Architectural plans are often issued with the instruction: ‘build to match existing.’ It means what it says: make something new look like what is – or was – already there. Build to match the existing kitchen cabinets. Build to match the existing decking. Build to match what remains of the house after the roof and the dining room wall were ripped off during Hurricane Laura, one of the strongest to have made landfall in Louisiana. Do it like that again when Delta comes through six weeks later, lifting the roof like a lid and driving a tree through the kitchen wall. Do it like that again in seven months, when the mayor is on TV saying that the amount of rainfall – eighteen inches in two hours – has eclipsed a hundred-year flood. If by some improbable sequence of events you manage to get the insurance adjusters to agree to it, you must build to match existing when another flood marches through a month later.
I heard the phrase for the first time in Lake Charles, Louisiana, listening to an architect called Jolee Bonneval talk about what she did all day. I’d been introduced to her through her mother, Suzette, whom I’d sat next to on the plane from New York to New Orleans, and who hadn’t so much as raised her eyebrows above her mask when I said I was going to Louisiana to write about the water crisis there and that I wanted if possible to speak to some architects. Like many people I met over the next few weeks, Suzette wasn’t surprised by coincidences, and didn’t make much of details that I’d then think about for days. Before she mentioned that her daughter was an architect in a place called Lake Charles, she’d briskly told me a story about a recent trip to Texas, the conclusion of which was that if you’re in an active shooter situation and you hear the fire alarm, don’t go out into the passages because that is when you’ll be killed. She didn’t think her daughter would mind if I got in touch, and even if she did I should go to Lake Charles anyway, because it would amaze me.
Lake Charles is a city of around 80,000 people in south-west Louisiana, six hours by train from New Orleans. The drive is quicker, but the train affords more opportunities for sizing up bodies of water through the window: the Mississippi, but also the Atchafalaya, and then the Calcasieu, and then the bayous, and then the streams too small to name, and then the drowned fields, sheet after sheet of water reflecting the rain clouds above. The city itself is bordered by a river, two lakes, three bayous and a shipping channel that connects it to the Gulf of Mexico, thirty miles away. I hadn’t yet grasped that being surrounded by water doesn’t mean being surrounded by places to go swimming, and as Jolee drove me along the edge of Lake Prien on my first night in town I suggested a dip. The surface of the lake was opaque and periodically illuminated by flares from one of the nearby petrochemical plants, but the drone of the heat made a compelling case for submersion in water. It hardly needs saying that it gets very hot in south-west Louisiana in July, but the experience is like being hit with a metal sheet, so that the corners of your vision start to throb and you keep taking out your phone to look up whether or not you will die. A swim, please. Jolee turned to me, startled. ‘People don’t really do that here,’ she said.
Jolee had moved to Lake Charles six months earlier, to take up a job at a firm whose workload had tripled since Hurricane Laura last August. She wasn’t what you’d call enchanted by the city – on the phone, she described living there as like ‘being in a horror movie, except not scary’ – but she was pleased to have got her first proper job out of college. Could she have done without spending her first few weeks fielding calls from desperate people whose houses had fallen down for the second time in three months? Yes. Had she envisioned working out of a building that had come close to falling down itself? No. The 150 mph winds had torn off the ceiling and half the top storey of her firm’s office and dislodged an awning which sailed across the street into the windows of the library opposite.
The office had now been restored and it looked the same as it had before, but the library was still covered in Tyvek, as was the church on the corner, as were the roofs of most of the buildings on the block. She couldn’t say for certain if the damage was from Laura or from Delta or from the floods. People were trying to return everything to its former state, but there is a shortage of materials in Lake Charles, and of labour, and there’s just too much to do. Four federally declared disasters in ten months: it was a lot for the firm to handle. ‘Build to match existing’ was a normal thing for architects to write on plans, but Jolee said that much of what they were doing in Lake Charles wasn’t architectural work at all. ‘It’s more like working in an ER. It’s a lot of deodorising carpets in libraries, for example. There is nothing like the smell of a library carpet after a flood.’
