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Changing Landscape

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In 1718 Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, founded New Orleans in a location nearly surrounded by water and largely below sea level. The location was ideal for the commerce that flowed down the Mississippi River, but water would also prove to be the city's greatest challenge.

Key Port
New Orleans, drawing: aerial view, 1852. From its founding, the port of New Orleans served as a commercial center. Indeed, the city's geographic location at the entrance to the Mississippi made its ownership a key issue in the early years of the United States. In 1803, not long after France reacquired Louisiana from Spain, Thomas Jefferson agreed to the Louisiana Purchase to remove the threat of a foreign country controlling the port city. "There is on the globe one spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy," he said. "It is New Orleans ..."

Difficult Conditions
Nurses at a temporary yellow fever hospital in Franklin, Louisiana, 1898. Powerful river currents, poor drainage and tropical climate are some of the city's many environmental disadvantages that have created challenges from the beginning. Traders returning home upstream paddled against the river's strong current had a difficult passage. Flanked by the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain, the city is plagued by poor drainage. Flooding has been a continual threat to the city. For centuries New Orleans faced danger from its tropical climate, which made it a breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitoes, including some of the nation's worst yellow fever epidemics. "New Orleans is surprising evidence of what men will endure," remarked a traveler to the city in the 19th century, "when cheered by the hopes of an ever-flowing tide of all mighty dollars and cents."

Combating Nature
Albert Baldwin Wood and others inside his screw pump, 1929. The people of New Orleans have attempted to stave off the dangers of nature. They built large artificial levees to block the city from floodwaters. The Wood pump, a device that could raise large volumes of water a short vertical distance to push it over the levees was an important innovation for the city. It was invented in 1913 by engineer Albert Baldwin Wood and vastly changed the city's landscape. The pump was used to drain the city's mosquito-infested area back swamp. This reduced the risks for mosquito-borne diseases and allowing for the expanded development that was a part of an economic renaissance in New Orleans in the 1920s.

Floods and Hurricanes
New Orleans 9th Ward: Destruction from Hurricaine Katrina. Nature still took its toll. The flood of 1927 covered the city in as much as four feet of water when a power outage knocked out the Wood pumps. And hurricanes have long threatened the city, with the danger increasing in modern times owing to sinking land and coastal erosion. In addition, New Orleans has lost a natural protective zone with the disappearance of surrounding wetlands that acted as a reservoir for floodwaters. The Ninth Ward, which was built where the backswamp once stood, proved to be one of the hardest-hit areas during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. After the tragedy of the hurricane, debate has ensued over whether the wetlands should be allowed to return to their natural state.

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New Orleans American Experience

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