contend with, the other. As long as New Orleans’s citizens are kept away from their city, and no plan is initiated for securing its future, it is difficult to see how it will ever be restored.

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