Tuesday, August 28, 2012



 Photos Wikipedia Commons
EDITOR's Note: 2/23/2015: This was written as Johnas Presbyter and his wife were evacuating New Orleans a couple of years ago in the face of a threatening hurricane. The question was first proposed after Katrina and frankly is sometimes posed even by natives and residents. The answer of course is that America needs a port near the mouth of the river and high ground for a city frankly isn't available. America can't do without the port...but read on as Johnas thinks the question through with his Merchant Marine Officer honed insights.

10/11/2015 Hurricane season is almost over and New Orleans wasn't threatened in 2015. The issues discussed here none the less remain. 
3/21/2019 The 2019 Hurricane season is a little over two months away. everything written here is a valid today as it was in 2015. 

I didn't originate the question. A member of Congress from Illinois did, and not now in the face of the on coming storm, this was back in the days after Katrina. This wasn't his only question, he wanted to know ..."why should we pay for these people to live in paradise?"  Given the fact that Illinois borders the Great Lakes on their north and the Ohio River on the south and exports grain through New Orleans and receives heating oil and gasoline via tank barge from South Louisiana refineries; it seemed a strange question. After all this was out of the mouth of a representative of a state with a major portion of its economy dependent on river trade through New Orleans. Not only that, but this came from a representative of a state that advertises itself as a Great Lakes to the Gulf through way for waterborne commerce in the trade journals.

Did this individual really want to close down his own state's outlet to the sea and waterborne trade advantage? We doubt that he understood his own state's role in U.S. internal waterways trade or the geography of the Mouth of the Mississippi. The key was in his second lament "Why should we pay for these people to live in Paradise?". New Orleans is best known to the typical American for its food, music, Mardi Grais, Spring Fiesta, the Jazz Fest, and eclectic culture, and unique architecture. It is thought of as a tourist town, a resort, an adult play pen. Unfortunately it is also a town that suffered billions of dollars worth of physical damages and the loss of hundreds of lives in twentieth century storms, such as the storm of 1948, Hurricane Betsy, and Hurricane Camille in the 1960s.  It often seemed like at least once a decade in the second half of the twentieth century the Federal Government was being asked to rebuild New Orleans. I may be writing this just before the second request in the twenty first century which has already seen loss of lives in the thousands in New Orleans . Lets hope not but something evil this way comes.

 So why do people live here and what Federal interest is there in maintaining this party town? To answer that you have to realize why the city is here in the first place, why did this place house the first theater, and opera house, and bank in the New World long before the Declaration of Independence was signed in Anglo America. Its simple, the Mississippi river was once the only viable highway for the movement of the treasures of Mid America to the sea. There had to be a city near the mouth of the River and the French knew it. Unfortunately there is no real high ground available to build a city anywhere in the vicinity. However the French found a Tchoitoupitoulas Indian trading village just about where you can find the famed "French Market" today. The site of the "French Market" has been a human trade center for perhaps as much as a thousand years. 

 Another feature of the French Market site was that it was near the end of a short portage that linked the Mississippi with Lake Pontchartrain via what we now call "Bayou St. John". Lake Pontchartrain actually is a bay with a very narrow set of openings to the Gulf. The lake provided an alternative to having to tack a sailing vessel up a long and winding river against a heavy current. The Tchoupitoulas trading village provided a place where cargo canoes, later flat boats, and still later steamers, could bring the commerce of the Mississippi / Ohio / Missouri Valleys almost to tide water where these trade goods could be deposited at what would become New Orleans. With relative ease these cargoes could be hauled the short distance overland for ocean transport to shallow draft sailing ships waiting in Bayou St. John. So the city began as the French settled in with the Tchoupitouclas and began improving the trading village on the "high ground", about 5 to 7 feet above sea level formed by the natural levee of the Mississippi. 

 The city quickly filled out to about a square mile on this small patch of dry land and was surrounded by a defensive wall. The swamp land between Bayou St. John and the City was separated from the city by a wall that ran along what is now called Rampart Street. St. Louis Cemetery No.1 and the "Mortuary Chapel" were the first structures located outside the wall. The population in the river valleys increased as did the trade arriving at New Orleans by flat boat. Sailing rigs improved and astute Captains were able to reach the city front with larger deeper draft vessels than could be moved through the "lake". Then in 1812 Captain Nicholas Roosevelt arrived on the first Mississippi steamboat the "NEW ORLEANS".  Serious two way trade began on the rivers.


So that was all in the Nineteenth Century right, we move stuff to tide water by truck and train right, there is no longer a need for a great river port, right? Well, consider this. The modern towboat and barge industry moves more commerce in a single day than all of the steamboats of the nineteenth century did in the entire century. In terms of costs per ton mile nothing comes close to river barge transport for non time sensitive commodities like grain and oil in bulk. Now, Mobile sits on higher ground, is periodically hit by hurricanes and has never been subjected to the kind of damages that periodically hit New Orleans. With the opening of the long anticipated Tennessee Tombigbe Waterway, Mobile now has barge transportation to the interior including the Mississippi.

