As an urbanized river-dominated delta, New Orleans, Louisiana, ranks among the most experimental of cities, a test of whether the needs of a stable human settlement can coexist with the fluidity of a deltaic environment—and what happens when they do not.
That natural environment bestowed upon New Orleans numerous advantages, among them abundant fresh water, fertile soils, productive wetlands and, above all, expedient passage between maritime and continental realms. But with those advantages came exposure to potential hazards—an overflowing Mississippi River, a tempestuous Gulf of Mexico, sinking soils, eroding coasts, rising seas, biotic invasion, pestilence, political and racial discord, conflagration—made all the worse by the high levels of social vulnerability borne by all too many members of New Orleans’ population. More so than any other major metropolis on the North American continent, this history of disaster and response is about the future of New Orleans as much as it is about the past.
This article examines two dozen disasters of various types and scales, with origins oftentimes traceable to anthropogenic manipulation of the natural environment, and assesses the nature of New Orleans’ responses. It frames these assessments in the “risk triangle” framework offered by David Crichton and other researchers, which views urban risk as a function of hazard, exposure, and vulnerability. “Hazard” implies the disastrous event or trauma itself; “exposure” means human proximity to the hazard, usually in the form of settlement patterns, and “vulnerability” indicates individuals’ and communities’ ability to respond resiliently and adaptively—which itself is a function of education, income, age, race, language, social capital, and other factors—after having been exposed to a hazard.