A tale of two coastal cities: Norfolk and NOLA.
Around Thanksgiving I read a piece in The New York Times by Leslie Kaufman about a colonial era coastal port city in the South, where 240,000 residents live surrounded by water on three sides. This increasingly flood-prone city faces the frightening combination of sinking land and rising sea level, which may sound familiar but don’t jump to conclusions. The city in question is about 920 miles northeast of the ~300,000 residents who live under strikingly similar circumstances in New Orleans. (Note: when this piece was posted I had estimated that Norfolk and NOLA were 700 miles apart but was corrected by an alert reader, who supplied the accompanying graphic. Note that each city is situated about equidistant from the closest continental shelf break.)
Here’s a quote from Kaufman’s piece:
Like many other cities,** Norfolk was built on filled-in marsh. Now that fill is settling and compacting. In addition, the city is in an area where significant natural sinking of land is occurring. The result is that Norfolk has experienced the highest relative increase in sea level on the East Coast — 14.5 inches since 1930, according to readings by the Sewells Point naval station here.
Compare this passage to the following quote about New Orleans from a 2008 study by scientists from NASA and LSU.
The (riverine) sediments pose a particular challenge for New Orleans, causing it to sink irreversibly at a rate of about 0.4 centimeters (0.17 inches) a year, according to data from a network of global positioning system stations and a model of sediment data collected from the northern Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi Delta.
I’m intrigued that these two tectonically separate urban sites have sunk virtually the same amount during the past eight decades: 14.5 inches for Norfolk and 13.6 inches for NOLA. This ‘sinking similarity’ between Norfolk and NOLA piqued my interest in comparing these cities for additional parallels.
I wonder whether and how the cultures of these urban centers have been influenced by their similar geographic settings, especially the proximity of each city to a major estuary. Norfolk and New Orleans are respectively located adjacent to arguably the two most important estuaries in North America, the Chesapeake Bay and the Mississippi River delta.
In 1967 an oceanographer named Donald Pritchard defined an estuary as a semi-enclosed coastal body of water which has a connection with the open sea and, within which, seawater mixes and usually is measurably diluted with freshwater from land runoff. Dr. Pritchard used the Chesapeake Bay as the prototypical estuary.
The Mississippi River delta supports a very different (non-enclosed) kind of estuary in which most of the mixing occurs offshore in the open shelf zone, where massive amounts of freshwater, river sediments and seawater are blended.*** I think of the Chesapeake and Mississippi River estuaries as analogous to ‘innee’ and ‘outee’ bellybuttons.
Estuaries are coastal ecosystems related by three commonalities: (1) they serve as transition zones between land and water and mixing zones for river water and seawater; (2) they support rooted and floating primary producers that capture solar energy very efficiently, producing organic matter at rates comparable to intensive agriculture…with no fossil fuel subsidies; and (3) they provide accessible habitat and sustenance for dense populations of critters prized by our species for their tastiness.
Since the dawn of our species ~200K years ago more than half of our brothers and sisters have lived in coastal settings, especially near estuaries, where the freshwater flows freely, the climate is cool and the protein is plentiful. It isn’t accidental that European immigrants sited Norfolk and NOLA next to estuaries…the former near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, fifteen miles from the ocean; and the latter equally close to the ocean…and getting closer with each passing year.
I don’t believe that anyone has formally compared Norfolk and NOLA before from a coastal/cultural perspective. A cursory web-based search for parallel patterns in the growth and development of these cities yielded the following factoids. An estuarine connection for all of these items is not obvious but hopefully some readers will find the concept provocative.
Evidence of the earliest human habitation in southeast Virginia goes back about 11,500 years BP (dawn of the Holocene). This region was then dominated by a river valley 400 feet lower than the modern landscape. During the early Holocene era between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago, rising seas drowned and infilled the valley with sediments, creating the relatively shallow Chesapeake Bay.
The earliest human habitation surrounding the mouth of the Mississippi River must also date to the beginning of the Holocene. The river valley was also 400 feet lower than current sea level, with the shoreline extending many miles seaward. As sea level approached its current level about 3 millennia ago the valley drowned and filled with deltaic sediments and the indigenous residents retreated landward.****
By about 2,500 years ago the St. Bernard sub-delta had emerged from the Gulf of Mexico, impounding Lake Pontchartrain and creating the south shore, on which New Orleans was sited in 1718.
1584 - Sir Walter Raleigh explores the Norfolk area, under charter by British Queen Elizabeth.
1539 - Hernando deSoto visits the lower Mississippi River basin and became the first European explorer-conquistador to cross the Mississippi River and explore the Louisiana region.
1607 – Jamestown Colony founded by Captain John Smith.
1624 – Virginia becomes a Crown Colony.
1620s – African slaves first brought to Virginia.
1636 – King James grants 200 acres in exchange for 10,000 pounds of tobacco, which later becomes Norfolk.
1670 – City becomes an important tobacco port on the Elizabeth River.
1673 – ‘Half Moone’ fort authorized (in shape of half moon – analogous to Crescent City?).
