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<nettime> On Military Hydrology: Levee City
Paul D. Miller on Mon, 5 Sep 2005 11:32:42 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> On Military Hydrology: Levee City

[Policing the earth: a military helicopter surveys the streets of a 
flooded metropolis under martial law.]

It's too easy, not to mention slightly vindictive, to blame all of 
hurricane Katrina's catastrophic impact and aftermath on the Army 
Corps of Engineers; but it is worth remembering that New Orleans - in 
fact the near totality of the lower Mississippi delta - is a manmade 
landscape that has become, over the last century at least, something 
of a military artifact. To say that New Orleans is, today, under 
martial law, is therefore almost redundant: its very landscape, for 
at least the last century, has never been under anything *but* 
martial law. The lower Mississippi delta is literally nothing less 
than landscape design by army hydrologists.

New Orleans as military hydrology.

Or, military urbanism as a hydrological project.
According to The Economist , "For much of the 20th century the 
federal government tampered with the Mississippi, to help shipping 
and - ironically - prevent floods. In the process it destroyed some 
1m acres of coastal marshland around New Orleans - something which 
suited property developers, but removed much of the city's natural 
protection against flooding. The city's system of levees, itself 
somewhat undermaintained, was not able to cope."

When even people within the Army Corps of Engineers began to warn 
that the hubristic landscape design methods of the US military might 
actually be inappropriate for what is a very muscular, flood-prone, 
not-to-be-fucked-with drainage basin, the warnings were taken - well, 
frankly, they were probably taken to be blatantly unpatriotic, 
knowing what's happened to this country. But I digress.
"There is an irony," The Economist elsewhere continues, "in this 
warning coming from the Corps of Engineers. Just as with the 
Everglades in Florida, New Orleans's vulnerability has been 
exacerbated by the corps' excellence in reshaping nature's waterways 
to suit mankind's whims. In the middle of the last century, engineers 
succeeded in re-plumbing the great Mississippi... [which simply] 
hastened erosion of the coastal marshes that used to buffer New 
Orleans, leaving the city needlessly exposed. Most of the 
metropolitan area lies below sea level on drained swamp land. Levees 
normally hold back the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain, but those 
were not designed to handle the waters that would come with such a 
powerful hurricane."

Those same levees, in fact, as we all know, are actually now 
responsible for keeping the flood waters in:

"'We've been living in this bowl,' said Shea Penland, a coastal 
geologist who has studied storm threats to Louisiana for years," in 
an interview with The New York Times. "'And then Katrina broke 
channels into the bowl and the bowl filled. And now the bowl is 
connected to the Gulf of Mexico. We are going to have to close those 
inlets and then pump it dry.'"

But pumping the flooded city dry will be a "hard task," according to 
the somewhat characteristic understatement of the BBC , in an article 
that then outlines the various steps of the engineering strategy 
involved (included new causeways, steel sheets, and 300-lb. sandbags).
But even if New Orleans is "pumped dry," even if the city is 
eventually drained, even if commerce returns and the Big Easy's 
population goes back to life as usual, there is still a much larger 
problem to face.

The Economist: "America's Geological Survey has estimated that if 
nothing is done by 2050, Louisiana will lose another 700 square miles 
of coastal wetlands. Various local groups have long called for 
reconstruction of the marshes along the lines of the troubled $10 
billion Everglades rejuvenation project. The New Orleans version, 
which would cost $4 billion more, would divert some 200,000 cubic 
feet of water each second from the Mississippi 60 miles through a 
channel to feed the existing marsh and to build two new deltas. The 
plan, which would also shut canals and locks to keep out salt water 
and would build artificial barrier islands, may find more adherents."
Artificial barrier islands; 200,000 cubic feet of water each second; 
two new deltas: if at first you don't succeed... try ever more 
elaborate feats of hydrological engineering. More of the disease is 
the cure for the disease. (See here for a much older - yet no less 
impressive for being small-scale - example of complex hydrological 

Katrina, in this context, becomes a problem of landscape design.
The "hurricane" as an atmospherically-interactive, 
military-hydrological landscape problem.

