Rethinking New Orleans as a Series of Lagoons, Elevated Houses

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, January 7, 2006

Here is a proposed New Year's resolution: Don't try to restore the parts of the city of New Orleans most severely devastated by floods, those sections of residential wards below sea level that are especially susceptible to inundation.

Why do we stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that there are places on the earth's surface -- wetlands and floodplains, seismically active regions, arid deserts, steep hillsides and cliffs -- where erecting cities endangers not only humans, but also the natural environment?

Why do we persist in believing that, through technological intervention, we can withstand and control the forces of nature, no matter the risks, economic costs and long-term ecological damage?

Building on coastal land below sea level, no matter where, is fundamentally a bad idea. Soil subsidence, coupled with rising ocean levels and increased storm activity caused by global climate change, will make existing lowlands even lower and ever more vulnerable to storm-induced flooding in the future.

Building on coastal land subject to hurricanes and severe storm surges, at the mouth of the mighty Mississippi, is a bad idea made worse. Constructing miles of levees at great expense to make low-lying coastal land habitable is yet more absurd. It only compounds our collective foolishness, as does providing flood insurance for properties in chronically flooded areas.

And doing all this when we know it's a mistake is downright crazy.

What can be done about New Orleans?

Instead of spending billions of dollars on extensive levee reconstruction, help the city's displaced and economically disadvantaged residents to permanently relocate to higher ground.

Then convert the most endangered lowlands of New Orleans into a well-designed system of public parks. Appropriately enough, such parks could include water features -- lagoons, canals, ponds, fountains -- controlled by using pumps, since drainage by gravity is not an option.

But another, more radical approach could allow some repopulation of perpetually threatened New Orleans real estate. Create communities built over water, not on land. Visualize, by way of analogy, permanently sited houseboats in Sausalito, Calif., or dwellings and shops perched on stilts in the lagoons of Bangkok.

In New Orleans, robustly structured networks of pilings supporting walkways and platforms, well above sea-level, could be arrayed over new lagoons. Relatively transparent to both wind and water, these networks would support equally well-engineered, low-profile homes, along with necessary water and sewer mains. Elevated above storm surge levels, homes and walkways would be designed and built to withstand hurricane-force gales.

These structures would be erected after demolition, clearance and grading of devastated neighborhoods. Then, letting nature have its way, the transformed lowlands would be flooded to form permanent lagoons.


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