why was new orleans built below sea level

French settlers built New Orleans on a natural high point along the Mississippi River about 300 years ago. The land beyond that natural levee was swamp and marsh. It would take more than a hundred years for settlers to figure out how to drain the swamp. In the process, they'd sink New Orleans. , Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella details how New Orleans was transformed from marsh to a city dependent on levees, canals and steam-driven pumps. One French settler described the city 300 years ago as "nothing more than two narrow strips of land, about a musket shot in width," surrounded by "canebrake (and) impenetrable marsh. "
Over the last 300 years, Campanella writes, more than 30,000 acres were converted from swamp to dry land.


The effort resulted in the gradual settling or sinking of land, called subsidence. The transformation from swamp to suburbs has at times had dire consequences. In the 1970s, when subsidence cracked gas lines, leaking flammable vapors into the homes. While more flexible pipes has lessened the risk of houses exploding in the future, subsidence has placed most of New Orleans below sea level, and at increased risk from the next storm.


Read the Half of New Orleans is at or above sea level according to the study by Tulane and Xavier universities. The parts of the city that are several feet above sea level include, but are not limited to: the River Bend, Audubon/University, Uptown, the Garden District, the French Quarter, Treme, Bayou St. John, the Marigny, Bywater and the Lower Ninth Ward. The original residents settled on the high ground along the Mississippi River. Later developments eventually extended to nearby Lake Pontchartrian.


Navigable commercial waterways extended from the lake to downtown. After 1940, the state decided to close these waterways since there was a new Industrial Canal for waterborne commerce. Once these waterways were closed, the water table was drastically lowered by the city s drainage system and some areas settled several feet due to the consolidation of the underlying organic soils. After 1965, the US Army Corps built a levee system around a much larger geographic footprint that included previous marshland and swamp.

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