New Orleans has survived Katrina, it seems, and thank goodness. There's lots of damage, but a direct hit might well have destroyed the city, as the National Weather Service projected. We Americans tend to think we can handle any contingency. But sometimes nature can inflict destruction we cannot prevent. San Francisco was destroyed by an earthquake 99 years ago. New Orleans evidently narrowly escaped destruction by a hurricane today.

So why did Americans build a major city on land mostly below sea level and largely surrounded by water? We could try to blame the French, who established Nouvelle Orleans in 1718; but of course New Orleans became an American city in 1803, and we wanted it before that. Thomas Jefferson, as Christopher Hitchens reminds us in his splendid short biography, as early as 1786 wrote, "The navigation of the Mississippi we must have." In 1803 he wrote to his negotiators in Paris a passage he intended them to show Napoleon and Talleyrand: "There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-eighths of our territory must pass to market, and from its fertility it will ere long yield more than half of our whole produce and contain more than half our inhabitants." The French, unable to defend New Orleans after they were driven out of Haiti, took the hint.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, New Orleans was our sixth-largest city, behind New York, Philadelphia, Brooklyn (until 1898 a separate city), Baltimore, and Boston, and far larger, at 168,000, than any other city in the Confederate South; Charleston had 40,000 and Richmond 37,000. Today metro New Orleans, with 1,274,000, ranks much lower in population. But it's still economically vital because of oil. The hurricane forced the shutdown of the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, the largest such port in the country, of offshore oil rigs which usually produce 600,000 barrels a day and of refineries which process 1.6 million barrels a day. Oil prices in the Asian markets shot up over $70 a barrel.

But the American economy can take the hit. What is more important is that thousands of people who might have died will go on living and that this unique and fascinating city has not been reduced to rubble.