By Clifford F. Lynch
DC Velocity, November 2005
New Orleans is "an inevitable
city on an impossible site," or so said geographer Peirce Lewis in New
Orleans Ė The Making of an Urban Landscape. In the aftermath of Hurricane
Katrina, many have argued that New Orleans should not be rebuilt Ė or at least
not where it now stands. And they no doubt have logic on their side: Who would
build a city (a coastal city at that) seven feet below sea level?
The French, thatís who. But when they established the city and port we know
as New Orleans in 1718, it wasnít because they wanted to live in a
mosquito-infested swamp. It was because this site, alongside a Native American
trading route and portage between the Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain,
allowed them to control commerce in North America. New Orleans represents the
portal to 14,500 miles of waterways that today reach 62 percent of the U.S.
It was for this same reason that in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, Andrew
Jackson and a rag-tag army of 4,000, including Jean Lafitte and his colorful
band of pirates, took on Ė and held off Ė a British force of 8,000 who tried
to seize the city and the port.
And it is for this same reason that New Orleans will rise again, and my guess
is right where it is, although this time with better protections in place.
Since before the railroads, New Orleans, with its location on the Mississippi
River, has been vital to U.S. commerce. Even today, 90 percent of corn exports
and 60 percent of soybean exports move down the river to New Orleans. Thatís
unlikely to change: Trains and trucks are poor substitutes for barges,
particularly when fuel costs are at record highs.
The port, which boasts unmatched intermodal connections (itís served by six
Class I railroads, 50 ocean carriers, 16 barge lines and 75 motor carriers), is
equally vital to foreign commerce. Natural rubber from Indonesia, Malaysia and
Thailand and steel from Japan, Brazil, Russia and Mexico all enter this country
via New Orleansí docks. More than a quarter of the nationís coffee beans
come through New Orleans, which offers 5.5 million square feet of storage space
and six roasting facilities within a 20-mile radius. And right now, 1,200 tons
of aluminum and 900 tons of copper sit in storage in New Orleans along with
250,000 tons of zinc (which represents almost half of all the zinc stocks traded
on the London Metal Exchange).
Although the portís facilities suffered less damage than many other parts
of the city, Katrina hardly left them untouched. When the winds subsided,
containers lay strewn about the container yards like matchsticks, gantry cranes
were damaged, and three separate wharves were left charred.
By September 5, however, the river was open in both directions in daylight
hours for vessels with drafts of 35 feet or less, and on September 12, a barge
of steel coils left the port bound for the Hyundai plant in Greenville, Alabama.
(Barge transportation was substituted for truck because many highways remained
impassable.) On September 14, the port handled its first container ship since
The Port of New Orleans was back ̶ although in a limited way. Yet
formidable obstacles remain. The highway and rail systems will be disrupted for
some time to come, and labor and fuel will likely be in short supply.
The city itself faces much greater problems. But for almost 300 years, its
citizens have battled heat, storms, yellow fever, malaria, smallpox, and other
adversities, and my money is on them to overcome this crisis as well. It wonít
be easy. It will take all the energy, ambition and resources they can muster.
But not having New Orleans in New Orleans simply is not a logistical option.