Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in Cameron Parish, LA

Mississippi River Delta Switching

Mississippi River Watershed

    Toward the end of the last ice age about 15,000 years ago, melting glaciers started raising global sea levels an estimated 300-400’, which then stabilized around 6,000 years ago, and rose only gradually since then--averaging about 1’ per 1,000 years.  Recent global warming however has raised sea levels another 8” just since 1880, and it is estimated they may continue to rise another 7-23” by 2100, possibly higher depending on a number of variables.  An online tool created by Climate Central shows what might happen if a moderate sea level rise occurred unchecked in this state:  much of southern Louisiana could go underwater, giving the Gulf coast a more even, rounded edge. 2

    Many can probably remember well the images of devastating floods in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina.  A contributing factor is much of present-day New Orleans rests on somewhat ephemeral land, either just a few feet above or tangibly below sea level.  None of the land of its entire metropolitan area even existed before about 4,000 years ago.  The French first established the city (today’s French Quarter neighborhood) in 1718 on a bank of the Mississippi formed by its natural meandering and alluvial deposits, which helped secure that site above sea level.  The seasonal flooding of the river provided ongoing challenges and levees were built, the last river flooding there occurring in 1859.  Notable floods from hurricanes, usually via Lake Pontchartrain, have occurred 10 times in the past 200 years.  Despite these setbacks, New Orleans was one of the nation’s major cities, and the South’s largest through much of the 19th century.  The city’s residential district mostly hovered near the old Mississippi River levee mound until after 1895.  With the draining of the lowland cypress swamp toward

Make It Right House

Lake Pontchartrain, and new building atop it, much of that land gradually sank even further, forming a concave bowl extending below sea level between the river and the lake.  The city stays mostly dry with the help of an extensive levee and drainage system, and today the ports of New Orleans and South Louisiana remain one of the largest port systems in the world. 3

    Though this may seem like a tenuous place to maintain a city, other locales around the world have experienced mixed success holding back the seas for much longer, in perhaps at least as challenging a circumstances, including the city of Venice and parts of the Netherlands.  Necessity is the mother of invention, and many creative and interesting solutions have been born in the wake of Katrina and Rita.  Asked by a resident of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward to “Make It Right,” celebrity philanthropist Brad Pitt organized 21 architecture firms in creating an entire crop of prototype LEED Platinum rated sustainable residences there.  FEMA funding has helped rebuild

New Orleans in 1862

several schools to LEED standards.  “Katrina Cottages” has inspired a series of historic vernacular-inspired designs to try to economically address the regional housing shortage in years since.  The Louisiana Legislature enacted Act 12 in latter 2005 to establish state uniform building standards, presently the 2009 International Building Code.  Also in the same year, a new policy started dedicating some of the money earned from oil drilling in the Gulf toward coastland restoration and conservation. 4

    How can an architect help?  In addition to having knowledge of regional building strategies, a good architect knows the safeguards of the building code.  In potential risk areas determined by FEMA map guidelines, the elevation of the building’s structure and/or floor is set to a level calculated to endure a once or twice per century catastrophic storm or flood.  New and renovated buildings consistent with these standards can better protect their inhabitants’ health, safety, welfare, and property, and are also provided discounted rates by insurance companies.  A LEED Accredited Professional additionally knows green design strategies that can turn some of the environmental conditions to the building’s advantage, providing clients savings on utility bills and making them eligible for tax credits.  The Architect is likely the most capable professional of integrating all these factors into a comprehensive design, which meets all the client’s goals and provides a smoothly working and aesthetic building.

-Stephen M. Long, AIA, LEED AP

Rockefeller Refuge


1 Independent Levee Investigation Team, Investigation of the Performance of the New Orleans Flood Protection Systems in Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005, Chapter 4: History of the New Orleans Flood Protection System, July 31, 2006, <>, viewed April 2012;  Wikipedia, <>, English version, viewed April 2012, article on Mississippi River Delta;  Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, <>, viewed April 2012.

2 Wikipedia, <>, English version, viewed April 2012, articles on Current Sea Level Rise and Mississippi River Delta;  Metcalf, John, Mapping How the Seas Will Eat Coastal US Cities, (The Atlantic Cities, March 15, 2012), <>, viewed April 2012;  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report, Section 3.2.1, 21st Century Global Changes, <>, viewed April 2012;  Climate Central, Surging Seas, <>, viewed April 2012.

3 Wikipedia, articles on History of New Orleans, Mississippi River Delta, although underlying base levels of the land of the New Orleans metro area may have been above sea level prior to the main completion of the melting of glaciers before the end of the last ice age, in millennia before 5000BCE;  Independent Levee Investigation Team;  The Port of New Orleans, About the Port of New Orleans, <>, viewed April 2012.

4 Ludka, Alexandra, The World’s Sinking Cities, Landmarks, (ABC News, March 15, 2012), <>, viewed April 2012;  Feireiss, Kristin, editor with Brad Pitt, Architecture in Times of Need:  Make It Right Rebuilding New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward, (New York: Prestel, 2009);  Payton, Kizzy, Four RSD Schools Awarded Prestigious LEED Green Building Certification, (Recovery School District Press Release, March 13, 2012), <>, viewed April 2012;  Katrina Cottages, <>, viewed April 2012;  Louisiana State Uniform Construction Code Council, About the Council, <>, viewed April 2012;  Wikipedia.


Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in Cameron Parish, LA   by Stephen M. Long

Mississippi River Watershed  &  Mississippi River Delta Switching  courtesy Wikipedia Commons

New Orleans in 1862  originally appeared in Campfires and Battlefields by Rossiter Johnson et al. (NewYork, 1894), courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Make It Right House  courtesy Home Automaton, Inc.

Rockefeller Refuge  by Stephen M. Long