In the Batture, Living with Constant Risk Increases Safety

Home in the Batture, New Orleans / Curbed NOLA

The Batture, a historic squatter community nestled between the levee and the Mississippi River in New Orleans is an unconventional model of a resilient community. But as climate change forces more coastal communities to deal with greater risks, their approach offers some important lessons.

This tiny community of now only 12 homes, which has fought eviction by the city government for generations, is constantly exposed to flood risk. But living right on the banks of the Mississippi has given the community a deeper understanding of the river’s ebbs and flows. The residents of the Batture are always watching the weather, know when flooding will occur, and are therefore better prepared for disaster. By constantly living with risk, the community has in turn become more adaptable and safer.

In a talk at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) in Oklahoma City, Carey Clouse, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said the Batture is an important contrast to other communities in New Orleans that were separated from the river by the levee — communities that literally couldn’t see the river, canals, or other water bodies. With the great risk posed by the Mississippi and other water bodies out of view, these communities became “overconfident” about the safety of the levee system.

In reality, many communities were made even more vulnerable because they didn’t know what was coming. As the levees failed, the result of Hurricane Katrina was some 400,000 were displaced and 100,000 homes were destroyed. “Sadly, vulnerable people had no awareness of where they were in regards to sea level. The Army Corps of Engineers and insurance companies obscured the risks. 400,000 people were blind to topography.”

But the Batture, a “self-sufficient, resilient, and adaptive community, suffered almost no damage in the Katrina flooding.”

In the liminal space between the river and the embankment, the Batture was created through “Do-It-Yourself (DIY) urbanism, a homesteader’s approach.” Clouse spent time researching the community and found it was a “hidden landscape, filled with self-built structures” on pylons. The river is ever present. “It’s 50 feet away from houses but can pass right below their feet during storms.” Each resident has created homemade protections against floating debris.

Clouse believes residents of the Batture are “more secure having taken risk into their own hands, rather than relying on the city government.” In this “quirky, escapist, anti-urbanist community,” there is “great toughness and resilience,” rooted in a deep connection to place and the river.

The Batture began in the early 1900s as a squatter community for people who worked in fishing and other marine trades. In the Great Depression, the Batture swelled to hundreds of homes, becoming a Hooverville on the river. Settlers built homes out of driftwood, creating a “ramshackle shanty town.” There was a tiny school and church, but no roads, water, or electricity. In the 1990s, the New Orleans government came in removed many of the homes.

Early Batture settlement / New Orleans Public Library, from Oliver Houck’s book Down on the Batture, via NPR

Today, there are just 12 homes left, from “the humble to the post-modern.” Batture residents can’t legally buy or sell their own properties, have no access to insurance or protection by the city or state, but they do have now access to “city fire, water, electricity, and P.O. boxes.” A local lawyer has sued the residents, claiming to own the entire Batture and is trying to remove the last remaining residents, but judges have recognized the rights of the existing tenants. “Many believe they deserve to stay.”

For Clouse, the lesson of the Batture is that “with incremental exposure to risk, communities can alter their landscapes and lifestyles to manage that risk.” Levees, with their air of safety and permanence, may actually “invoke crises.” But in communities like the Batture, where people live in close contact with nature and risk, “they can cope, thrive; they can take matters into their own hands.”

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