I asked her if she thought what happened last year could happen again – I hadn’t been in Louisiana long enough to know that this was a ridiculous question – and she said yes, absolutely, and yes, absolutely the damage would be the same. Another stupid question: why not rebuild the homes in a way that stopped them from falling down again next time? She gave me a patient look and explained that hardly any of the materials needed exist, and besides, the insurance companies won’t pay for them. ‘You’re not going to go back and redesign the whole structure of the building,’ she said. ‘You’re just going to replace the things that got wet and broken.’
There used to be ten years on average between major storms, Jolee told me. I asked her whether she worried about climate change, now that the gap seemed to be closing to a vanishing point. She said it was a difficult question, given that we know the Earth goes through cycles, and who’s to say this isn’t one of them? I asked her what it was like to rebuild houses that she knew would soon fall down again and she said it was just part of living on the coast: the Days Inn that looked like someone had put a foot through it, the blue tarps on the roofs, the uprooted trees, the caravans next to the Queen Anne-style new builds with boarded-up windows, the signs offering cash for flood-damaged homes in street after street of buildings that were never coming back.
That’s the way people in Lake Charles put it. They’d point at a community centre with collapsed supporting walls and announce that it was never coming back, as if the buildings themselves had taken note of the atmosphere and concluded that it was best to stay away. It’s hard to blame them. There are a great many people who aren’t coming back either. They talk about staying, but the emphasis is on the word ‘hope’. October is hurricane season, and as it approaches the word that keeps coming up in conversation is ‘praying’.
The acknowledgment that something similar or worse is coming down the line can be found even in the language of Louisiana real-estate magazines, which advertise houses in terms of their readiness to face the next disaster. Properties without carpets are desirable, as are those with new roofs. In Homefinders someone has taken out a full-page ad that says: ‘My name is Calcasieu Parish, and I have a drainage problem,’ accompanied by photographs of people standing around in chest-high floods next to what little of their cars remains visible above the water. Sometimes the ads will say that a house was a champ through both the 2020 hurricanes, or that its bones are good even if Laura caused a few setbacks.
The bones of the buildings in Lake Charles don’t look good at all. In neighbourhoods such as Greinwich Terrace, where in May the floods came on so fast that people didn’t have time to get into their cars to escape, the houses look as though they could be taken apart by hand. In Oak Park they look as though they could be pushed into the concrete gully that runs down the central boulevard, flooding it every time it rains for more than fifteen minutes. Even in neighbourhoods at higher elevations, where owners can afford to sit on the phone for six months and harangue the insurance adjusters into building to match existing, the houses have the air of objects put down distractedly by the edge of a table. The only structures that appear robust enough to emerge intact after whatever comes next are the petrochemical plants, the smell of which announces their presence long before they can be seen, yet another reminder of who’s responsible for what’s happening in Louisiana.
A recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project identified Lake Charles as one of the top three regions in the US for toxic emissions, along with the Houston area and the coast of Lake Erie in Ohio. One afternoon I went out to the new Sasol plant, ranked second on the project’s list of the top hundred polluters in the country, which makes carcinogenic products used in the manufacture of things you might need after your home has been flooded and your belongings destroyed: clothing, upholstery, carpets, pillows, fibreglass, detergents and soap. Altogether Sasol releases 32 poisonous chemicals, mostly from stacks and flares, adding up to 92.9 million tons a year in toxic emissions.
The plant slithers out like a robot’s intestines on the other side of the highway from Mossville, or more accurately, what used to be Mossville, a town founded by former slaves at the end of the Civil War. Six years ago, Sasol started offering locals buyouts in order to make room for an expansion, with its spokesman saying that he didn’t think – he actually used the word ‘think’ – that the plant represented an environmental hazard or a safety hazard, but that Sasol ‘felt it appropriate to honour the request to give those individuals the opportunity to move’. Some people chose not to take that opportunity, having always lived in Mossville, but they then had to leave anyway: too many hurricanes, too many floods, too many things in the water that will kill you. Hardly anyone lives in Mossville now, and you can drive along the highway for block after empty block and see nothing but street signs and post boxes near the faint outlines in the grass that indicate where houses used to be. The plant was damaged by Laura, and then by Delta, and its operations were suspended for six weeks while labourers on short-term contracts worked to get everything going again.
