After the flood

Katrina taught us a lot about climate change, flood control and disaster management. So why are these lessons still being ignored?

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The Lower Nine and St. Bernard Parish were destined to flood because of MR-GO. Even Louisiana's Republican Senator, David Vitter — who before Katrina promoted legislation to allow commercial destruction of cypress trees — has come around to saying that the 76-mile canal should be closed. Such a move would allow for some of the lost wetlands to be restored.

Yet alongside the Corps' mistakes and FEMA's incompetence, the city bears a measure of blame. The city's levee district in the early 1980s pressed the Corps to confine its design scope to a 100-year hurricane defense, which meant the city would pay proportionally less for its cost-share of levee work, thereby freeing funds for lakefront development. The Corps wanted to build canal floodgates in the lake, which might have prevented flooding in much of the city.

The flooding put in sharp relief a central challenge to south Louisiana's survival: coastal erosion, and how to remake wetlands as a protective buffer to Gulf hurricanes. The damage was chronicled by Hallowell, Times-Picayune reporters Schleifstein and McQuaid in a 2002 series, and by Mike Tidwell in his 2003 book, Bayou Farewell, among others.

The land south of New Orleans has been sinking as Gulf waters rise. Tidwell found fishing communities with submerged cemeteries, people whose property had disappeared into the Gulf. A million acres of wetlands have been swallowed by the Gulf, eroding nature's defense against hurricane tidal waves, opening a destructive path to the city.

Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster (1996-2004) gave petrochemical industries an easy ride for toxic waste disposal, treating his Department of Environmental Quality like a serfdom. But Foster, a bluff, Falstaffian fellow, liked the great outdoors and became concerned about coastal erosion thanks to a cross-section of business people, fishermen, industrialists, state officials and ecologists who collaborated on a long report in 1998 called Coast 2050: Toward A Sustainable Coastal Louisiana. Foster gave George W. Bush copies of Hallowell's and Tidwell's books. There is little evidence that he read them. Coast 2050 estimated it would cost $14 billion to restore the lost wetlands — big money, but a fraction of the $200 billion in estimated losses from Katrina. In 2004, Bush cut the Army Corps' funding request for levee maintenance by more than 80 percent.

Louisiana's southern parishes are sinking — just as other rural and metropolitan areas along the Atlantic coast will effectively sink as ocean levels rise. For now, the Louisiana case is more severe; it stems in part from 20,000 miles of pipelines that criss-cross the coastal floor to deliver oil and gas from offshore rigs. Another factor in the mass sinkage is the impact of levees built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed in response to the Great Flood of 1927. Containing the Mississippi's currents with stronger levees kept the city safe from the river but bottled up diversionary outlets, which drove streams of river silt like a chute into the Gulf rather than letting the sediment generate sluiceways to replenish tidal marshes. Starved of river nutrients, gouged by pipe excavations, the wetlands eroded and lower Louisiana began sinking in the process.

Nearly 25 percent of all the oil and gas consumed in America travels through Louisiana's wetlands. Roughly a quarter of the nation's seafood was generated from Louisiana's coastal area before Katrina. Since 1932, the state has lost 1,900 square miles of wetlands, an area larger than Rhode Island. Ten square miles disappear annually.

click to enlarge MAKING A STINK: Revelers parade in New Orleans last Halloween dressed as spoiled refrigerators. And the credit is: - David Rae Morris
David Rae Morris
MAKING A STINK: Revelers parade in New Orleans last Halloween dressed as spoiled refrigerators. And the credit is:

New Orleans tomorrow

Streams of Mexican and Latino workers have flocked to New Orleans for construction jobs. The city will resemble an Alaskan boomtown, without the cold or the gold, in the next few years. Music and strip clubs will hum; the spirit of jazz and spontaneous cultural improvisations will roll like a wave from the soul. But the smaller city, with fewer schools, is already being stalked by poverty and crime as drug dealers fight for smaller pieces of turf. It is hard to imagine any of that changing, given the fractured New Orleans Police Department.

So the city will produce for tourists and conventions the spectacles and cuisine for which it is known as the low-end workers who staff the hotels and restaurants struggle to find housing. In all of this, the dead silence of absent leadership — Mayor Ray Nagin's — hangs like a heavy fog in the muggy night. New Orleanians cry out for a comprehensive recovery plan, but Nagin has effectively punted back to the citizens themselves, offering a "plan for a plan," putting the onus on neighborhood groups, a process that will take at least until the end of this year to materialize. By then, billions in federal aid that have been sent down to the Louisiana Recovery Authority, a state agency conceived by Gov. Kathleen Blanco, will have been committed to other parishes that have already adopted recovery plans. When the money runs out, Nagin will have no one to blame but himself.

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