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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Meanwhile, the Christian triumphalists who control Congress see New Orleans as expendable, an outer edge of the Third World — a mentality that stands in jagged contrast to the scores of churches from red states that sent members to the muddy blue city at the bottom of America, gutting houses, cleaning streets, helping people recover.

But even as some Pentecostal leaders have started to speak out about global warming, "environmental defense" is not an issue in most people's minds. The Democrats failed to make an issue of Katrina — why the flood happened, how to prevent future ones. The war in Iraq has been keeping Bush down in the polls, but the flood is what put him there. Perhaps the portents of mass ecological breakdown are a migraine for most pols in the daily rush of seeking money at the trough.

Still, the stirrings of a Louisiana plan to prevent future disasters are based on the environmental defense idea, though no one is calling it that. Here again, the implications are national in scope.

On Aug. 1 the Senate approved a bill by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) that would give Louisiana and other Gulf states a 37.5 percent royalty on 8.3 million acres newly designated for drilling in the Gulf, providing an estimated $200 million annually in the next decade. A House bill by Rep. Bobby Jindal, a Republican who represents suburbs of New Orleans, called for higher royalties, netting $2 billion a year. A compromise bill working through a House-Senate conference should give the state sorely needed funds for coastal erosion. For her part, Gov. Kathleen Blanco sued the federal Minerals Management Service to halt a scheduled lease of oil and gas exploration in the Gulf, arguing that the agency ignored environmental damage caused by offshore drilling. A windfall in offshore royalties would give the state some leverage in shoring up erosion and preventing future destruction.

On Aug. 14, a federal judge denied Blanco's request to halt the lease, but warned potential bidders that the state is likely to prevail on its argument, which could stop drilling on the leased tracts. The federal agency has a 90-day window to accept the bids, just about the time of the scheduled trial.

For now, there is no institutional mechanism to rebuild the eroding coastline. Mark Davis, the outgoing director of the coastal restoration coalition, says that "awareness is at an all-time high, but the decision-making apparatus is not there to do what needs to be done. It's like watching a revival movement, with everyone talking about how good heaven is, but you don't see a great shift in behavior as if people are planning to get there."

Davis credits Blanco for suing the minerals management agency; she sent a message that the feds must participate in rebuilding the coast.

What kind of institution should guide coastal restoration? And how do you pay for it? "A big problem with major environmental projects is that Congress authorizes funds that take forever to materialize," says Davis. Authorized funding has lagged in delivery in restoration of the Everglades and in a California project to prevent flooding from the Sacramento River that threatens San Francisco Bay. Finding a dependable revenue stream is a big hurdle. Congressional committees have annual appropriations that go through endless negotiations over special interests, like a revolving door, every year.

The Tennessee Valley Authority delivered electrification to the middle South during the Great Depression as a federal agency. Why couldn't a similar agency rebuild Louisiana's wetlands as part of an Atlantic coastal protection agenda, with immunity from Congressional pork-barreling?

Whatever the mechanism necessary for a solution, it is way overdue.

The only way to prevent the disaster scenarios that Gore, Tidwell and others put before us is with a mass campaign to reduce global warming. Getting a national strategy is the toughest order, given the slovenly mindset in Congress and the White House. A policy that rewards industry for cutting carbon dioxide emissions, developing energy-efficient cars and homes, and shifting the economy from dependency on fossil fuels may seem unreachable in this maddened time of terrorism and oil wars. The alternative is to sink into a deeper passivity of consumerism. Couch potatoes at the apocalypse, we'll fill up at $5 a gallon and head for the heartland each time the next big one comes, trying not to collide with sweaty nomads from Alaska, all of us carrying a memory of the flood.

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