An Open Letter to Engineers who Deal with Water

Dear Engineers,

I just read this post by Redneck Mother, which you should read, too.

I’ll wait here.

Here’s my question.  Could New Orleans have a safer life, granted, as a smaller city, if the main branch of the Mississippi didn’t run through it?

It’s clear that the river is trying to flip main channels and run to the Gulf through the Atchafalaya River.  At this point, why are we stopping it?  Doesn’t it seem more reasonable to tell people right now, “Hey, the river’s coming and we can’t stop it.  Yes, voluntarily giving up your towns (and granted we will lose some towns) is going to be rough.  But a lot less rough that what will happen when the river finds its way around what we’ve done.”  And this seems to me like it would take a lot of the strain off the levees in New Orleans along the river.

I don’t know.  Clearly, there are some holes in my reasoning.

But I’m just curious as to why we don’t let the river do what rivers do, especially since artificially keeping it from doing that seems to be exacerbating a problem.


Aunt B.


6 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Engineers who Deal with Water

  1. Could New Orleans have a safer life, granted, as a smaller city, if the main branch of the Mississippi didn’t run through it?

    if you’d been born to be your brother, would you still be yourself?

    the whole reason New Orleans exists is to be the port city on the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. take away that port, and even if you have a city left, it’s not New Orleans. (which is also why it’s going to get rebuilt, of course. we can’t do without a port city there.)

    but in the long run — and i mean centuries-long; “long” as in long enough for the Mississippi to notice — trying to keep an old, mature river like Miss to a single channel probably is folly, yes. in the olden days, nobody could try that, and cities like N.O. would move a little after each flooding as the river and shore moved and forced the city to move too. whether we should, or even could, work that way today is a good question. might not be any more work than all those levees and pumps and stuff. perhaps would be a mite more expensive, but perhaps not.

  2. I dunno; moving hospitals and universities and all the other institutions with lots of complex buildings that are located in N.O. is going to be fairly pricey. The Dutch manage to keep their (completely artificial, but heavily populated) coastline safe, and I think we need to start taking notes on how they do it.

  3. Well, I’m an amateur, not an engineer, but I’m pretty sure the answer is no. The Delta would be healthier, but NO would be just as far below sea level, and would still be surrounded by sea-level water even if the main channel were elsewhere.

  4. NO didn’t used to be below sea level. It’s sinking, fairly rapidly (a few centimeters every year, I think).

    Would allowing the river to change courses prevent NO from sinking further, or at least slow down the settling rate?

    Nescio is right, though, that being a port is a big part of NO’s economy. I don’t think there’s a good answer to this problem.

  5. Aunt B, I’ve wondered about moving the city out of the way of the river, too.

    W, your post is impressively thorough and I have to say it made me a little sad, because the reality seems to be that NO is just in a piss-poor location for its long-term survival, even without the river to consider.

    I have no answers, of course. I’m just here to read and eat chocolate.

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