 So why not abandon New Orleans? The tows coming to Mobile from the interior are limited by the channel width of the partially artificial water way to a maximum of five barges. Tows of twenty, thirty and even forty or more barges routinely arrive at New Orleans. The efficiency and cost effectiveness of New Orleans as a bulk commodity port is unrivaled in the world. The little walled city quickly needed a larger population of local pilots, longshoremen, steamship agents. checkers, clerks, and the retail, medical, other services to support them. In short, New Orleans developed its culture and traditions and cuisine while supporting a growing base of port workers at the base of the economy. But the town couldn't expand without pushing out into the surrounding marsh which was surrounded by levees and filled, in an evolutionary manner. Urban development spread up and down the river banks on both sides of the river and out into the marshes. Only a small portion of the total conurbation is actually the incorporated city of New Orleans which is simply the historic center of a confederation of cities and unincorporated urban areas such as Metairie, Kenner, Gretna, Harvey and others. 

 The city of New Orleans reached its maximum population within the corporate limits in the 1960s at a little over 600,000 people. Then began a slow fall to pre-Katrina levels of 450,000 people. There is a connection between this pre-Katrina  population fall and the rise of incorporated New Orleans as the highest taxing local authority in Louisiana. After Katrina the population fell again by nearly 200,000. Yet "New Orleans", this "small town" has a Superbowl winning NFL franchise, an NBA team, and triple A baseball team that calls itself a "New Orleans" team but has a stadium in Kenner. The truth is that the actual urbanized area contains about one and half million people. What do they all do, how did such a huge population come to be located in a semitropical swamp?


The answer is on the river. The incorporated "Port of New Orleans" is a state, not a city entity. In its own right it is about the third or fourth largest port in America. But in actuality the river is lined with grain elevators, chemical docks, oil terminals and other bulk facilities from the head of Passes to Baton Rouge , considering both sides of the river there are nearly 440 miles of commercial maritime facilities that if ever considered as a single statistical unit would be the largest port in the   world. That is the largest port in terms of tons of cargo handled, total number of ship's visits, and possibly even total dollar value of cargo despite the relatively low value of bulk commodities measured by the ton compared to container cargoes, some of which also move through "the port".    


Remember the concept of the "Isle of Orleans", the original piece of real estate that Thomas Jefferson wanted to buy? That Isle is the eastern bank of the Mississippi between the river and Lake Pontchartrain as it runs along the river to a bayou miles north of not only New Orleans proper but Kenner linking Lake Murapas, which in turn is connected to Lake Pontchartrain with the Mississippi. At the time America was concerned over its "right of deposit" at New Orleans, meaning the walled city. America occupied the east bank of the Mississippi River down to the area above New Orleans where France, then Spain, then France again owned both sides. By purchasing the east bank down to the sea America would have the internationally recognized right to navigate to and from the sea by what would then be an international river. Thomas Jefferson predicted that the Isle of Orleans would become the greatest port on earth.  If we remember what Jefferson actually meant by the "Isle of Orleans", look past the influence of local politics on port statistics, and really look at the commerce of the Isle of Orleans, Thomas Jefferson was once again right. 


 The cost of abandoning "New Orleans"would be a 1930s style depression in about 18 upriver states and serious economic deprivation in a total of 33 states. Would the nation not fall into a depression if 33 of 50 states were economically depressed to that level? So as a storm the size of Texas approaches to test the last round of Federally funded flood control again the question is being asked, should we abandon New Orleans? If we ever do, we will only have to recreate it from scratch, without the charm. Its there because it has to be, its charming as an accident of history. Why shouldn't the local population pay for everything? Well, they'd have to get the money from somewhere and the only place would from the port use fees. The many states that depend on "the right of deposit" at New Orleans can help keep the port open with single expenditures of tax money when repair is really needed, or pay constantly in higher shipping costs. 

 So how vulnerable is New Orleans to being lost to a sudden rise in sea level, the kind of physical event that comes from a sudden climatic change like those first discussed in the NAMAZU original post. It is very vulnerable, but so is New York. Do we plan to abandon all of our low lying ports in the event of sudden sea level rise? Only if we are ready to let our civilization fall. This is the type of discussion we should be having now. The Namazu school teaches that sudden climate change has happened and will happen again. We must find the ways to insure that such an event doesn't eliminate us not only as a species ,but also as a civilization. The time has come to revisit the Namazu school in these days while we await another onslaught from mother nature against what perhaps is our most important port, a port for which there is no alternative.  


No comments:

Post a Comment