Maxed Out 

Lessons from the muddy Mississippi

By G.D. Maxwell

Believe it or not – and don’tcha just love columns that begin with a statement like that – there really are actual, valuable lessons little Whistler can learn about how we do what we do from what got done and didn’t get done in the former city known as New Orleans.

Yes, it happened in a different country, a country different even than the country we thought it happened in. A country few of us, even if we were born and raised there, can believe is actually the United States of America.

Yes, it happened in a place where the weather’s hot and natural disasters are more top-of-head worries than they are here. Our biggest worries, natural disasterwise, have more to do with winter arriving without snow and tourists, the Fitz Slump slumping into the day skier parking lots, forest fires, earthquakes, vanishing bridges and the pending world latte shortage.

But lessons there were, as Yoda might say.

Lesson #1: Things are not always as they seem when nature is in charge.

Several hundred years ago the city of New Orleans seemed like a good idea. It grew, almost organically, on the last piece of dry land – above both sea and river level at that time – before the Mississippi river poured its load of water and mud into the Gulf of Mexico. Its fortune was forever linked to a river that drained, as it turned out, two-thirds of what would eventually become the USofA and a fair chunk of southern Canada. It had Major Important Port written all over it.

But, being a river and therefore part of nature, the Mississippi was not always as it seemed. What nobody, not even the very first engineer in the Army Corps of Engineers – established after the U.S. Revolutionary War specifically to engineer the bejesus out of the Mississippi – realized was that the Mississippi had itchy feet, if in fact rivers can metaphorically be said to have feet. The Mississippi is all about change. The historical record of the river, unavailable at the time New Orleans was established, shows its course and, more importantly, its delta, have meandered several hundred miles east to west in the last several thousand years.

New Orleans was built on a moving target. And being a city, New Orleans was not as inclined to move as the Mississippi was.

For the better part of the last century, the Mississippi’s been trying to move west, seeking the most direct route to the Gulf. It has only been the Corps’ Herculean – perhaps Sisyphean – efforts to corral the Mississippi between fixed levees, in size dwarfing China’s Great Wall, that have kept it from being captured and moved west by the Atchafalaya river several hundred miles north of New Orleans. The cost of arm-wrestling nature has been billions, perhaps hundreds of billions if all the costs over all the years were totted up.

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