New Orleans is "an inevitable city on an impossible site," or so said geographer Peirce Lewis in New Orleans - The Making of an Urban Landscape. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many have argued that New Orleans should not be rebuilt—or at least not where it now stands. And they no doubt have logic on their side: Who would build a city (a coastal city at that) seven feet below sea level?
The French, that's who. But when they established the city and port we know as New Orleans in 1718, it wasn't because they wanted to live in a mosquito-infested swamp. It was because this site, alongside a Native American trading route and portage between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, allowed them to control commerce in North America. New Orleans represents the pOréal to 14,500 miles of waterways that today reach 62 percent of the U.S. population.
It was for this same reason that in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson and a rag-tag army of 4,000, including Jean Lafitte and his colorful band of pirates, took on—and held off—a British force of 8,000 who tried to seize the city and the port.
And it is for this same reason that New Orleans will rise again, and my guess is right where it is, although this time with better protections in place.
Since before the railroads, New Orleans, with its location on the Mississippi River, has been vital to U.S. commerce. Even today, 90 percent of corn exports and 60 percent of soybean exports move down river to New Orleans. That's unlikely to change: Trains and trucks are poor substitutes for barges, particularly when fuel costs are at record highs.
The port, which boasts unmatched intermodal connections (it's served by six Class I railroads, 50 ocean carriers, 16 barge lines and 75 motor carriers), is equally vital to foreign commerce. Natural rubber from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand and steel from Japan, Brazil, Russia and Mexico all enter this country via New Orleans' docks. More than a quarter of the nation's coffee beans come through New Orleans, which offers 5.5 million square feet of storage space and six roasting facilities within a 20-mile radius. And right now, 1,200 tons of aluminum and 900 tons of copper sit in storage in New Orleans along with 250,000 tons of zinc (which represents almost half of all the zinc stocks traded on the London Metal Exchange).
Although the port's facilities suffered less damage than many other parts of the city, Katrina hardly left them untouched. When the winds subsided, containers lay strewn about the container yards like matchsticks, gantry cranes were damaged, and three separate wharves were left charred.
By Sept.5, however, the river was open in both directions in daylight hours for vessels with drafts of 35 feet or less, and on Sept. 12, a barge of steel coils left the port bound for the Hyundai plant in Greenville, Ala. (Barge transportation was substituted for truck because many highways remained impassable.) On Sept. 14, the port handled its first container ship since the storm.
The Port of New Orleans was back—although in a limited way. Yet formidable obstacles remain. The highway and rail systems will be disrupted for some time to come, and labor and fuel will likely be in short supply.
The city itself faces much greater problems. But for almost 300 years, its citizens have battled heat, storms, yellow fever, malaria, smallpox and other adversities, and my money is on them to overcome this crisis as well. It won't be easy. It will take all the energy, ambition and resources they can muster. But not having New Orleans in New Orleans simply is not a logistical option.