The City Too Big For its Breaches
A Brief History
I wasn’t able to visit New Orleans until several months after Katrina, and due to the vagaries of modern aviation’s “hub and spoke” travel, I had to fly to Detroit before proceeding due south to Louisiana. But the detour had its advantages. Below me the Mississippi River was busily transferring the sun’s energy from the atmosphere, to the earth, to the ocean.
The early Mississippi started as a tiny trickle of meltwater cascading down a crevasse in an early Pleistocene glacier. It emerged from beneath the glacier, milky white with the powdery remains of crushed and pulverized granite. It drained the post Wisconsin age glacial Lake Agassiz which was itself several times larger than all the modern Great Lakes combined.
For seven thousand years the Mississippi combined the litholitic soils of the North and the latsolic soils of the South, with the podzilic soils of suburban New York, and the black coal mine tailings of West Virginia. For seven thousand years it mixed the gray, brown and red muds of 31 states and 3 Canadian provinces into the rich black topsoil of the Mississippi Delta and the fertile green marshes of coastal Louisiana.
For seven thousand years, the Mississippi braided back and forth across floodplains, meandered through oxbows and burst through its banks to discover new outlets to the Gulf of Mexico. For millions of years before that, a similar river flowed into a similar shallow sea. It’s sediments buried billions of tons of rich planktonic ooze. Their accumulated weight cooked the microscopic creatures into sweet rich crude petroleum, the black gold prize that powers modern civilization and has been the cause of far too many wars. Today the citizens of New Orleans pump this black essence of the sun’s energy back up the Mississippi to fertilize the corn fields of Kansas and power the factories of Chicago.
But below me something has changed. The Mississippi can no longer jump its banks to discover new outlets to the sea. It can no longer deliver rich alluvial soil to delta plantations. It can no longer protect New Orleans with new marshes because the Mississippi is no longer a slow moving natural stream meandering through a swampy delta. Today the Mississippi River is an artificially raised aqueduct sluicing unimpeded through 2,000 miles of levees. The 400 million tons of sediments that used to build up marshes every year now sluice straight over the edge of the continental shel and into the dark abyss. The Mississippi no longer procreates life saving land, it spills its seed uselessly into the great maw of the Gulf of Mexico.
The infamous Lake Pontchetrain now looms up before us. From the air I can see that the “lake” is really an extension of the salty Gulf. We fly over the misnamed lake to approach New Orleans from the south. A broad expanse of trees and grass lies below us. But wait, the trees are all dead and I can just make out the wake of an airboat below me. This land is actually marsh and swamp.
To the north is Lake Pontchetrain at sea level, to the east is lake Borgne at sea level, to the south is this swamp only a few centimeters above sea level. Sitting in this leaky bowl twenty feet lower than the Gulf of Mexico lies the bustling metropolis of New Orleans. Winding through the Big Easy is the seemingly benign Big Muddy. But it is a charade for here in New Orleans, the bulk of the Mississippi River is so vast that most of it glides by unseen 170 feet below sea level while the rest of it looms twenty feet above the city hemmed in by massive earthen levees. We know what happened when Katrina breached the levees protecting the city from Lake Pontchetrain. We can only guess what would happen if these river levees were breached and the full force of the Mississippi poured down into New Orleans.
No, this was not a good place to build a city. In the memorable words of the nature writer John MacPhee, the spot was a place most campers would be loath to pitch a tent. (21) Yet not Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville and special envoy to the king of France. Jean Baptiste had a vision. It was a vision of a city on a mighty river, a vision to rival that of Paris on the Seine.
Most thought Jean Baptiste seriously deranged. (22) But he ordered his engineers to design crude levees to control the Mississippi and reclaim the hopelessly flood prone swamps so settlers could plant indigo and tobacco for overseas shipment.
The grandiloquent French and their later Spanish successors were soon replaced by Anglo-American plantation owners who ordered slaves onto the riverbanks to muck up the rich black alluvial mud into three foot, then four foot, then six foot levees. But after the British gave the new Republic a fright in the Battle of New Orleans, President Madison dispatched the Army Corps of Engineers to help rebuild the city and fortify its levees in 1815. This would initiate the Second Battle for New Orleans, an epic struggle to determine how to control the Mississippi. The outcome of that battle would help determine coastal policy for the next three hundred years.
The objective of this battle was to open the mouth of the Mississippi. By 1855 the river had built up two large muddy sandbars across the mouth of the river and trade was down to a trickle. On Congressional orders, the Army Corps of Engineers dispatched specially designed dredges to remove the natural blockades. But the thick sticky sandbars were impervious to the dredges. In exasperation, the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce demanded that the Federal government try a new approach. This time Congress turned to James Buchanan Eads, a self-taught civil engineer who was anathema to the Army Corps of Engineers.
