Flood and Sacrifice: How an Old Convent Could Help Save New Orleans

But they did not. Humans sank New Orleans, in a war with water.

For many years, even after the Civil War, the entire city still sat above sea level. But developers saw an opportunity in the city’s marshes: They could “reclaim” wetlands, they said, and sell the slow-draining land as real estate.

It was a mistake. “While they feared and hated the swamp, those low-lying areas did a fine job of storing excess water — be it from rain, storm surge or river overtopping,” said Richard Campanella, a geographer and author with the Tulane University School of Architecture.

The mistake compounded, as inventors and investors devised more efficient pumps. The spongy soil settled lower and lower as it dried, so that today about half the city does sit below sea level, and there is a never-ending battle with water. Pumps shunt away rainfall, and levees hold back the sea. The complex system creates an ever-deepening bowl.

In 2005, with the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, the bowl was breached.

The Sisters fled that storm, mostly to Baton Rouge. When they returned they found the first floor of their three-story convent ruined by floodwater. They spent more than a million dollars, raiding their retirement fund, to gut the first floor and remove muck and mold.

Then in 2006, before they could move back in, lightning struck the roof and burned the third floor. Then water from Bayou St. John, scooped up and dropped by helicopters fighting a nearby fire, destroyed the second.

Their repairs had been for nothing. Their motherhouse was gone.

“It was like watching someone you love die,” Sister Hughes said.

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