Battle of New Orleans

Salon provides an excerpt from John McPhee’s 1989 The Control of Nature, which deals in part with New Orleans’ efforts to tame the Mississippi River.

Torrential rains fall on New Orleans — enough to cause flash floods inside the municipal walls. The water has nowhere to go. Left on its own, it would form a lake, rising inexorably from one level of the economy to the next. So it has to be pumped out. Every drop of rain that falls on New Orleans evaporates or is pumped out. Its removal lowers the water table and accelerates the city’s subsidence. Where marshes have been drained to create tracts for new housing, ground will shrink, too. People buy landfill to keep up with the Joneses. In the words of Bob Fairless, of the New Orleans District engineers, “It’s almost an annual spring ritual to get a load of dirt and fill in the low spots on your lawn.” A child jumping up and down on such a lawn can cause the earth to move under another child, on the far side of the lawn….

“The people cannot have wells, and so they take rainwater,” Mark Twain observed in the eighteen-eighties. “Neither can they conveniently have cellars or graves, the town being built upon ‘made’ ground; so they do without both, and few of the living complain, and none of the others.” The others may not complain, but they sometimes leave. New Orleans is not a place for interment. In all its major cemeteries, the clients lie aboveground. In the intramural flash floods, coffins go out of their crypts and take off down the street.


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