Water and Wellness in New Orleans: Levees, canals and politics in New Orleans history

Drainage and sanitation were huge problems during the early days of colonial New Orleans. The French colonists were trying to take advantage of the land’s location, which made it favorable for trade, but they had to deal with the issues of low elevation, with only small portions of land right by the river having any kind of significant elevation. Swampy land and frequent flooding made urbanization difficult. The solutions to these issues have often created new problems, and coping with the unique challenges of New Orleans’ geography remains a major infrastructural challenge for the city. For 1841 New Orleans, water infrastructure like canals, levees, and other systems were shaped by not just the geography, but also the political climate of the time. The political transitions between the pre-colonial era and the French, Spanish, and American colonial periods are reflected in the history of the levee and canal systems. These societies’ structures and priorities are illustrated by how they administered this infrastructure, what aspects they spent time and resources on, and who this infrastructure benefited.

Levee bike path on the Mississippi (Photo by: Jamie Polakoff)

Before the area we now call New Orleans was known as such, the native peoples of Louisiana including the Chitimacha, among others, inhabited the area transiently, moving settlements as needed to adapt to the changing nature of the water, and so did not deal with artificial levee modification. This reflects the structures and priorities of the indigenous societies in Louisiana and stands in contrast to those of later settler societies. Since indigenous societies in the area were not structured as nation-states or empires like the French, Spanish, and American societies later would be; figuring out how to permanently reside on land was not a necessity because the idea of “owning land” in this way did not exist. Transient settlements were sufficient and levee modification was not necessary, so the existing natural levees were left alone.

As French settlers changed the social and political landscape of New Orleans, they also changed it physically. During the early days of French New Orleans, pre-1717, French colonists fortified the river’s natural levee system, created as the result of silt deposited by years of consecutive floods, by adding dirt and clay on top for additional protection. In 1728 and 1743 laws, the French Governor ordered private landowners to build and maintain levees on their own land in more rural areas, but for the densest urban areas, levees were constructed and maintained with a public-private partnership with the Company of the Indies. However, in the urban areas of New Orleans, a private company built and maintained the levees, it was still done through public funds, as protecting the capital from flooding was considered a matter of public concern. This arrangement indicates something deeper about French society, namely that it was a mercantilist society, and companies that dealt with international trade both held a lot of power and were often intertwined with the state (and involved with imperialism).

When the colonists’ numbers were small, piecemeal improvements upon the natural levee system were the limits to their power, but once the size of the settlement increased, more resources were put into flood infrastructure, and true artificial levees were built. Rural landowners were obligated to build and maintain their own levees, not for the sake of their own protection, but because New Orleans could not survive economically without the agricultural product of the adjacent rural areas, and gaps in the levee in the surrounding rural areas could put New Orleans proper in danger of flooding.

As levees were an integral part of the political economy of New Orleans, so was the institution of slavery- for the most part, the only way it was feasible for this infrastructure requirement to be a private responsibility was because many of the rural landowners were wealthy planters and used slave labor to complete the levees. The difference between rural and urban levees is also a clear reflection of the interdependent relationship between New Orleans and the surrounding countryside, and of the economic relationship between New Orleans as a metropole and the surrounding hinterlands. New Orleans needed the agricultural outskirts of the city to be functional, but would not expand their own resources to ensure that this was the case. Rural landowners could, however, be legally obligated to protect their own land.

In 1768, New Orleans became a Spanish colony, but the requirement for rural landowners to construct levees remained. While the levee system became more complete as the years went on and more and more land upriver was covered by levees, the privately-made levee structures tended to be low-quality, made from dirt and full of holes made by crawfish, and flooding was rampant. Both the Spanish and the French systems of putting rural landowners on the hook for their flooding prevention illustrate the way that New Orleans had control over the surrounding areas due to its position as the capital, but also needed them for their raw materials. Another method of water infrastructure used in New Orleans came in the form of canals. The original plan for New Orleans involved several squares, surrounded by canals. The canals were not enough to drain a city like New Orleans, and extreme flooding occurred with every rainfall. During the time of French New Orleans, few other measures were taken for drainage. The 1795 Carondelet Canal made a minor improvement in the situation, but it, too, was soon clogged and unusable. At this point, the city was regularly flooded with rainfall, dead animals and trash floated in the streets, and mosquitoes were a plague every night. Another large canal, at Poydras Street, was dug during the Mayor Louis Philippe de Roffignac administration, but it also became clogged and unusable. All this indicates the government’s interest in public works to a degree, but without the continuity to follow up on them.

The centralized government model of the French and Spanish eras was shaken up when New Orleans became American and switched to a federalist system, with states and parishes. In 1807, after New Orleans became a part of Louisiana, levees became the responsibility of the parish, but New Orleans continued to operate its municipal levee structure. During a period of successive floods in the city, the city’s power to regulate levees was extended to allow city officials to regulate and inspect the levees of private landowners anywhere within Orleans Parish. Another notable change came with the splitting of New Orleans into three separate municipalities, due to ethnic tensions within New Orleans. Creoles and Americans in New Orleans shared a mutual rivalry, and, due to residential segregation, split the city into three parts as opposed to settling their differences. In 1836, the city’s political system was deeply shaken when the Louisiana state legislature split the city into three separate municipalities. These entities were now responsible for levee management, leading to haphazard and inconsistent results due to differences in funding and in political styles. Taxable property was unevenly distributed, leading to differences in funding. Shortly after, an office of the state engineer was created to oversee levee construction and maintenance statewide.



This piece was edited by Ethan Meisler as part of Professor Kelley Crawford’s Digital Civic Engagement course at Tulane University.


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