[NASA satellite image: the Mississippi delta - several hundred square 
miles smaller than it should be.]
It's a question, in other words, of human geotechnical constructions 
and how they interact with the complex dynamics of the earth's 
tropical atmosphere and waterways.

[Image: Nearly all of the Atlantic's equatorial reserves of warm 
water contributed to the strength of the storm. A few levees didn't 
stand a chance.]

So what may soon become known as the destruction of New Orleans was 
simply the violent and undeniable clarification of how bad certain 
examples of landscape architecture really can be. This should 
surprise no one - horrify everyone, but surprise no one.

[Images: The total collapse of the manmade landscape has all but 
drowned the city, turning it, in the words of the Associated Press, 
into "a ruined city awash in perhaps thousands of corpses, under 
siege from looters, and seething with anger and resentment"; and the 
complete failure of urban infrastructure - including federal 
emergency response, management, and planning, which has hamstrung 
itself by sending first-responders to fight in Iraq - has made what 
is fundamentally a problem of landscape design much worse.]
Financially, could things have been different? Could the money now 
being spent in Iraq and on bogus Homeland Security projects have gone 
elsewhere - into FEMA, for instance, or into hydrologically 
better-designed levee projects on the outskirts of New Orleans? Or 
into some of those "artificial barrier islands" mentioned above (that 
BLDGBLOG would love to help design)?

Yes, the money could have been spent differently. But is further 
entrenching a particular manmade landscape - really, a kind of 
prosthetic earth's surface, a concrete shell, of valves, dams, locks, 
levees, and holding ponds installed upon the lower Mississippi - 
really the answer? Perhaps; but equally possible is that *there 
should not be a city there*.

As Mike Davis writes in * Dead Cities *: "Nature is constantly 
straining against its chains: probing for weak points, cracks, 
faults, even a speck of rust. The forces at its command are of course 
colossal as a hurricane and as invisible as a baccilli. At either end 
of the scale, natural energies are capable of opening breaches that 
can quickly unravel the cultural order. (...) Environmental control 
demands continuous investment and systematic maintenance: whether 
building a multi-billion-dollar flood control system or simply 
weeding the garden. It is an inevitably Sisyphean labor."
Davis then describes the 19th century novel *After London: or, Wild 
England* by Richard Jefferies, a book in which "the medievalized 
landscape of postapocalyptic England" is explored "less [as] a 
nightmare than [as] a deep ecologist's dreamwish of wild powers 
re-enthroned. (William Morris reported that 'absurd hopes curled 
around my heart as I read it.')"

After its destruction, then, this is London: "As fields, house sites, 
and roads were overrun, the saplings of new forests appeared. Elms, 
ashes, oaks, sycamores, and horse chestnuts thrived chaotically in 
the ruins while more disciplined copses of fir, beech, and nut trees 
relentlessly expanded their circumferences."

The city is soon home to huge flocks of kestrel hawks and owls; and 
cats, "now mostly grayish and longer in body than domestic 
ancestors," live literally everywhere (pace the film *Logan's Run*).
Eventually, "new species or subspecies [evolve] out of other former 
domesticates, (...) [and] the monstrous vegetative powers of feral 
nature begin a full-scale assault on London's brick, stone, and iron 

"As marsh recovered the floodplain, (...) [t]he hydraulic pressure of 
the flooded substratum of the city - underground passages, sewers, 
cellars, and drains - soon burst the foundations of homes and 
buildings, which in turn crumbled into rubble heaps, further impeding 

A "200-mile-long inland sea" soon forms: "Jefferies's extinct London, 
in short, is a giant stopped-up toilet, threatening death as an 
'inevitable fate' to anyone foolish enough to expose themselves to 
its poisonous miasma."

[Image: A corpse floats in the oil-coated lake that was once New Orleans.]
It becomes, that is, a flooded city.

This thread continues in Katrina 2: New Atlantis (on flooded cities) 
; and Katrina 3: Two anti-hurricane projects (on landscape 

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