Mud, Mud, Mud

Nathaniel Rich

  • The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans by Lawrence Powell
    Harvard, 422 pp, £22.95, March 2012, ISBN 978 0 674 05987 0

One of the most peculiar aspects of the public debate that followed Hurricane Katrina was the emphatic assertion, repeated incessantly in the press, that the storm was a ‘once in a generation’, ‘once in a lifetime’ or ‘once in a century’ event. Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans at the time, bears some of the responsibility: ‘The city has never seen a hurricane of this magnitude hit it directly,’ he told any journalist who would listen. But this was nonsense. Katrina was not even a once in forty years storm, and by the time it hit New Orleans, its winds were barely hurricane strength. Hurricane Betsy in 1965 was more powerful, as was George in 1947, and more violent storms narrowly missed the city in 1969, 1998 and 2004. As any New Orleanian will point out, the greatest part of the damage wrought by Katrina was caused by man, not nature, the result of faulty levees and shipping canals dug imprudently through the heart of the city. This opinion was ratified in 2009 by Stanwood Duval, a federal judge who blamed the flooding damage on the ‘monumental negligence’ of the US Army Corps of Engineers. That decision was reversed on appeal in September on a technicality, but the case appears to be headed for the Supreme Court.

Katrina was both predictable and, from a historical perspective, dismally routine. No American city has endured more catastrophes than New Orleans, and Katrina is no longer even the most recent calamity to befall the region. It’s estimated that Hurricane Isaac will cost $1.5 billion, while the BP oil spill, and the subsequent poisoning of Gulf waters with dispersant chemicals, may surpass Katrina in both economic damage and loss of human life. Disaster is part of the character of the city: not just the trauma of past cataclysms, but the fear of what will come next, and how soon.

In New Orleans’s first hundred years, the period covered by Lawrence Powell’s The Accidental City, its existence was imperilled more than a dozen times. The first catastrophic flood occurred in 1719, less than a year after the site was claimed by French settlers. It was ‘the worst overflow the local Indians could remember’ and left the settlement submerged for nearly six months. New Orleans flooded just about every summer after that, with especially devastating incidents in 1734 (again lasting several months), 1770, 1780, 1785, 1790, 1791, 1796, 1812 and 1816. A hurricane in 1722 destroyed the buildings erected by the first settlers, and allowed for the construction of a street grid. Six major hurricanes struck between 1776 and 1781, but the Great Louisiana Hurricane of 1812 was the worst of all, plunging the city under 15 feet of water.

On Good Friday in 1788, a pious military treasurer lit fifty wax tapers in his house, and left them burning when he was called to lunch. Five hours later, 856 buildings, or four-fifths of New Orleans, had been incinerated. The fire spread quickly because houses had been built with locally harvested cypress, which, while resistant to water, is high in oil and resin, and therefore extremely flammable. The blaze didn’t dissuade settlers from using cypress to rebuild the houses, however, and six years later the city burned down again.

A smallpox epidemic struck in 1794, followed by yellow fever in 1796. Malarial mosquitoes swarmed every summer, as the British architect Benjamin Latrobe reported in horror in 1819:

As soon as the sun sets, the muskitoes appear in clouds and fill every room in the house, as well as the open air. Their noise is so loud as to startle a stranger to its daily occurrence. It fills the air, and there is a character of occasional depression and elevation in it, like that of a concert of frogs in a marsh.

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