Archive for levees

On the Relative Purity of Dirt

Posted in Research, Technologies with tags , , , , , on January 24, 2010 by lexis2praxis

There’s a great deal of talk about debris found in levees along Lake Pontchartrain.

The skinny is this: Levees are made of dirt.  Prior to Katrina, the Army Corps of Engineers made some levees larger by adding additional dirt.  Back then, it is said, contractors were told to use what they call the “visual inspection” method.  This is the technical term for “eyeballing”.  Contractors were required to look at the dirt they were using to build levees and make judgment calls about how much debris was there.  If they saw debris, they were supposed to remove it.  The reason for this is that levees require a type of clay-based soil that falls within certain requirements in terms of liquid content, plasticity, and consistency.  Too much debris can break up the tensile strength of the soil.

The problem is, dump trucks carry tons of dirt to a site when building a levee.  Just eyeballing, one can’t possibly see all the chunks of concrete and bricks (or as one informant put it, “kitchen sinks and everything”) inside the dirt.  Post-Katrina requirements on levee testing revealed that debris content exceeded restrictions in these locations.  Now, all dirt must be formally tested for debris content; the Corps says it is only using trusted borrow sites (a borrow pit is where they get their dirt); and the compromised portions of levee are being replaced.

What is a Levee? (Part 1)

Posted in Research, Technologies with tags , , , , on November 9, 2009 by lexis2praxis

The London Avenue canal levee and floodwall

An excerpt from an academic paper (for a list of the references used, please contact me):

Levee [French levée, from Old French levee, from feminine past participle of lever, to raise; see lever.]

The primary meaning of levee, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a reception held by a person of distinction on rising from bed”.  This is a custom still practiced in Canada, where it is a general New Year’s celebration, a social affair in which people recount the past year and anticipate the next one.  The use of the term to describe a social event originates with the Levée du Soleil, the Rising of the Sun, a custom of King Louis XIV (1643-1715).  Apparently the King was in the habit of receiving male subjects in his bedchamber after waking, a custom that was then passed down to subsequent monarchs and later, heads of state and other leaders.  These gatherings were long restricted to men until recently, and now includes women and children in most cases.

The secondary meaning for levee is, perhaps, no longer secondary since Hurricane Katrina, which propelled the term into media and international conversation.  According to Merriam-Webster a levee is “an embankment for preventing flooding, a river landing place, a continuous dike or ridge (as of earth) for confining the irrigation areas of land”.  Petroski defines it as a “natural or artificial slope or wall to prevent flooding of the land behind it … often parallel to the course of a river or the coast” (Petroski 2006:7). A few people (outside of the Delta, of course) have told me that they don’t really know what a levee looks like, and can’t really imagine one.  Of course, people who live with and depend on delta engineering know all about them; in fact, the technology as well as the word entered the U.S. through the Mississippi River delta. Continue reading

On the Anthropology of Levees

Posted in First Encounters, Research, Technologies with tags , , , on October 24, 2009 by lexis2praxis

I’ve been struggling with how to talk about my research, and it occurred to me that it might be interesting to post questions that people ask me, and respond to them here.  One of the most common ones I get is, “But what do levees have to do with anthropology?”

This usually follows the question, “What are you doing in New Orleans?”  I answer something like, “I’m studying the reconstruction of the levees.  I’m looking at the history of the flood protection system, what’s involved in building levees, and the politics around all of that.”

“But what do levees have to do with anthropology?”

An anthropology 101 lesson would introduce the fact that there are four main subfields in anthropology: biological anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and cultural or sociocultural anthropology.  After that, it’s easy to say that anthropologists are really able to study just about anything.  But that doesn’t answer the question very well.  Once I establish that I’m in the social science part of things, it remains to be explained why I’m interested in levees.

Recently I told a friend, “Levees are social.  They seem like passive, benign, even benevolent mounds of earth.  But like anything else, they are shaped by histories, and by controversy, and are political.  When they break, or when people argue about them, they become social.”  And then I said something about how that’s all related to larger themes like the local, and maybe the American, relationship between people, technology, and the environment or what’s called “natural”.

So my friend said, “Does that mean you’re comparing how people used to build levees with how they’re building them now?”  I’m not sure where that came from; maybe he thought anthropologists always focus on the past.  I’m not sure.  I tried to explain that I’m basically living in New Orleans, recording how levees are important and social by doing archival research, reading the news, talking with people, and so on, and how all of this is revealing a lot about what the competing ideas are about the city, what the city should be, whether it should be protected from floods, what protection means, and so on.  I must have gotten somewhere with him because then he asked, “How is what you’re doing different from sociology?”

There’s debate about whether there are any real differences between sociology and anthropology at this point.  Anthropology these days is usually less location-based and more topic-based, and there is some movements toward such things as experimental ethnographies, multi-sited ethnographies, and so forth.  But I still think that anthropology is in some ways unique, at least historically, although this doesn’t mean that sociologists can’t be more anthropological and vice versa.  I think that we’re more likely to use a particular methodological strategy, that is ethnography, and rely more heavily on qualitative research, while quantitative and survey-based approaches are more common in sociology.  This is a very blurry distinction, and it is certainly possible to use all kinds of methodologies in either field, but I think it’s still an important one.  Anthropologists often talk about things a little differently than sociologists do, and so we tend to get at different aspects of things in different ways.

What that means for me is that as an anthropologist, I’m always working.  Every time I go out to a coffee shop, or a club, or buy groceries, I’m participating and observing and “generating data” — to borrow a phrase from Professor Charles Harrington, who likes to emphasize that since all “data” are products of an interaction between the ethnographer and the ethnographed, we actually “generate” data rather than “gather” them, meaning that the data weren’t exactly sitting around waiting for the taking before the ethnographer got there.

