Mythbusters Edition: The Lower Ninth Ward Isn’t the Lowest

How many times have we heard the argument that the Lower Ninth Ward is just “too far below sea-level” to rebuild?

Aerial view of the Industrial Canal Levee and Lower Ninth Ward, April 2006. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith. Courtesy Carol M. Highsmith.

We’ve seen this myth spread from news media sources to the mouths of congressmen, turning up in countless conversations about the lack of progress in the Lower Ninth Ward (See The Seattle Times and House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s infamous comment).  Now it’s been seven years since the storm and we still see articles circulating that refer to the Lower Ninth Ward as one of the “lowest-lying” and “most flood-prone” area in the city. From day one, Lower Ninth Ward residents and activists have argued such claims are exaggerated and bogus, pointing to neighborhoods in Lakeview and New Orleans East (equally as vulnerable and “flood-prone”) that were given more resources and opportunities to rebuild (Landphair, 2007).

Scientists who have studied the topography of New Orleans agree that the Army Corps’ elevation warning for the Lower Ninth Ward was far from certain (Schwartz, 2006). Much of the Lower Ninth Ward is ”two to three feet higher” than areas of the Lakeview or New Orleans East neighborhoods, as well as the western side of Jefferson Parish, but after the storm, there wasn’t a discussion about people having to move from there. Advocates of the Lower Ninth argue that the “question of high ground versus low ground is also beside the point…’If you build a good flood-control system, the entire city is safe…If we don’t get a good flood-control system, the entire city is dangerous.”

After doing some research, I found that many articles refer to the Lower Ninth Ward being above sea level in some areas and relatively higher than New Orleans East or Lakeview, but I wasn’t able to locate a source with actual data to back up the argument. This is most likely due to the unofficial neighborhood lines, as well as rapidly changing elevation rates throughout New Orleans.

In order to find more accurate snapshot of New Orleans’ elevation levels, I decided to take a look at the USGS elevation index for the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East. Even within each sub-neighborhood, elevation levels vary quite a bit, but the overall data supports arguments that the Lower Ninth Ward is indeed much higher than the vast majority of Lakeview and New Orleans East.

According to the USGS elevation dataset, most landmarks in the Lower Ninth Ward range from 3 feet below to 3 feet above sea level (Lee Playground 0 Feet; Bonart Playground 3 Feet; Beulah Land Baptist Church -3 Feet; Amozion Baptist Church 3 Feet). Meanwhile, the New Orleans East neighborhood has areas in Pines Village and Read Blvd East as low as 10 feet below sea level, with its highest areas in West Lake Forest coming in right at sea level (Pines Village -10 Feet; Pradat Playground -7 Feet; Werner Playground -7 Feet; Wimbledon Playground -7 Feet; Baptist Church 0 Feet; Prince of Peace Lutheran Church -3 Feet; Louisiana Nature Center -10 Feet; Little Woods -3 Feet).

The idea that the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood is unworthy of being rebuilt because of its elevation has proven to be yet another myth in the devastating story of Katrina.