Just over a month into the 2019 hurricane season, New Orleans is already flooding. The Mississippi River is 10 feet higher than usual for this time of year and the arrival of Tropical Storm Barry from the Gulf of Mexico threatens to build the river's surge to 20 feet, enough to overflow the sodden city's levees on Saturday. Some New Orleans streets were under four feet of water by Wednesday, half a week before the downpour's peak.
The National Weather Service says Barry's effects may be "unprecedented," a designation that had a lot more power to shock a couple of decades ago. These days it seems like unprecedented floods are nothing so much as normal. Maryland's Ellicott City, where stormwater surges down Main Street's charming, historic, death trap of a man-made gulch, has 1,000-year storms with a ruinous frequency. Houston suffered in 2017; Washington this past week threatened to literally submerge in its usually metaphorical swamp.
But New Orleans is a special case, both because of the lasting trauma of 2005's Hurricane Katrina and because so much of the city is uniquely vulnerable. About half of New Orleans is below sea level, and it's sinking. The soil is soft, and unwise development choices shifting water drainage patterns have made it unstable. Then there's the river, five feet above a rising ocean. New Orleans has flood defenses, but they "can't stop rain falling from the sky," so the city "fills up like a bowl."
Is there a future for a city like that?
It is strange enough that it exists at all, though there is no mystery as to how New Orleans came to look as it does today. It happened because of hubristic human engineering: Removing wetland water and building levees to contain the river created newly dry ground, but it's ground that cannot always be dry. Nevertheless, with enthusiastic institutional support, including that of municipal authorities, New Orleans spent the last century building down and out.
The federal government is complicit in this fiasco of urban planning, too. It constructed the flood barriers that have proved inadequate to protect the city. And as I wrote amid Houston's devastation by Hurricane Harvey, it subsidizes development on land not suited for permanent structures (or, at least, not structures without significant adaptations to handle high water well.)
Though not the only culprit here, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and specifically its subsidiary, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), are substantially responsible for this imprudent development. Together, FEMA and the NFIP have provided builders and buyers with bad information from a trusted source while offering financial encouragement to build on land best left alone. These programs fostered the infrastructure arrangements that magnified the heartbreak in Texas — and New Orleans.
As climate change makes disastrous weather more frequent, it is no exaggeration to say the NFIP has put many Americans and their homes in harm's way. Federal provision "of affordable [flood] insurance has had the perverse result of reinforcing risky choices of where and how to build," explains a 2013 Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) report.
And those of us not thus exposed to the risk of rising tides can't simply write off New Orleans' crisis as a distant problem or the due result of other people's poor choices. It might seem obviously foolish to build or buy a house below sea level, but remember: The federal government said to go for it and put its — well, our — money where its mouth was. As the UCS report observes, those "public subsidy programs expose all taxpayers to large costs in the event of a disaster."
But now, what is there to do? "Urban subsidence cannot be reversed," notes Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella at The Atlantic. "Engineers and planners cannot 'reinflate' compacted soils if city dwellers have built lives upon them."
That's not to say New Orleans' only option is destruction, though certainly in some areas it may be more affordable, sensible, and humane for the NFIP to relocate residents instead of endlessly rebuilding — on the taxpayers' dime — houses doomed to flood. At the municipal level, moving toward a Dutch model of water management and preserving protective wetlands could help. Developers can make safer choices in style and location of new construction, rejecting the feds' cruelly misleading advice to stick with areas that private companies are willing and able to insure for a reasonable fee. And established homeowners can take steps to make their properties more permeable, improving hyper-local drainage instead of making it worse.
But none of that will happen before this weekend's deluge. Before that, the only thing most of us can do is pray.