The current situation in New Orleans can be seen in part as a result of the circumstances and context of the city’s founding in 1718. According to one report, the French settled on the site for New Orleans in response to “the need to control the Mississippi River and its tributaries.” But in order for this to happen, the French “would need to control the mouth of the river in the delta at the Gulf of Mexico. The problem with this site was the lack of high ground. The area of the delta was, and is, primarily swamps, marshes, and water. The site chosen for the city of New Orleans was far from ideal but was strategically necessary.”

The problem wasn’t so much with the city as it was originally settled, but rather with the expansion to its modern-day size: “New Orleans is situated on the northern bank of a great curve in the Mississippi River, with natural levees averaging ten to fifteen feet above sea level and only one to two miles in depth. The levees gradually drop off into the swamplands behind. While the oldest parts of the city rest on these levees, the greater part of the modern city rests at or below sea level and is subject to flooding. At this time, the city was the size of what is now known as the Vieux Carré, or French Quarter.”

So after the French colonization of New Orleans, the city grew and populated areas increasingly vulnerable to flooding. Today the Dutch, a former colonial power in their own right, have some ideas about amphibious houses that might serve those who resettle in New Orleans well. These amphibious houses have a “hollow foundation” that “works in the same way as the hull of a ship, buoying the structure up above water. To prevent the swimming houses from floating away, they slide up two broad steel posts – and as the water level sinks, so they sink back down again.”

The Dutch have primarily built these houses in response to fears about rising water levels due to global warming. Dick van Gooswilligen from the Dura Vermeer construction company said during a journalistic tour of the homes: “As global warming causes the sea level to rise, this is the solution. Housing of this type is the future for the delta regions of the world, the ones which face the greatest danger.”

Of course a city under sea level doesn’t need increased water levels to face great danger. That’s why “hordes of hydraulic engineers from Louisiana or Texas are making the pilgrimage to the North Sea coastline to look at the fortifications. The inland river dykes are also considered exemplary models.”

It seems to me that the founding of New Orleans and the contemporary effects of building on a site that is “far from ideal” would be an interesting topic for a paper at the “Colonialism, Postcolonialism, and the Environment” conference scheduled for next year at at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C. After all, “Today, no-one would dispute that colonialism has made a profound impact on the environment in former colonial areas, an impact which lives on in the post-colonial era, and affects the lives of millions of people.”