Ten miles away, close to the Calcasieu River, is the Citgo complex, which includes an oil refinery and a lubricants plant. In April it was announced that several petrochemical companies, including Citgo, would pay $5.5 million to the Environmental Protection Agency for costs incurred while investigating the contamination of the Calcasieu Estuary. The settlement is the latest in a series of state and federal cases brought against industrial plants for their role in poisoning the region over the last century. Citgo’s refinery operations have discharged hazardous substances into all these bodies of water with beautiful names: Moss Lake, Bayou Verdine, Bayou d’Inde. According to the complaint, which was filed in federal court, this includes naphthalene, slop oil, ethanol, zinc, nitrogen ammonia, chlorine and phenolics. There are now warnings posted along 350 miles of the river, with instructions that swimming should be avoided, that women of childbearing age and children younger than seven shouldn’t consume fish caught in the river, and that contact with the riverbed sediment should be kept to a minimum because of the risk of exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which cause liver cancer, gall bladder cancer, biliary tract cancer, gastrointestinal tract cancer and brain cancer.
I couldn’t sleep in Lake Charles. The door of my hotel room stopped four inches above the carpeted floor, and I found myself unable to stop imagining how neatly someone’s eye would fit in the gap, swivelling up to look at me. Walking around the neighbourhood at 1 a.m. seemed preferable to sitting on the nonsensically high single bed, clutching my knees and waiting for the eye to settle on me. Something I could have done without, though, was hearing people shout ‘be careful’ as I walked past. They shouted it from their porches and from their cars and, once, from a bicycle. The first time it happened I thought the eye had made me hysterical. The second time I heard it I thought it was a threat. The third and fourth and fifth times I heard it I thought it was exactly the kind of thing that would come out of my mouth if I happened to live in a place like Lake Charles, a place that is being dismantled, where the only big institutions invested in its survival are the ones taking it apart. They know that the violent weather patterns created by their emissions are only going to get worse, and they appear to have calculated down to the decimal point exactly how much they can extract, and for exactly how long, before the whole place disappears.
When people in Louisiana say that a city will disappear, they don’t just mean that it will be taken over by industry, or abandoned after one too many hurricanes or floods. They mean that it will actually sink into the Gulf of Mexico. Erosion is eating away at the coast at a rate of an acre every hundred minutes, dramatically increasing the state’s vulnerability to hurricane storm surges. Some of this can be attributed to the construction of the levees and flood control systems, which made the continuing existence of New Orleans possible, but which cut off the marshes from some of the river sediment that sustains them. There is also the problem of subsidence, as sediment that has accumulated in the river presses down on the water and gases below the surface. Parts of New Orleans are sinking at a rate of two inches a year.
These things would have happened even if the state’s infrastructure wasn’t determined at every level by the concerns and priorities of oil and gas, but there is significant evidence that the petrochemical firms have a great deal to do with Louisiana falling into the gulf. Their unregulated pumping of groundwater contributes to the subsidence, further increasing the threat to the levees. Industrial emissions in general contribute to the rising sea level, and the rising sea level means that an estimated five thousand square miles of the Louisiana coastline will be underwater by 2100. Finally, and most destructively, there is the vast network of canals built and maintained by the firms, which are hastening saltwater intrusion and killing off what remains of the marshes, and which a recent report by the US Department of the Interior says are responsible for between 30 and 59 per cent of the loss that has already taken place.
The companies don’t admit liability, but the erosion is now severe enough to threaten the pipelines and canals whose construction caused it in the first place. BP is funding restoration projects across seven square miles of coastal habitat east of New Orleans and in lower Plaquemines Parish, where the flooding from Katrina was so bad and so sudden that there were cows in the trees. The money comes from a $7.25 billion settlement reached after the Deepwater Horizon spill, which killed off plants holding the marshes and estuaries together, leading to further land loss.