As a young boy growing up on the St. Louis waterfront, Eads ran errands by day, and read engineering books by night. From his research he realized that more cargo lay on the bottom of the Mississippi than on top of it, so he designed a fleet of salvage boats and started his own company. Business boomed. Steamboats continued to have a disturbing proclivity to blow up when their boilers failed, or be sunk by running into “preacher snags”, half sunken old logs that bobbed up and down just out of sight in the swiftly flowing currents. (23)
Though he spent his nights studying engineering, Eads’ real education came from the river itself. He designed a diving bell and spent hours walking the Mississippi’s muddy bottom. He knew what it felt like to grope through billowing clouds of thick brown silt. He knew what it was like to be pushed and pulled by strong currents never knowing when you might be sucked into a newly scoured death hole.
Eads used his river knowledge to design the St. Louis bridge, the world’s first bridge made entirely from iron. It spanned the Mississippi at exactly the same spot where Eads, as a young boy, had been introduced to the river, by being thrown into it unconscious when the steamboat he was on exploded as it approached the St. Louis wharf. (24)
The bridge made Eads famous. He was being compared to other great self taught civil engineers like Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Alva Edison, so when Congress called he was ready. He proposed letting the Mississippi do the work herself. He knew from his underwater walks how quickly the river could both build up and scour down sandbars. He designed two massive jetties that would jut far out into the Gulf of Mexico. They would channel the river’s current into a powerful jet of water to scour a 350 foot channel through the muddy sandbars. At a depth of 28 feet, the channel would allow even the largest ocean going ships to steam upriver. He was nearly laughed off the waterfront for the outlandish scheme. But Eads was so sure of his carefully crafted calculations that he promised to pay for the project out of his own pocket. He guaranteed that he would only be reimbursed if the jetties worked. It was an offer no congress could refuse.
Eads was opposed by Andrew Humphreys, the head of the Army Corps of Engineers who had written what was considered the definitive study of the Mississippi River. But General Humphreys had also been appointed to his position because of his reputation as an effective but ruthless Civil War leader. During a single charge he had lost twenty percent of his men in less than fifteen minutes. He wrote that the experience made him feel like a sixteen year old girl at her first party ball. (25) He was equally determined to crush the self-taught civil engineer who threatened to topple the comfortable monopoly on engineering that the Army Corps of Engineers had enjoyed since its incorporation under George Washington.
The dispute came to a head on May 12th 1876. General Humphreys had leaked information to the press that Corps of Engineers’ own Major Howell had made soundings in Eads’ channel and it was only 12 feet deep. The news caused stock in Eads’ company to tumble and made it impossible for him to obtain further loans.
Eads knew that his only chance for redemption lay in an oceangoing steamship that lay just offshore. It was the Hudson, a 300 foot vessel that drew 14 feet, 7 inches. She was under the command of Captain E.V. Gagner, an old friend from their early days in St. Louis. Gagner welcomed Eads aboard, along with several journalists that Eads had invited to chronicle his gamble. They knew the stakes were as high as at any riverboat poker table back in New Orleans.
Gagner also knew how dangerous the situation was. The tide was falling fast and his local pilot had recommended that he not attempt to cross the bar. But Gagner did not hesitate.
“Head her for the jetties.”
On shore, three hundred men ceased their labors to watch. They too knew the stakes as the ship started to build up steam.
“Shall we run in slow?”
“No sir, let her go at full speed.” (26)
Gagner knew that the increased speed would lift her bow a few inches above the surface of the water and push her stern a few inches below it. If Eads was correct they would just skim lightly over the mud, if the Corps was correct the Hudson would tear out her hull and sink to the bottom.
The Hudson gained more speed, a huge white wake billowed out ahead of her bows then separated into a long “V” that sloshed to the edges of the willow-sided jetties. One of the journalists wrote, “As long as she carried that white bone in her teeth, the great wave that her proud bows pushed ahead of her as she sped forward– we knew that she had found more than the Major Howell’s 12 feet.” (27)
Then she was through. Captain Gagner blew a powerful blast on the Hudson’s steam whistle and three hundred men erupted in cheers that reverberated up and down the Delta as the great ship made her way majestically upstream.
When Eads started his jetty project, less than 7,000 tons of cargo were being shipped from New Orleans to Europe. A year after he finished that total rose to 450,000 tons and New Orleans became the second largest port in the United States trailing only New York in total tonnage. By 1995 New Orleans ranked first in the nation.
However Eads’ victory had several unintended consequences. The jetties were nothing more than levees that extended into the Gulf of Mexico. But they proved to be so effective that the Army Corps of Engineers adopted a “levees only” policy to control the entire Mississippi River. That meant no more spillways or outlets would be built to relieve pressure built up by floodwaters. Neither Eads nor Humphreys fully supported the “levees only” policy but it became the Army Corps of Engineers guiding principle to both control the Mississippi and defend the American coasts with armored seawalls. It would also initiate the destruction of marshes that, had they been allowed to grow unimpeded for the last 75 years, would have dampened down the storm surges that destroyed New Orleans during hurricane Katrina.