My ears perk up especially when I hear something about levees, or floodwalls, or engineering, or Katrina, or “events”, and various other “keywords”, and in daily life here, learning about the city and viewing its art and movies and so on, I record notes about values and practices that are expressed on a daily basis in this engineered and waterlogged landscape.  Of course, I interview people and read books and look at the archives and such, but so much can be learned just by living here.  Anthropologists have made a profession out of the richness of everyday life, where an event like Katrina — and the breaking of the levees — continues to live long after the deluge itself.

Homes Without Walls

Posted in Art, Technologies with tags , , , , , on October 16, 2009 by lexis2praxis

“What do you do when the walls are gone?  You still need something to call home.”

This is a quote from one of the powerful documentaries shown at the New Orleans Film Festival, A Village Called Versaille.  Versaille is a Vietnamese neighborhood in New Orleans East that was severely flooded during Hurricane Katrina.  Yet it is known as one of the first neighborhoods to return, despite the fact that Versaille was often “off the map” — that is, literally unmarked, knocked off the edge of political maps.  One of the fascinating messages of the film is that in the post-K landscape, when politicians were moving forward with urban planning that ignored the existence of Versaille altogether, members of the community — old and young — came together for the first time and announced their presence at town hall and land use meetings.  Furthermore, they mobilized against a landfill made for Katrina trash.  Although this landfill was built despite their wishes, Versaille community members pursued their case in the courts and, when that didn’t work, stormed the landfill itself, blocking the trash trucks with their bodies.

Back to that quote: “What do you do when the walls are gone?  You still need something to call home.”  This, I think, could be something voiced by the majority of New Orleanians.  It was, after all, walls that fell.  That is, the walls that defined where the water stops and where the city begins.  But underneath the many feet of flood water, home still remained, from one end to the other.  Versaille’s social peninsula status on the Easternmost margin didn’t make it any less real; the failure of its walls did not render it uninhabitable, nor uninhabited.  People are living there now.

That is one thing that struck me about the film: there wasn’t much talk about the levees that protect (?) or reduce the risk to (?) Versaille.  There are lots of things being built, and rebuilt, in Versaille; four years post-K, it is densely populated and widely described as thriving with business, everyday life, and celebration.  The people there are engaging in local community gardening cooperatives, striving to rebuild schools, and announcing to everyone that they are not foreigners, but Americans.  But I wondered about the levees surrounding New Orleans East.  Although the ones around the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge have been repaired, and are due to be raised, they have not been raised yet.  Where is New Orleans East on the priority list?  Are the people there living where there are no walls?

Which also begs the question: is it realistic to argue that people should simply move to higher ground, as many would suggest?  Versaille would undoubtedly have to move, according to certain scenarios dealing with the future of New Orleans.  Such a future may not include New Orleans East at all.  But Versaille is home right where it is, walls or not.  So what about those walls?

To be continued …

On Having Become a Resident

Posted in First Encounters, Nature with tags , , , on September 20, 2009 by lexis2praxis

So I moved here in July.  It was hot, but not as hot as I’d feared.  Still, I found myself quickly aware that if I attempted to walk the same speed as I did in New York, I’d find myself drenched, even pouring, within a few minutes.  That was just gross, so I slowed down.  Now, I mosey on down the banquette like a snow plow shoveling humidity.

There are other things that became immediately apparent upon moving here.  For one, the 9% sales tax, which is higher than New York or California.  Related to that, the cost of living.  Having lived in New York for a few years, I thought the rent prices were cheap here.  And, compared to New York they are, but no one should be comparing anything with New York.  I quickly learned that people talk about prices — including rent, food, and attractions like the Audubon Institute — in terms of “pre-Katrina” and “post-Katrina”.  Po-boys seem to be the barometer: before, you could get a good po-boy for less than $5, maybe even $3.50.  Now, four years after Katrina, they’re at least $8.

The third thing that struck me about moving here — and bear in mind, this list is not in order of importance, because if it were, this would go at the top — is the pervasiveness, the sheer tenacity, of water.  Here, water is determined, insidious.  The statistics say something about that — the region is geographically about half water, half land, and it rains somewhere around 50 or 60 inches per year — but local folks immediately told me that water has a mind of its own here.  This was most evident to me when each new storm (and there are lots of those) brought water into my recently renovated, 150-year-old house in new and sometimes mind-boggling ways, sometimes never to return in quite the same way.  As each issue is fixed, water still finds its way in, even once teaming up with a brutal gust of wind to knock my locked front door wide open.

Of course, I can’t forget the bugs and creepy crawlies.  I haven’t lived in a place with so many venomous, colorful, and buzzing things since the Arizona desert.  “Wait till caterpillar season,” people tell me.  In Arizona, we had poisonous caterpillars, but there weren’t a lot of trees from where they could fall in droves and sting you.  Perhaps I will follow Michael Homan’s example, and bait the ‘pillars with peeps.

And last but not least and certainly not the least of it, I came here with the assumption that people here must know a lot more about levees, and talk about levees a lot more, than anyone else.  Most people I know don’t really know what a levee is exactly or what it looks like.  I was pretty sure it would be different here, and it is.  Particularly interesting is the way it enters everyday conversation as a thing that people are familiar with.  They might take their dog to the levee, for example, because there’s some grass there and it’s basically a park.  Or someone will give directions and say, “Turn right at the levee.”