Last time we took a tour of the French Quarter, looking at some of the lesser known sights. Today I want to talk about an area that is essential to New Orleans life. We are constantly surrounded by it, constantly aware of its importance in our world. It stands guard over us, nurtures us, and gives us recreation, economy and beauty. The one time it failed, 11,000 of us died. I'm talking about the New Orleans Levee.
A levee is a dam that holds back a body of water that is higher in altitude than the land around it. The New Orleans Levee is part of a system of levees that runs pretty much the entire length of the lower Mississippi River. Here in NOLA we have levees around the river itself, and around the various canals that were dug in the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds to allow shipping from the river to enter Lake Pontchartrain.
I live just a few blocks from the levee (the part near my house held up during Katrina, thanks), and it is a pretty fascinating location: a combination of industry, recreation and wildlife, all functioning together in a sometimes uneasy partnership. It even contains a few mysteries...
Let's take a bike ride along the three or four miles of the levee closest to my house.
Nearly the entire length of the levee, from the French Quarter upriver to Metarie and Lake Pontchartrain, features a bike/jogging path. In the above shot, I set my bicycle beside the path to take a photo of the path and my bike with the river and the Huey P. Long Bridge in the background. As you can see, several bike riders passed through the scene as I was shooting, making for a dramatic pic.
Right in the spot where one enters it from my street there are 11 houses on the river side of the levee. This is the only place in New Orleans where houses sit on this side of the structure: while very romantic and picturesque, they are also in constant danger of flooding. I know them by color: the Blue House above, the Red House below, and the Natural Wood house somewhere down there.
Last year, after heavy snow melt and intense rain up north, the river rose about fifteen or twenty feet. Below are the same homes seen above, back in May of 2011. You can see that the Natural Wood House had flood waters inside the house, coming just over the floor, while the Red House was a little luckier (or a little higher): its yard was completely submerged.
Just across from the levee houses we find a working horse stable. Riders use the wide green lands on either side of the raised levee to ride, work and to graze their horses.
There are several beaches along the river. The largest one is just downriver from the levee houses. On the day I was there, there were sunbathers and people fishing, both pretty common activities (although this was the first time I saw a levee sunbather quite as bold as this one...take a close look at the photo below).
These two guys were fishing on the other end of the beach. A homeless guy walked by and told us he'd just seen an alligator a few yards away in the forest.
A lot of homeless people set up tents in the thickets along the levee. Here's a glimpse of the forest where the homeless and the gators dwell together. On my way to take these I passed through a tent village, but I didn't want to disturb their privacy: I shot a bit of the forest just beyond their camp.
I never did see the gator (though I know he's there---I can feel their presence on the levee). But wildlife abounds on the grassy structure: here's a little guy who was grazing just outside the forest.
Industry is everywhere on the river and the shore. While New Orleans has a booming tourist economy, like the rest of Louisiana our major industries are maritime: oil tankers, fishing and freight. I caught this oil tanker sailing upriver, passing under the Huey P. Long Bridge.
On the shore we find various shipping yards and salvage yards, like Bertucci, a salvage yard just on the other side of the levee houses. Here's a scene from that yard...
As I biked further upriver, a few miles past the salvage yard, I found a patch of forest. I locked the bike up and walked into this grove of cypress and oak, where I discovered a mystery that occupied my simple mind for several hours. Here is the forest that lured me in, with leaning cypress and tangled oaks. You can see from the marks on the cypress trees just how high the river has flooded in the recent past.
Deep in the forested area I found this stagnent, muddy course of water. The ground around the shallow murk was thick and wet, and had turned to quicksand (quicksand is sandy soil with water running beneath: it will suck you down pretty deep, as seen by the deep tracks left around the brackish water, but it's not like in the movies; you won't sink all the way in. it just kinda sucks for your shoes and your pants. Literally!).
Just to the side of the drying water flow, I found these structures. Obviously unused for many years, the forest growing into them, I wondered what they could be. My initial guess was that they were docks for barges or for tugs, unused because the river had once reached this area and had somehow receded. I even wondered if they were barges that were left aground when the river dried, and that became embedded in the silt and sand.
My girlfriend Lauren is much smarter than me, and every once in a while she has to remind me of that. She looked at these photos and solved the mystery. Can you guess? I'll give you one more look, and then reveal the somewhat obvious aswer Lauren revealed to me:
Lauren's solution to the mystery: New Orleans is full of canals. In the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds, thousands of Irish workers were brought here to dig a series of canals. They all died of yellow fever, so Italians, immune to that disease, were brought over to replace them. This little course of mucky quicksand was once a barge canal! And the structures? Locks! Canal locks, to control the flow of water running through the chanel. Lauren is so smart...
So this got me thinking about canals. the following day I found myself in the Lower Ninth Ward, where I took the time to photograph the Industrial Canal that separates the Lower Ninth from the Upper Ninth Ward (built by those disease-free Italians in the late eighteen hundreds). The levee here is very open and grassy. Below is the view from the Levee into Holy Cross, the lowest end of the LNW, where some really beautiful houses stand. Holy Cross was not hit as hard by Katrina as the rest of the LNW, and many people are returning to this area to live. There is a lot of wildlife here too. Beside herons, egrets, hawks and eagles, there are hundreds of feral chickens.
The Industrial Canal unites the river and Lake Pontchartrain, a journey of five-and-a-half miles. Here is the spot where the canal meets the river. We see a tug pushing a barge from the Industrial Canal into the Mississippi.
Up the canal, at the center of the Lower Ninth Ward, the levee is really nothing more than a long, high concrete wall:
Here is the wall, seen from my car window as I crossed the Claiborne Bridge headed back uptown. That's the Florida Avenue bridge in the background, just down from the lake.
This concrete wall is the reason the flooding was so horrible in the Lower Ninth during Katrina. The levees were built to protect NOLA from the river rising. But no provision was ever made for water coming from the other way! On August 29, 2005, the storm flooded the river and the canals so badly that the lake rose and sent water back into the canals. Water coming south from Lake Pontchartrain overran the canals, and these flimsy concrete walls were no protection. They ended up like this:
(Photo above courtesy of this site).
What is being done to prevent this from happening again? All along the levee vacuum pumps are being installed. Here are the ones that stand just up the street from my house:
They're very Steampunk! These pumps can drain water from the river and divert it to flood chanels flowing away from the city. Also, safeguards are being built on the Pontchartrain end of the canals, locks that can be closed if the lake ever rises again (and it certainly will, we all know that). Hopefully the scene below will never happen again!
That placid beach full of grazing horses and lovely sunbathers? This was the same beach in May of 2011.
Wanna see the Levee yourself? To get to my end of the Levee from the French Quarter, just take the Saint Charles Streetcar line to Riverbend (right now it's the final stop until they finish fixing the upper tracks), get out and walk in the direction of the rising green slope. You're there! And don't worry, the beach is lovely right now (though I cannot guarantee nudity...).
From the New Orleans Levee, this is Kenny Klein explaining it all!