This summer will mark the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the run-of-the-mill storm that took a very deadly turn, slamming straight into New Orleans and leaving the city known for its culture completely debilitated, hardly alive. That was a trying time, you might recall from the images of the city’s displaced people camped out in the Louisiana Superdome and being rescued in boats. In all, nearly 1,900 people died during the disaster, and in its aftermath.
But as forest fires teach us, where there once was death, new life can begin anew. In New Orleans’ case, the maxim is true, but in remarkably strange ways.
The New York Times Magazine this weekend takes on some provocative and fascinating questions. What happened to the city, ecologically speaking, since the disaster? How has it been rebuilt by people? And what has nature done to the area? The answers may be as much about economics as they are about the environment. From the story:
A year after Katrina, the city’s population plunged to about 200,000 [from 627,525]; meanwhile, the street grid, since 1970, had increased by more than 10 percent. Could a city built for 627,000 maintain a population less than a third of its size? Could taxpayers afford to maintain services like garbage removal, policing, sewer pipes and miles of perpetually eroding streets? And if not, what should be done with the lowest-lying areas and their exiled inhabitants?
Essentially, the city shrunk by two thirds. And as the remaining residents struggled to rebuild their neighborhoods, they didn’t have the time nor interest to rebuild other ones—ones completely abandoned. The most apt analogy comes from a Tulane ecologist: “The closest analogy to what happened in the Lower Ninth is a volcanic eruption on the order of Mount St. Helens. The next closest is the tsunami that hit Japan’s northeast coast a year ago.”
Ecologically, that means that grass has overgrown, in some places overtaking houses and parked cars. Pavement has eroded away. The Lower Ninth Ward, an area hit particularly hard by Katrina, has been invaded by flora, much of it completely new to the area. In the most ravaged areas, underlying weeds have grown to the height of basketball hoops.
There’s no need to summarize the story. You can read it here, and it’s certainly worth your time. But it does bring up frequently asked questions about terrestrial dominance. Who’s planet is it, anyway?
Alan Weisman explores that very question in his book 2007 book The World Without Us. His premise is to wonder what would happen if the planet were to suddenly, just as it is, be relieved of the relentless pressure of human interference. How quickly could the planet, and its wonderful wildness, return, he wondered.
Pretty darn fast, it turns out. Weisman looked at New York City for an example of extreme study in human dominance. Within days, his models showed, the city’s subway tunnels would fill with water, eventually collapsing the streets, taking down skyscrapers and returning the area to the wild land it once was.
For most disaster ecologists, a niche area of study with hefty job security, one area on the planet has been a prime example of sudden human absence. That would be the Demilitarized Zone (the DMZ), a narrow, human-less, strip of land separating North and South Korea that’s 160 miles long and 2.5 miles wide and since the Korean War ended in 1953 has become among the most ecologically rich pieces of land on the planet.
But now, apparently, someone in New Orleans would find a better, and more recent, case study.