1692 - René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle claims the Mississippi River drainage for France and establishes a colony.
1699 - Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville makes his way up the Mississippi River to the eventual site of Baton Rouge, from which he navigates to Lake Pontchartrain via Bayou Manchac.
1705 – City incorporated.
1736 - George II granted Norfolk a royal charter as a borough.
1775 – City becomes the most prosperous urban center in the Virginia colony; Royalist sympathies; shipbuilding industry and exchange center port for tobacco, corn, cotton, sugar, rum.
1776 – The American Revolution; the Royalist-leaning city is torched by the British, aided by the Patriots!
1777 – Rebuilding commences.
1701 – French encampments built at opposite ends of Bayou St. John. Nouvelle-Orleans envisioned as an important colonial city along a crescent shaped site on the highest land along the east bank of the natural levee of the river.
1717/1721 – African slaves first imported; eight boatloads, 2,000 Africans; scurvy, dysentery, respiratory and intestinal flues claim half within a few years; predominantly Malinke-speaking Bambaras from the western interior of the continent, providing a cohesive group in New Orleans. Some 7,000 Europeans (mostly French) also arrive during this time; either indentured servants or convicted criminals released from the crowded prisons of France; 119 have land grants from the Company of the Indies, for building the plantations that would characterize Louisiana.
1718 – City founded by Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, sieur de Bienville (younger brother of d’Iberville), named for the regent of France, Philippe II, duc d’Orleans.
1754 – Population reaches 10,000.
1763 – Transferred to Spanish rule.
1768 – Spanish governor flees to Spain.
1769 – Spain reasserts control.
1788 - Great New Orleans Fire of 1788 destroys 856 buildings.
1794 – Second fire destroys 212 buildings; city rebuilt in Spanish style, largely replacing original French architecture.
1795 – Spain allows Americans to use port infrastructure; navigation becomes an economic engine; sugar industry flourishes.
1800 – Population reaches 7,000.
1804 – Waterfront destroyed by major fire.
1831 – Nat Turner leads slave rebellion; free blacks begin emigrating to Liberia, including Anthony W. Gardner, elected president of Liberia in 1879. Most famous Norfolk emigrant is Joseph Jenkins Roberts, who becomes known in Liberia as the “Father of His Country.’ Roberts Village, a public housing community in Norfolk with streets named Monrovia and Liberia, later named in his honor.
1832 – Steam ferry begins operation.
1845 – Norfolk incorporated.
1850 – Population reaches 14,000 (4,000 slaves, 1,000 free blacks). City court established.
1855 – Yellow fever epidemic, 2,000 deaths.
1861 – Residents vote to secede; Civil War begins; slaves flee to Fortress Monroe.
1862 – USS Merrimac rebuilt as the ironclad CSS Virginia at Norfolk Navy Yards; later fights USS Monitor to a draw. City surrenders to Union troops; slaves claim freedom; city occupied by federal forces under the extremely dubious command of General Benjamin Franklin Butler (formerly stationed in Baltimore and later assigned to New Orleans).
1865 – War ends. Abraham Lincoln assassinated.
1870 – Virginia readmitted to the Union. Horse-drawn trolley introduced. Coal port grows to support industry and railroads, becoming world class port.
1871 – Professional fire department inaugurated.
1883 – Coal imported by rail for the first time and city becomes a coal trans-shipment center. Rail passenger service gives rise to beach resort industry.
1894 – First public school. Electric streetcars begin operation. Export of salty local (Lynnhaven) oysters.
Throughout the 19th century New Orleans suffers epidemics of yellow fever, malaria and smallpox – primitive sanitation, lack of public water, highly transient population of sailors and immigrants AND mosquito not recognized as disease vector.
1800 – Spain and France secretly sign Treaty of San Ildefonso stipulating that Spain give Louisiana back to France, but remaining under Spanish control so long as France postpones transfer of power.
1803 – Napoleon Bonaparte sells Louisiana to the U.S. in the Louisiana Purchase. French prefect formally takes control of Louisiana on November 30, hands it over to the U.S. on December 20. City council created.
1811 – (Note that this item was added after this piece was originally posted). Large slave revolt in New Orleans, documented in a new book American Uprising by Daniel Rasmussen, undergraduate student at Harvard. Ramussen was interviewed on January 13 on NPR’s The Diane Rheme Show. Here’s a quote:
For two days in January 1811 500 African slaves staged the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history. But unlike the uprisings of Nat Turner and John Brown, most people have never heard of the slave revolt of 1811. That fact prompted an undergraduate student at Harvard to find out why. The story of America’s largest slave revolt…and the reasons it has been largely forgotten.
1815 – Battle of New Orleans results in British defeat – after the end of the War of 1812!
1828 – City visited by Abraham Lincoln, whose opinion on slave issue may have been influenced by visit to a slave market.
1830 - Natural gas introduced.
1831-33 – Foreign exports expand greatly.
