AS WE REACH THE 90-DAY mark since Katrina hit, it’s time we ended our national state of denial. Turns out House Speaker Dennis Hastert had it right all along, though his reasons were flawed. We should call it quits in New Orleans not because the city can’t be made relatively safe from hurricanes. It can be. And not because to do so is more trouble than it’s worth. It’s not. But because the Bush Administration has already given New Orleans a quiet kiss of death now that the story has run its news cycle.
As someone who dearly loves New Orleans and has experienced many of her charms, it pains me immeasurably to call for this retreat. This is not a rhetorical stunt or a shock argument meant to invite compromise talks. I mean what I say: Shut the city down and board it up before thousands more lives are lost.
In the weeks after Katrina, the American media somehow portrayed the catastrophe as a matter of failed levees and flawed evacuation plans. The “What went wrong?” coverage involved autopsies of every breached dike and a witch hunt for those responsible for the Superdome and Convention Center fiascos. But these were just horrifying symptoms of a much larger disease.
Katrina destroyed the Big Easy-and future Katrinas will do the same-not because of engineering failures but because one million acres of coastal islands and marshland have vanished in Louisiana in the last century due to human interference. These land forms served as natural “speed bumps,” reducing the lethal surge tide of past hurricanes and making New Orleans habitable in the first place.
But while encouraging city residents to return home and declaring for the media audience that “we will do whatever it takes” to save the city, the President earlier this month formally refused the one thing New Orleans simply cannot live without: A restored network of barrier islands and coastal wetlands.
Tens of billions of dollars have been authorized to treat the symptoms-broken levees, insufficient emergency resources, destroyed roads and bridges-but next to nothing for the disease itself, that of disappeared land, which ushered the ocean into the city to begin with. No amount of levee building or stockpiling of bottled water will ever save New Orleans until the state’s barrier shoreline is restored.
Just since World War II an area of land the size of Rhode Island has turned to water between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, most of it former marshland. And every 2.7 miles of marshland reduces a hurricane surge tide by a foot, dispersing the storm’s power. Simply put, had Katrina struck in 1945 instead of 2005, the surge that reached New Orleans would have been as much as 5-10 feet less than it was.
These marshes, as well as the barrier islands, were created by the sediment-rich flood waters of the Mississippi River deposited over thousands of years. But modern levees have prevented this natural flooding, and the existing wetlands, starved for new sediments and nutrients, have eroded and “subsided” and just washed away. Every ten months, even without hurricanes, an area of Louisiana land equal to Manhattan turns to water. That’s 50 acres a day. A football field every 30 minutes!
A $14 billion plan to fix this problem-a plan widely viewed as technically sound and supported by environmentalists, oil companies, and fishermen alike- has been on the table for years and was pushed forward with greater urgency after Katrina hit. But for reasons hard to fathom, yet utterly lethal in their effect, the administration has turned its back on this plan. Instead of investing the equivalent of six weeks of spending in Iraq, or the cost of the Big Dig in Boston, we must now prepare to pay for another inevitable $200 billion hurricane just around the corner in Louisiana.
The grand plan to change all this, commonly known as the Coast 2050 plan, would use massive pipelines and pumps and surgically designed canals to guide a portion of the river’s sediment-thick water back toward the coastal buffer zone without destroying existing infrastructure or communities. This would rebuild hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands over time and reconstruct entire barrier islands in as little as 12 months. (It is estimated that the government’s plan to rebuild the levees could take decades.) Everyone agrees the plan will work. The National Academy of Sciences confirmed the soundness of the approach just last week and urged quick action.
Yet in its second and final post-Katrina emergency spending package sent to Congress on November 8th, the White House dismissed the rescue plan with a shockingly small $250 million proposed authorization instead of the $14 billion requested.
How could this administration, found totally unprepared for the first Katrina, not see the obvious action needed to prevent the next one? My theory is that Bush hears “wetlands” and retreats to a blind, ideological aversion to all things “environmental.” Which perhaps explains why in multiple speeches given during six photo-op trips to the Gulf since Katrina hit, the President has not one time mentioned the words barrier islands or wetlands. Not once.
“Either they don’t get it or they just don’t care,” said Mark Davis, director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. “But the results are the same: more disaster.”
So stop the repairs; put the brooms and chain saws away. Close the few businesses that have re-opened. Leave the levees in their tattered state and get out. Right now. Everybody. It’s utterly unsafe to live there.
To encourage people to return to New Orleans, as Bush is doing, without funding the only plan that can save the city from the next Big One, is to commit an act of mass homicide. If, after all the human suffering and expense of this national ordeal, the federal government can’t be bothered to spend the cost of a tunnel from Logan Airport to downtown Boston, then the game is truly over.
Anyone who doesn’t like this news-farmers who export grain through the port of New Orleans, New Englanders who heat their homes with natural gas from the Gulf, cultural enthusiasts who like their gumbo in the French Quarter-should all direct their comments straight to the White House. But don’t wait around for a response.
Mike Tidwell is the author of Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast. He lives in Takoma Park, Md.
To learn more about the causes and lessons of hurricane Katrina, visit www.katrinanomore.com.