Back in New Orleans, no one shouted from their car window to say I should be careful. Hardly anyone’s voice got thinner and higher as they explained that all this was just part of living on the coast. Almost no one looked as though they were drowning. Lake Charles hasn’t even begun to recover from Laura, and it’s not certain that it will. People in New Orleans haven’t forgotten about Katrina, or what it felt like to see 80 per cent of the city underwater – but that was 16 years ago, and the emergency response phase is in the past. As the scope of the post-Katrina relief effort demonstrated, a lot of people are rooting for New Orleans to survive, and not all of them work for the industry that is taking Louisiana apart. When people in New Orleans say they’ll never leave, it doesn’t sound as though it’s because they have no other choice. But everything that has recently happened to Lake Charles can happen to New Orleans, and it has. New Orleans is also an impossible place, in an impossible position, governed by the same relentless prioritisation of short-term goals and the same belief that problems can be fixed by putting everything back the way it was and by spending as much money as possible in service of that goal.
I met another architect, David Waggonner, who for the last ten years has been attempting to show that there is another way of doing things. His firm’s water management plan for New Orleans is founded on the argument that the water has to be accepted and accommodated, as it is in places like Amsterdam and Rotterdam. New Orleans is built on water and surrounded by it on all sides. But when you’re inside the city, behind the levees and flood protection structures, it’s possible to forget the fact. If you want to get to the water you have to visit it: walk over the bridge in Bywater to get to the park along the river, climb up the ridge of one of the levees, drive 24 miles across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway (the longest continuous land bridge in the world). People talk about water incessantly in New Orleans – they worry about the next storm surge, they complain about the ineptitude of the sewage and water board, they tell you a story about having to go to hospital after falling into a pothole caused by subsidence, they turn to you on your way to dinner and say with a straight face that the air is pregnant with rain – but it’s easy to spend days without coming into contact with a body of water. The plan devised by Waggonner’s firm proposes bringing water into New Orleans, building canals and stormwater storage systems that will ease the burden on the overworked drainage system and reduce the city’s vulnerability to flooding.
The clearest expression of this vision is the Mirabeau Water Garden, which is designed to turn land donated by the Sisters of St Joseph into wetlands, covered in native grasses that will absorb stormwater run-off and remove pollutants through filtration. The garden was approved and paid for years ago. Everyone likes the idea of a group of nuns getting together to do something practical about the effects of climate change, and everyone likes the idea of a water garden, but ground still hasn’t been broken and the project hardly exists beyond a blueprint. When I asked Waggonner why it had made so little progress, he said that it’s because people want things to stay the same. ‘The idea in New Orleans was that if a drop of rain falls, it must go away. It’s really hard to break that idea, because the people who say that are the ones who want the money to administer their system, the pumps, the pipes.’ After Katrina, Waggonner said, there was a moment when a different approach seemed possible. ‘You had to be here to understand the emotional toll that the complete failure of a levee system creates. It’s like someone who has a near-death experience, and they come back and look at the world slightly differently. We had that, but it fades, and people want to go back to the status quo.’
One morning, a friend drove me out to Delacroix, which lies beyond the levee system. He was taking me to a place called the End of the World, where the land turns to water. There is no detectable drop in elevation as you go beyond the floodgates, but it still feels like a descent, like walking down the steps into a swimming pool. There is no way to pretend that you aren’t surrounded by water on all sides. About ten minutes’ drive from the floodgates, houses on stilts lurch up from the drenched lawns abutting the freeway. The stilts are of standard height at first, but the closer you get to the End of the World the higher they become, so that by the time I could see actual alligators in the bayou next to the road, the houses looked a bit like a child’s drawing, a box for a face and long, wavery legs ending in structurally unsound feet. I had now been in Louisiana long enough to know the question was ridiculous, but still I asked my friend what would happen when a flood came along and splintered the stilts. They’ll just build them higher, he said.
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