Going Off-Script: New Orleans and the Control of Nature

Note: This essay was written a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina; its “here and now” is September 2005

The idea that we can control Nature—reshape it, restrain it, or redirect it—it is deeply rooted in Western culture, and nowhere more deeply than in the United States. The conquest of the wilderness is a central theme in America’s secular mythology, and in the songs, stories, and schoolbooks that partake of it. Bending nature to our will, we are told at from an early age, is one of the things Americans do better than anyone else.

The reason Americans are so skilled at controlling nature, the myth tells us, is our unique talent for solving problems. Examples abound, we are told. We opened the Great Plains to large-scale cultivation by inventing the steel plow to slice open tough prairie sod. We built the Panama Canal by conquering elevation changes with gigantic locks. We made the deserts of the Southwest bloom by damming the region’s great rivers. We conquered disease by waging war on the mosquito with DDT and on bacteria with antibiotic drugs. We made the World Trade Center towers economically viable by eschewing post-and-beam skeletons for load-bearing outer walls and unobstructed, truss-supported floors. Suggestions that American ingenuity has its limits, and that ingenious solutions can breed unexpected new problems, are a tough sell at best in a nation that values optimism and self-confidence. Like a loud belch at a formal dinner, such suggestions are politely ignored at the time and loudly denounced afterward. Four years after the fact, criticisms of the design of the Twin Towers are still dismissed by many Americans not as unfounded (public discussion seldom gets that far) but as unpatriotic.

The drowning of New Orleans—a city whose existence depends on ingenious structures designed to control the most powerful river in North America—has raised those questions more forcefully, and kept them in the public eye longer, than any event in the last century. It is more video-friendly than antibiotic-resistant bacteria, more easily explained than the limits of Western irrigation, and less politically charged than the collapse of the Twin Towers. The nature of the destruction also contributes, giving the disaster emotional resonance even for casual observers of the endless news coverage. The iconic images of the damage done by the 1989 San Francisco earthquake were the partially collapsed Nimitz Expressway and Bay Bridge. The iconic images of the damage done to New Orleans are more intimate: displaced families, ruined houses, wandering pets, lost possessions.

Two sets of comments on the drowning of New Orleans suggest that, at least for a time, it has raised questions about the viability of the city and, by extension, about the limits of humans’—even Americans’—ability to control nature. The first set came from Representative Dennis Hastert, the Speaker of the House. The second came (and continues to come) from residents of New Orleans forced out of the city by the floods.

Hastert, whose low-visibility career as speaker suggested that he had the instincts of a back-bencher, achieved instant (if not welcome) notoriety by suggesting on September 1 that rebuilding New Orleans in its current form might be a bad idea. Interviewed by a reporter for a paper in his Illinois district, Hastert noted that “a lot of it looks like it could be bulldozed” and that “we ought to take a second look at [rebuilding].” There are, he went on, “some real tough questions to ask” about how the city should be rebuilt and what safeguards against future floods should be put in place. Asked to comment on plans to spend billions of federal dollars on rebuilding a city that lies below sea level, Hastert responded: “I don’t know. That doesn’t make sense to me.”

Having generated a predictably intense flurry of outrage from elected officials at every level of Louisiana government, Hastert beat a hasty retreat. Before the day was out, he issued a “clarification” stating, in part, that: "My comments about rebuilding the city were intended to reflect my sincere concern with how the city is rebuilt to ensure the future protection of its citizens and not to suggest that this great and historic city should not be rebuilt.” The clarification, while politically expedient, was also patently false. Any straightforward reading of Hastert’s original statements—specifically the “doesn’t make sense” comment—shows that, at least for a few hours, he did advocate serious public discussion of whether New Orleans ought to be rebuilt in its current location and configuration. Jack Schafer noted this in a September 7 article for the online magazine Slate, agreeing with Hastert and arguing that the speaker had been “shouted down” for his “candor and wisdom.”

The comments of New Orleans residents displaced by the hurricane have received less notice, but in their way are no less remarkable. Americans interviewed in the aftermath of a natural disasters—flood, storm, wildfire, or earthquake—routinely declare their determination to rebuild their damaged or destroyed homes, gather the threads of the former life, and go on. Many, probably most of the hurricane victims from New Orleans, said the same when their ten second in the national spotlight came. For the first time, however, an extraordinary number have said just the opposite: That they plan to abandon New Orleans and start fresh in wherever the evacuation process brought them. Few who take this position explicitly invoke the failure of the levees and the virtual certainty that they will fail again, but it is hard to believe that such concerns are not at work in their minds.

Americans’ response to natural disasters have traditionally followed a well-established script: Victims declare that they will return and rebuild, politicians declare that they will fund the rebuilding, and engineers pledge that they will work to make the new buildings stronger than the old. The script reassures Americans of something that most already believe: that they can triumph over nature through ingenuity and determination. The drowning of New Orleans has led substantial numbers of victims and at least one politician to go “off-script,” suggesting that belief in Americans’ ability to subdue nature may have eroded along with the levees.