1832 – Frontier town atmosphere and boundless promise of prosperity unchecked until the Civil War. Steam power becomes important: first steam cotton press; Pontchartrain Railroad (one of the earliest in the US); river congested with steam boats and other craft.
1840 – Population 102,000, largest in the south, fourth largest in the US. Oysters become important commodity. Public school system inaugurated.
1840s – Croatian-Slovak immigrants began commercial oyster businesses close to New Orleans.
1849 – Failure of east bank levee leads to worst flooding in history (until Katrina in 2005) 12,000 homeless. Baton Rouge becomes state capital.
1850 – Telegraph service established. Private oyster grounds leased from Parish governments.
1851 – Rail traffic to the north established.
1854 – Rail traffic to the west established.
1862 – Civil War comes to NOLA and city again becomes Capital city (until 1865); besieged by Union ships under Admiral David Farragut, city falls on April 25; notorious Union General Benjamin ‘Beast’ Butler, having been disgraced in Norfolk, takes command in NOLA and quickly earns city-wide hatred; abolishes French instruction in schools; ironically, his Draconian campaign to clean up city reduces epidemic incidence.
1865 – War ends. Lincoln assassinated.
1870 – New Orleans expands upriver and to west bank at Algiers.
1874 – Armed forces led by the White League defeat the integrated Republican metropolitan police in a French Quarter battle. White League forces the flight of the William P. Kellogg government, installing John McEnery as Governor. three days later US troops reinstate Kellogg and the Republican administration.
1874 to 1875 - Reconstruction.
1877 – President Hayes withdraws US troops; whites gain control of the city, which is in dire financial condition.
1879 – New Orleans Mint reopens, minting mainly silver coinage.
1902 – Blacks officially disenfranchised.
1907 – Jamestown Exposition celebrates 300th anniversary.
1920 – Virginia shellfish leasing program instituted.
1921 – Concrete road completed from Virginia Beach to Norfolk.
1940 – Founding of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) with emphasis on estuarine science.
1941 – WWII begins and population doubles with heightened defense activities; Norfolk Naval Base and Air Station grew and still remain as the largest military installation in the world.
1945 – First black police officers.
1948 – Streetcar system scrapped.
Early 20th century segregationists celebrate the short-lived triumph of the White League in 1874 as victory and dub the conflict “The Battle of Liberty Place;” monument still stands to the side of the Aquarium near the trolley tracks.
1901 – Jennings oil well successfully drilled ~100 mi. west of NOLA and Louisiana oil and gas industry is born, forever changing the state.
1902 – State oyster bottom leasing program begins (earliest in the US).
1904 – Mint closes permanently.
1905 – Last Yellow Fever outbreak but a massive campaign to educate residents and drain, screen, or oil cisterns and standing water has been successful and no epidemic ensues. President Teddy Roosevelt pays visit to demonstrate the safety of the city.
1909 – New Orleans Mint ceases operation. Major hurricane damage.
1915 – Major hurricane damage.
1923 – Industrial Canal provides direct shipping link between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River.
1927 – River levees survive the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927; although levee dynamited below city, flooding St. Bernard Parish. Project begins to fill in the shoreline of Lake Pontchartrain and create levees along the lake side of the city.
1941-45 – Local construction of Higgins boats, landing craft vital to Allied victory in WWII.
1947 – Fort Lauderdale Hurricane; the levees & pumping system succeeded in protecting the city proper from major flooding, but many areas of the new suburbs in Jefferson Parish are deluged, and Moisant Airport shuts down under 2 feet (0.61 m) of water.
1950s – Rapid extensive suburban sprawl into surrounding swampforest.
1952 – Richard Russell founds the LSU Coastal Studies Institute (CSI) for marine and estuarine research.
1960s – “Modernization” effort replaces the Canal Street streetcar line with buses
1990s – Streetcars return to a portion of Canal Street.
Norfolk is Virginia’s second-largest city behind neighboring Virginia Beach, one of nine cities and seven counties that constitute the Hampton Roads metropolitan area. Norfolk is considered to be the historic, urban, financial, and cultural center of the region.
The city has a long history as a strategic military and transportation center and is the home of the world’s largest such base. Norfolk is also the corporate headquarters of a principal class I railroad and Maersk line, limited, manager of the world’s largest fleet of US-flag vessels. The city has many miles of riverfront and bayfront property and is linked to its neighbors by an extensive network of interstate highways, bridges, tunnels and bridge-tunnel complexes.
2000 – Racial makeup: White 49.0%; Black 43.2%; Asian 3.2%; Other 4.6%
2000 – Racial makeup: White 28.1%; Black 67.3%; Asian 2.3%; Other 2.3%
2005 – Hurricane Katrina; serious population decline from outmigration (census results pending).
2010 – Macondo well blowout.
**Including Foggy Bottom, otherwise known as Washington, DC.
***As the Mississippi River delta deteriorates and sinks, the mixing zone is moving more and more inland, gradually becoming more like the Chesapeake system.
****Residents of south Louisiana will doubtless also continue to retreat north during the 21st century.