So, from the very beginning, levees have been both New Orleans’ solution and her nemesis. Every time the levees are raised, people build new homes. Every time the levees are breached the houses flood. But the levees and the Army Corps of Engineers have become indispensable to the continuing existence of the city. While it is safe to say that New Orleans would not be possible without the Army Corps of Engineers, it is equally safe to say that the Army Corps of Engineers would not be possible without New Orleans.
But every time the levees were raised, New Orleans grew larger, more important and more dangerous to live in. Like every major city, New Orleans had the political and economic power to alter the surrounding countryside to its own advantage. This affected the area’s social climate as well. The early plantation owners became the old cotton families who went east to college, sat on the levee boards and ruled the state and city through membership in the most prestigious krewes that ran Mardi Gras, and the city’s exclusive Boston, Mystic and Louisiana social clubs. (28)
It is said that the old cotton money still looks down on the new petroleum money, and that even the top students at Tulane’s Law School will not be made partner in New Orleans’ best law firms unless they come from one of the original cotton families. (28)
Of course the system bred resentment. Initially it was the resentment the poor white rural farmers felt against the citified whites who controlled the state. The situation had come to a head during the 1927 floods when the president of the largest bank in New Orleans, and the scion of one of the cotton families, had coerced the governor to dynamite the rural levees of Plaquemines Parish in order to save downtown New Orleans. The city’s banks were saved but six thousand people lost their homes. They were compensated $169 dollars for their suffering.
The sense of outrage was so strong that Huey Long, an unknown rural farmer, was able to unseat the incumbent governor. The “Kingfish” then ruled the state with an iron fist, bypassing the traditional New Orleans power brokers by levying taxes on the newly discovered oil and gas wells. He used this new revenue to construct schools and highways throughout the rural sections of the state. These public work projects made him the local hero to the poor white northern farmers and the “coonass cajuns” who peopled the bayoued coasts. (29)
However, the Kingfish also made enemies in high places and was eventually assassinated on the steps of the state capital. But he had left his mark through his many improvements to traditional laissez-faire political culture of patronage and corruption. If you were the governor of the state you could get kickbacks from the sale of riverfront casinos. If you were appointed to the levee board you and your family had a job for life. If you were elected to the board of assessors you had the power to lower people’s taxes in exchange for their vote and another New Orleans tradition, un petit lagniappe, a small gift given to preferred customers. While the schools and tax rolls might suffer, the corruption was shrugged off as merely another manifestation of the city’s tolerance for flamboyant behavior.
However, the most flagrant example of the city’s audaciousness lies 300 miles north where the Mississippi turns abruptly and unnaturally east. This is where Congress mandated that the Army Corps of Engineers stop time. The problem is that ever since the Ice Age the Mississippi River has been able to writhe back and forth like a water moccasin swimming up a bayou. Every time the river writhed it created a new outlet to the Gulf of Mexico and built up a new delta. Today most of the southern coast of Louisiana is composed of the remains of these former deltas. (30)
Ever since the 1927 floods scoured out a new channel the Mississippi has wanted to writhe back south as it has every thousand years or so. The river has moved as far east as it can possibly go, any further and it will have to start flowing uphill. Now the Mississippi wants to join the much younger Atchafalaya River that surges impetuously south, into the Gulf of Mexico.
Most geologists say it is simply a matter of time before the rule of gravity takes over and the Mississippi flows into the waiting arms of the Atchafalaya. But Congress has a way of ignoring such laws of nature to create its own reality. In 1954 it passed a law that required that no more than 30% of the Mississippi should ever flow into the Atchafalaya. This was the way it was in 1950 and this is the way it should always be. In affect Congress had mandated that time stand still.
Congress ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to build an elaborate system of locks and gates to ensure that Mississippi’s obsession never achieves fruition. Today the equivalent of seven Niagara Falls plunge over the dam from the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya making her America’s second largest river by volume and the seventh strongest and most treacherous river in the world. A fortified tugboat patrols the area 24 hours a day to prevent 200 foot barges from being sucked into the maelstrom below.
Geologists contend that the Army is fighting a losing battle. During the 1973 floods, engineers opened all the gates and watched in horror as roaring waters washed a massive guide dam down the river and the main dam vibrated so violently they feared it would collapse. Vibrations during an earlier flood had caused coal to ignite in a nearby railroad car. After the flood passed the Army discovered that the torrent had scoured a 100 foot hole in front of the dam. If the Mississippi ever does shift it’s main channel into the Atchafalaya an arm of the Gulf of Mexico will transgress north to inundate both Baton Rouge and New Orleans. (31)
So there it is. The brief history of a city too important to abandon, yet a city whose continued existence depends on solutions that only make matters worse. It is the history of what engineers call an irreversible mistake, it is the story of a city that has grown too big for its breaches.
Except from “Just Seconds from the Ocean; Coastal Living in the Wake of Katrina,” available in local bookstores and at a discount to supporters of the Coastlines Project.