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After the Flood

Mario Tama/Getty Images

You might have called the very existence of New Orleans, my hometown, a triumph of hope over nature. But nature had the last say. Nestled between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain (which spills into the Gulf of Mexico), the city's founders saw it as the perfect place for a port town. There was only one problem: The land between the river and the gulf wasn't so much land as swamp. They drained it as best they could and began to build, but it has meant a Sisyphean, 300-year death match between engineers and the elements. (The geographer Pierce Lewis called it an "inevitable city on an impossible site.") Speaking topographically, the city's doom was sealed when Jean Baptiste Le Moyne erected the first settlement there. Aside from spongy terrain, New Orleans sits below sea level. The city is shaped like a saucer; Midcity is among the lowest neighborhoods, while the French Quarter is on high ground. Even so, looking toward the Mississippi from within the Quarter, it wasn't unusual to see a tugboat looming 30 feet overhead on the other side of the levee.

The levee and flood-control system itself represents the city's losing battle with nature. It has been built in fits and starts since 1724, and it was still not done when Katrina struck. The cost has been immeasurable, and the failures innumerable. Moreover, the section that protects against hurricane surges--begun only 40 years ago--has sunk below the height designed to bulwark against a Category Three hurricane (Katrina was nearly a Five). For decades, models have shown that, if a Category Five were ever to crawl up the mouth of the Mississippi--a scenario known to New Orleanians as "the Big One"--it could lift 25 feet of water into the saucer and leave New Orleans submerged for months. This week's cruelest irony is that New Orleans survived something like the Big One only to succumb to shoddy engineering: The city was soused the day after the storm, when levee collapses dumped 20 feet of water into the city. It met its demise by an act of man, not an act of God.

It was always hubris to believe we could build a metropolis on a coastal marshland and still shield ourselves from the region's perils. But acquiescence is not the way New Orleanians contend with weather. Growing up on the Gulf Coast meant welcoming the hurricane season by stockpiling fresh water, canned food, and natural gas for the generator. Every few years, a menacing storm meant school cancelations and a road trip (east to Natchez for Andrew, west to Houston for Georges). But running from each year's near-miss--New Orleans hadn't borne a direct hit since 1965--gave us a false sense of security. Technically, we were safe in motels along the I-10 corridor, but antediluvian flight makes people believe that life as usual awaits them upon their return. Georges veered from New Orleans, wreaking its worst damage on Pascagoula, Mississippi, and prolonging this illusion. Katrina has finally, ruthlessly ended it: My family was scattered across the country this week, and we all imagined the worst. My father thought our house might break apart in the gales, then wash away in the floods. My mother believed Katrina would waterlog the family photos, which, when the storm made landfall, sat in the house's most exposed room. (We still don't know what has become of the house.) For my part, I envisioned a pool of bodies. New Orleans buries its dead above ground to prevent buoyant corpses from ascending through the dirt in heavy rain, but the floods would easily submerse the sepulchers, making it impossible for rescuers to distinguish between fatalities and recently buried bodies bobbing in the floodwater.

This time, the experts were suitably alarmist, too. Though the storm weakened before it made landfall and turned slightly east of New Orleans, one said, "This is so large and so powerful that it's a little bit like the difference between being run over by an 18-wheeler or a freight train." Another predicted that the floodwaters crossing the Industrial Canal would suck up benzene, chlorine, and hydrochloric acid, dousing New Orleans in a toxic soup. Both were vindicated. A third expert suggested that rising water would chase the city's remaining inhabitants up lampposts, where they would be followed, and eventually eaten, by fire ants. I can't reach anyone who stayed behind, but, given the post-apocalyptic scene unfolding, he may have been right, too. Thankfully, most residents grasped the humbling reality--that their only recourses were escape and patience--and fled. Maybe that humility is why we name storms; nobody wants to believe that the face of doom--the author of death and havoc--is just some inanimate climatic force. A tempest with agency is something we can comprehend, and it allows us to absolve ourselves and our miscalculations of some hand in the destruction.

Why do we build (and protect) cities that necessitate these mind games? Why did we choose to live in the shadow of pending ruin? The first reason, if you ask New Orleanians, is that risk is like the devil's music, the gothic voodoo scene, the inventive gastronomy, the insufferable weather, the debauched boozefests, the implacable corruption, the incomparable poverty, and the irredeemable football team: It sets us apart. Something primal there engendered civic pride and a sense that, if a biblical end was as near as the next low pressure system, we should live it up. It was a dysfunctional raison d'tre-- call it Pompeii redux--but it had its appeal. Another reason was the payoff. Despite looming annihilation, tourists flocked there from all over the world, and the port system was the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Until Wednesday, New Orleanians intuitively grasped that the risk was worth the profit and that, somehow, New Orleans worked. We lived like this, with grit, for 300 years, and we weren't going to let a little rain spoil the country's biggest party. As a result, our homes and livelihoods--and God only knows how many lives--have, overnight, ceased to exist. I am deeply ambivalent about rebuilding in that impossible place; still, acquiescence is not part of the local lexicon, and that is inevitably what residents will do anyway. Even as we return in the coming months to collect debris, New Orleanians won't move. Our triumph over the elements is imperfect, but it sure beats living in Cleveland.

This article originally ran in the September 12, 2005 issue of the magazine.