Many still more ancient lobes are now submerged. The next avulsion is now overdue. Only human invention, in the form of steel and concrete, stands in its way. Meanwhile, as the Mississippi has pushed lobe after lobe into the sea, the sea has pushed back. Where the river delivers enough sand and clay to make up for the lost volume, the land holds its own. Where compaction outpaces accretion, the land begins to subside until, eventually, the Gulf reclaims it. Such a mutable landscape is a hard one to settle.
Nevertheless, Native Americans were probably living in the delta even as it was being created. If the Mississippi flooded, they sought higher ground. If it shifted quarters, they did, too. When the French arrived, they consulted with the tribes living there. In , the fort was abandoned. Bienville went on to found New Orleans, in , in spite of his cold, wet feet. Counterintuitively, this was right up against the Mississippi.
During floods, sand and other heavy particles tend to settle out of the water first, creating what are known as natural levees. The settlement remained submerged for six months. Rather than retreat again, the French dug in. They started cutting drainage channels through the muck and raising artificial barriers atop the natural ones.
Most of this backbreaking labor was performed by African slaves. By the seventeen-thirties, slave-built levees stretched along both banks of the river for nearly fifty miles. These early levees, made of earth reinforced with timber, failed frequently. But they established a pattern that endures to the present day. With each failure, the levees were improved—built higher and wider and longer. By the War of , they ran along the river for more than a hundred and fifty miles. A few days after I flew over Plaquemines, I found myself once again gazing down on the parish.
If the water kept rising and the spillway failed to open, the city and the parishes downriver from it would be inundated. I was with several engineers, and they were starting to get nervous. I was anxious, too, though only a little, since the Mississippi we were looking at was about five inches wide.
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There are large puddles representing Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne, which are not really lakes but, rather, brackish lagoons. More puddles represent Barataria Bay and Breton Sound, inlets of the Gulf, and still more puddles represent various bayous and backwaters.
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I pulled off my shoes and tried to walk from New Orleans to the Gulf. By the time I got to English Turn, my feet were wet. I stuffed my soggy socks into my pocket. The model delta, which represents a kind of relief map of the future, is supposed to simulate flooding and sea-level rise and to help test strategies for dealing with them. At the time of my visit, the model was so new that it was still being calibrated. This involved running simulations of well-studied disasters from the past, like the flood of In the spring of that year, heavy snowmelt combined with weeks of intense rain across the Midwest, resulting in record-breaking water levels.
On the model, the spillway gates were represented by small strips of brass attached to copper wires.
He looked like a latter-day Gulliver, bent over a drowning Lilliput. He, too, I noticed, had wet socks. In the world of the model, time—as well as space—contracts. On its accelerated schedule, a year passes in an hour, a month in five minutes. As I watched the weeks race by, the river kept rising.
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Water began flowing out of the Mississippi into Lake Pontchartrain, and New Orleans was saved, at least for now. Two separate vats served as the source for the mini-Mississippi. One provided clear water. The other held the mud of the Little Muddy, though not real mud. This was simulated sediment, imported from France and composed of exactingly milled plastic pellets—teensy, half-millimetre-wide pellets for large grains of sand and even teensier ones to represent finer particles.
The sediment was jet black and stood out against the foam riverbed and surrounding terrain, which were painted bright white. Southeast Louisiana, where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico, as it is often depicted on maps. What maps would look like if they showed only solid land. The light blue indicates swamps, marshes, and wetlands. During the mock flood, some of the dark pellets had been flushed down the spillway, into Lake Pontchartrain.
Most had swooshed out past New Orleans and around English Turn. This inky mix was streaming in dark eddies toward the Gulf of Mexico, where, had it been real sediment, it would have vanished off the coast. Had the river been left to its own devices, a super-wet spring like that of would have sent the Mississippi and its distributaries surging over their banks. The floodwaters would have wreaked havoc, but they would have spread tens of millions of tons of sand and clay across thousands of square miles of countryside.
The new sediment would have formed a fresh layer of soil and, in this way, countered subsidence. Thanks to the intervention of the engineers, there had been no spillover, no havoc, and hence no land-building. The future of southern Louisiana had, instead, washed out to sea. The storm claimed an additional three hundred lives in other states. As we chatted, someone flipped a switch controlling projectors in the ceiling.
Suddenly, the fields of Plaquemines turned green and the Gulf blue. The effect was dazzling, if also a little unnerving, as when Dorothy steps out of sepia-toned Kansas into Oz.
He was wearing a shirt embroidered with the C. Much of Plaquemines lies below sea level—six feet under, people sometimes say.
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This arrangement is made possible by four sets of levees. Two run along the river, one on each bank. The levees, which keep water out, also keep water in. When they are breached or overtopped, Plaquemines fills up like a pair of long, skinny bathtubs.
Plaquemines was devastated by Katrina , which made landfall in Buras, and then was ravaged again, just a few weeks later, by Hurricane Rita, the most intense storm ever recorded over the Gulf. For months after these back-to-back disasters, Route 23 was blocked by washed-up fishing boats. Dead cows hung from the trees. In anticipation of the next catastrophe, public buildings in the parish stand on improbable pilings. Where other schools might have a gym or a ground-floor cafeteria, South Plaquemines High has enough empty space to park a fleet of tractor trailers.
Many of the homes in the parish have been similarly elevated.
One house we passed had been raised to a particularly vertiginous height; Simoneaux estimated that its pilings were thirty feet tall. We were driving alongside the river but inside the levees, so for long stretches the Mississippi was invisible. Every so often, ships would loom into view. From the vantage point of the road, they appeared to be floating not on water but on air, like zeppelins. Near the town of Ironton, Simoneaux pulled off Route 23 onto a gravel drive. At the end of it, we climbed over some barbed wire onto a scruffy field.
mewestroco.gq It was a steamy day, and the field, dotted with puddles, smelled of rot. Flies buzzed lazily in the thick afternoon air.
The land we were standing on was a project technically known as BA Simoneaux explained that, like the rest of the delta, BA had come out of the Mississippi, though not quite in the usual way. As the drill spun, it had gouged out sand and mud. Enormous diesel-powered pumps had sent this slurry gushing through a thirty-inch steel pipe. The pipe had run for five miles, from the west bank of the Mississippi, over the river levees, under Route 23, across some cattle fields, over the back levees, and finally into a shallow basin of Barataria Bay.
There, the muck had piled up until bulldozers spread it around. BA had proved, not that further proof was really necessary, what enough pipes and pumps and diesel fuel can accomplish. Nearly a million cubic yards of sediment had made the five-mile journey, resulting in the creation—or, to be more accurate, the re-creation—of a hundred and eighty-six paludal acres. Here were all the benefits of flooding without the messy side effects: drowned citrus groves, drowned people, cows hanging from the trees. The bill for the project had been six million dollars, which, I calculated, meant that the acre we were standing on had cost about thirty thousand dollars.
But Louisiana is locked in a race with the Red Queen, and in this race it has to move twice as fast just to stay even. To match the pace of land loss, the state would have to churn out a hundred and eighty-six acres every nine days. Meanwhile, the artificial marsh had already begun to de-water and subside. Behind a grove of palms was an A-frame lodge with a pool out back. On the water, it was about ten degrees cooler than onshore.