By Luke Carothers

New Orleans is a city with a unique culture and style,painted with the revelry of celebrations and community.  What makes the Crescent City truly one-of-a-kind, however, is that these characteristics have not only endured some of the worst hardships in American history, but have been bolstered as a response.  The same reason that first made indigenous people settle in the area–followed by Europeans–is the same that puts it most at risk from climate events.  The city’s location on the Mississippi river, near the Gulf of Mexico, gives it a prime location for moving goods around the world.  This also means that the area is vulnerable to natural disasters such as flooding and hurricanes.

Having been controlled by various nations over the centuries, New Orleans’ built environment is not only old, but also stunningly diverse.  Just four years after the city was founded under French control, it was made the capital of Louisiana.  Shortly after that same year, most of the city was destroyed in a hurricane.  In its first response to natural disaster, the founders of New Orleans established a grid system, which is one of the defining characteristics of what is now the French Quarter.  Along this grid pattern, a press of wooden structures were built to accommodate the flow of trade, commerce, and people that come with being a territorial capital.  Some few brick structures–such as the Old Ursuline Convent–were also constructed during this era and still exist to this day.

Half a century later in 1763, New Orleans passed from French control to Spanish.  While the city had already established itself as an important trade city, Spanish control opened it up to important trading routes to Cuba and Mexico.  These new trading routes resulted in further growth and prosperity.  However, two decades into Spanish rule in the city, much of what had been constructed was decimated by a series of fires.  Despite more than 1,000 buildings being consumed by fire over a six year span, the city of New Orleans responded by building the city back in brick and producing more landmarks that continue to define the city’s architectural landscape to this day.  New Orleans’ response to massive fires in 1788 and 1794 still exists in its architectural landscape through structures like the St. Louis Cathedral and the Presbytere.

With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the city again changed hands to the United States.  The already-important port town began growing rapidly, quickly becoming the United States’ wealthiest and third-largest city.  New Orleans was saved from destruction during the Civil War due to its willingness to surrender, but it experienced no shortage of natural and manmade disasters during the 19th century, and, like many other Southern cities, struggled through the Reconstruction period.  

At the turn of the 20th century, New Orleans was a modern city with electrified streetcars and a thriving cultural center.  Furthermore, advances in pump technology meant that the swampland between the riverside crescent and Lake Pontchartrain to be drained.  New pump technology, coupled with levees and drainage canals, allowed new areas below sea level could be developed and expanded into.  During the 20th century, four major hurricanes hit New Orleans, and, while these storms certainly caused damage, none of them catastrophically threatened this system of pumps and levees.  New Orleans’ levees also narrowly avoided being topped in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

However, this ambitious system that facilitated New Orleans growth into a cultural and financial capital encountered conditions it could not handle when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005.  The resulting storm surge breached four levees, which resulted in flooding in 80 percent of the city.  This flooding trapped thousands of people in the city, resulting in more than 1,500 deaths as well as billions of dollars of damage to businesses, homes, and infrastructure.  With nowhere else to go, many people sought refuge in the Superdome, which itself suffered significant damage as a result of the storm.

The days and months following the storm were some of the darkest moments in American history, with slow federal relief efforts and the subsequent flooding from Hurricane Rita adding to the traumatic devastation the city had already endured.  However, standing testament to its capacity to recover, the city slowly began to rebuild.  One of the defining moments of this recovery process was the restoration of the Superdome–with its reopening for the following NFL season emblematic of the city’s famous resiliency.

However, the recovery process after Hurricane Katrina is ongoing as communities in the city are looking to help heal the wounds left by improving their infrastructure in a way that will prevent that kind of devastation from happening again.  Efforts like the Blue and Green Corridors project are tapping into the knowledge and resilience of these communities.  By engaging a community level involvement in resiliency planning, such projects are a valuable evolution of historical trends, proving all the more important as these vibrant and unique communities face the threats of climate change.


Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.