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Day 887: Bayou Bienvenue – The “Rebuilding Below Sea Level” Statement Pops Up

The Bring Back Bayou Bienvenue project is on my front-burner again.  The University of Wisconsin Department of Geology and Geophysics, of which I am a graduate, asked me to write an article for the alumni magazine (due soon).  Additionally, Rob Zaleski of Madison’s Capital Times emailed me a few days ago asking for my response to Madisonians and those at the University of Wisconsin who question whether the university should involve itself in advocating for the rebuilding of neighborhoods that are under sea level. 

There are several things that irked me about this question.  First of all, it’s too general; the Bayou Bienvenue project deals with a specific neighborhood and its bayou.  Secondly, the project is a bayou-recovery feasibility study, not a neighborhood rebuilding effort or a social policy push.  No one associated with this project is in the business of false hopes.  Instead, the project exists to find out if a bayou can come back in a neighborhood that is surrounded by shipping channels and attendant seawater incursion, and whether the products of sewage treatment can help remediate the damage.

Lastly, the line of questioning makes the neighborhoods of New Orleans appear helpless and removed from their own rebuilding.  The residents of the Lower Ninth Ward are the decisionmakers and instigators here.  They have re-established themselves, want to rebuild in an environmentally-friendly and sustainable manner and have canvassed help.  Environmental scientists from around the nation and world would be daft not to help them given the resources at hand.

Most of America, why, most of New Orleans thinks that the Lower Ninth Ward was absolutely devastated and that nothing has really happened there in the last 2.5 years.  This is true to some extent given the ferocity of the localized flooding, ensuing devastation and overall snail’s pace of recovery in New Orleans.  What most of us don’t know is that the neighborhood associations there banded together to create the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement & Development and actively direct how they want to come back.  What other New Orleanian neighborhood has thought about rebuilding in terms of sustainable development and environmental restoration?

GNOCDC's New Orleans Elevation Map
(Click on the picture to go to the Flickr page and accompanying notes for this photo.)

Speaking of other neighborhoods, most of Lakeview is farther below sea level than the entire Lower Ninth Ward.  Has anyone questioned the rebuilding of Lakeview to the same extent they do that of poorer and blacker neighborhoods to the east?  Granted, no one wants to see anyone suffer again, whatever their race or income may be, but America has to understand that there is a strong racial and economic bias at play in this city and its recovery.  Lopsided questioning like this is precisely why it is our immediate social obligation to constantly shed light on New Orleans and to get assumptions right before passing judgment.

It’s not for us to decide whether it is right or wrong on the part of former residents to move back into their rebuilt and raised homes, especially when they bear the brunt of the insurance and re-flooding risk.  It is, however, a social responsibility to help our fellow Americans after they have taken the situation into their own hands and have requested aid.  Come what may, New Orleans and every coastal city on this planet has lessons to learn.  I, for one, see no reason for the University of Wisconsin, or any other research institution, not to get involved in these lessons and a problem of such scope and urgency. 

Our fate is your fate.  Help us and learn from us.  We must work hard to ensure that nothing like this happens here or anywhere again.  

8 comments… add one
  • GentillyGirl January 31, 2008, 4:31 PM

    I tried to get the GCIA (of which I am a co-Founder) to adopt sustainability, and many refused to hear the words. For some it was about money, and others? They couldn’t be bothered.

    We are the only house in the Lost Neighborhood who has paid attention to the worst-case scenario maps from the ACOE and remembered 8/29.

    If the Flood happens again, we will be the only place left.

  • mominem January 31, 2008, 4:41 PM

    Just a comment on the map. the Lakeview box encompasses areas on the north that are actually Lakeshore, and higher, and on the South which I think are actually mid city, and higher.

    I don’t think many realize the Lower Ninth is actually higher than Lakeview.

  • Maitri January 31, 2008, 6:40 PM

    mominem, thanks, I was in a hurry and it’s now fixed. No, I think America now knows the words Lakeview and Lower Ninth but not really anything about them geography-wise.

    GG, what can I say, dear? You’re preaching to the choir, but how to get the message out there?

  • Ray February 1, 2008, 2:14 AM

    I realize you’re saying it’s immaterial, but just for the record, most of Holy Cross sits above sea level–at the same height at the French Quarter, the Bywater and Marigny neighborhoods, etc.

  • mominem February 1, 2008, 10:17 PM

    Glad to help.

    I think it illustrates the point much better now, virtually everything in the Lower Ninth is higher than anything in Lakeview.

    Keep hitting them with the facts, just the facts, Maitri.

  • Tim February 5, 2008, 11:40 PM

    Bravo! Elevation matters. Thanks for fighting the good fight.



  • Michael February 6, 2008, 12:58 PM

    I’ll keep an eye out for your upcoming article in the Wisco Alumni mag.

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