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Posted 9/7/2005

The Nose can’t say why, exactly, we selected an old, brown book out of a yard-sale bin a decade or so ago, but we did. Published in 1914 and bedraggled from age, the tome’s bland title is Floods and Levees of the Mississippi River, written by one Benjamin G. Humphreys, then a Mississippi congressman. Disastrous floods had visited the big river in 1912, and Humphreys was pushing for legislation that would finally fund a project adopted by Congress 33 years earlier to grace the Mississippi with flood-preventing, commerce-promoting improvements. To wit, levees, lots of them, “sufficient in grade and section to withstand the largest floods.”

Humphreys’ wishes were tried, but were catastrophically inadequate, as the levee-breaking flood that struck New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina last week make all too clear.

Humphreys’ proposal, as he relates in his book, had eminent supporters throughout the history of the nation. Among them, he cites Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, and Woodrow Wilson. The last two in had battled it out at the 1912 Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, where Wilson—the winner, who became a two-term president—in his acceptance speech stated that the federal government “must build and maintain the levees and keep the great waters [of the Mississippi] in harness.”

Levees, of course, were already in place by then, but nowhere near sufficient to protect New Orleans and the other growing settlements and improvements of the lower Mississippi. Construction of the first levee to protect the new city of New Orleans, Humphreys relates, was completed in 1727, and more were built in ensuing years, piecemeal, as more people moved into the area. And the levees—a technology originating in the Nile River delta in the age of the pharaohs—routinely broke when floodwaters rose.

After Jefferson arranged for the Louisiana Purchase—800,000 square miles from France for $15 million, today’s equivalent of about $200 million—the desultory levee-building process continued, financed creatively in ways that fell far short of the goal of protecting people and property. As Humphreys points out, “only once in the history of the river have the levees withstood the floods for a period as long as nine years, which was from 1903 to 1912. Since then three floods have come down the river, each one breaking the levees and doing great damage.”

In 2005, after a century of engineering marvels that dwarf the rather pedestrian feat of levee-building, New Orleans is in ruins because technology that dates from the ancient Egyptians failed. The disaster prompts the Nose to wonder, as Humphreys did in his book, “shall the deltas revert to the jungle?” In Humphreys’ time, the idea was spreading that there were no limits to the flood crests on the Mississippi, so abandoning the expensive system of levees was the only reasonable course. Money would be better spent, the argument went, on the construction of mounds that would become islands of refuge during floods; that flood-prone land, when dry, would be kept in cultivation; and that untamable acreage would remain in a natural state. This, given the limitations of the levees they invented, is what the ancient Egyptians did in order to adapt to realities of delta life.

Such a scenario sounds reasonable but is completely unrealistic in the modern age. Of course, New Orleans will be rebuilt, of course the levees will be improved, and of course future floods will take life and property. One definition of insanity is repeating courses of action that inevitably bring bad outcomes. So call us insane. New Orleans occasionally is, in the words of one of its greatest songwriters, Allen Toussaint, a case of “right place, wrong time.” Barring an outbreak of sanity, the Nose can safely predict

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