Saturday, December 02, 2006

John Barry Katrina Anniversary Column

I've decided to reprint a column that originally appeared in USA Today on Aug. 29th. As oyster said at the time:
Every Louisianan should know the information contained in the essay. Barry summarizes why Louisiana's current vulnerability stems, in large part, from its service to the nation as a port and an oil-deliverer. Then he clearly lays out the main steps to solving our flood protection problems, which includes wetlands restoration.

Don't know how long USA Today's archives stay available online, but as recent developments show, every Louisianan should still know the information contained in the essay.
A city worth saving

By John M. Barry

Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans was not a natural disaster. It was a man-made disaster. But it wasn't man-made only because the levees built by the Army Corps of Engineers proved so flawed that, as the Corps itself said, they offered protection "in name only." It was man-made in a much larger sense, for even if the levees had kept New Orleans dry last year, eventually another hurricane would have ripped the city apart.

That will still happen unless we do something. To understand why that is, how the city can be protected against Category 5 storms, and why the national interest requires action, one has to understand the Mississippi River.

By depositing sediment into what had once been ocean, the river created about 35,000 square miles of land from Cape Girardeau, Mo., to the current mouth of the river. As recently as World War II, a land buffer kept New Orleans reasonably safe from hurricanes.

Three factors changed the geological equation. All three benefited the rest of the nation but increased New Orleans' vulnerability.

First, the Corps of Engineers prevented the river bank from Minneapolis south from collapsing into the river by lining hundreds of miles of the Mississippi River with either riprap or concrete mats. This keeps shipping moving and provides flood protection but deprives the Mississippi of millions of tons of soil that historically built land farther south.

Second, because the river still carries enough sediment to block the mouth of the river with sandbars, closing it to shipping, the federal government maintains jetties extending more than 2 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico. The jetties escort the soil into deep water, allowing New Orleans to serve as the busiest port in the USA.

But all this deprives the coast — from Texas to Mississippi — of the soil that created it. Coupled with development and levees preventing replenishment of the land with new sediment, this caused much of the city to fall below sea level.

A century in the making

Yet these forces have been at work for a century and alone did not put New Orleans in desperate straits. Virtually all cities near mouths of deltaic rivers are below sea level. Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport lies 14 feet below sea level, lower than New Orleans. Near Sacramento, developers want to build on land 20 feet below sea level.

What has enormously increased New Orleans' vulnerability is a more recent problem: offshore oil and gas wells. These wells account for more than 30% of U.S. domestic energy production. To service them, the oil industry dug 8,000 miles of pipelines and canals through the coastal marsh; every inch of those canals and pipelines lets salt water eat away at the land.

As a result, 2,000 square miles of Louisiana's coast — some of it barrier islands, some marsh, and some once seemingly as solid as the land just below Cape Girardeau — has melted into the sea. The overwhelming majority of the loss has come in the past 50 years.

All of that land once defended New Orleans against the full force of hurricanes, soaking up many feet of storm surges. Barrier islands that no longer exist once helped defend both the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast.

So, protecting people hundreds of miles north of New Orleans from river floods, making Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and Tulsa into ports with ocean access, and supplying oil and gas to America have all made New Orleans vulnerable.

Yet New Orleans can be protected against great storms. Levees that survive overtopping is step one. Step two is building storm surge barriers, as the Netherlands, Great Britain, Italy and even Providence, have. Step three — the most important and most expensive — is restoring the coast. The river still carries enough sediment that, directed to the right places, it can provide significant protection to the city, even with the expected rise in sea level. Restoring the coast will cost an estimated $14.1 billion — spread over 25 to 30 years. By contrast, Iraq costs $6 billion a month.

Giving Louisiana the same share of tax revenue from its offshore wells that New Mexico, Wyoming and other states get from wells drilled on federal land would cover 100% of the cost. Those states justify getting their share because of the environmental and infrastructure costs that drilling causes, yet their costs are insignificant compared with Louisiana's.

Why change must come

More important, protecting New Orleans is the classic example of something we can't afford not to do. Those who believe New Orleans can survive as a smaller city and still serve the rest of the country as a port are mistaken. Louisiana continues to erode: the equivalent of roughly a football field melts into the sea every hour.

If nothing is done, the city will become a fragile walled island under constant assault. Nor can the port move to Baton Rouge. The port runs along almost 70 miles of river, much of which will be threatened.

Energy infrastructure will become even more vulnerable than the city, and we'll suffer constant supply disruptions and Katrina-like price spikes. The Strategic Petroleum Reserve won't help; Katrina knocked out its pumps and pipelines. Indeed, rebuilding Louisiana's coast might be the only thing environmentalists and the energy industry agree on.

The most important step in rebuilding New Orleans is assuring residents and investors that it will be safe. The most important part of that is committing to build Category 5 hurricane protection. It isn't just New Orleans that needs it; the national economy needs it.

John M. Barry, author of Rising Tide and The Great Influenza, is Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane and Xavier universities.

Reading what some other bloggers like oyster, Ashley and Mark had to say about today's news*, I couldn't help but wonder how people in the rest of the country would react to their views. I do know how a professor in Shreveport would react, he'd say that the world doesn't revolve around Louisiana flood control (or insurance). Well, the rest of the word might not revolve around our safety, but the rest of the country contributed to our vulnerability.

On the issue of flood control, at least one West Bank official is putting seems to have his priorities straight (from today's Picayune):
But Carter has been making headway since she made the runoff. The latest example came this week when she picked up the endorsement of Westwego Mayor Robert Billiot.

While he noted that there are issues on which he and Carter disagree, Billiot said backing the incumbent was not an option because the Democratic Party leadership "has made it very clear that they no longer have confidence in Congressman William Jefferson and have effectively removed him from every position where he might have had leverage or the clout to represent us well."

For that reason, Billiot said in a written statement that he believes Carter "is best positioned to carry on the fight for stronger, better levees and flood control projects, which might very well be a life or death issue for all of us who live on the West Bank."

I hate to sound like a broken record about it, but with FEMA threatening to withhold money and insurance companies threatening to pull out, that pie's a long from exploding.

*Mark's post was obviously about a lot more than Traveler's decision to pull out of the area, and could have easily been written absent the linked article.

My answer to Mr. Sadow:

I couldn't agree more. You have absolutely no right to live in suburbia and drive an gas guzzling SUV from one air conditioned building to another, if the phenominal cost is transferred to me in coastal Lousiana. Let's just cap all the damn oil wells and fill the canals. That simple step would go a long way toward mitigating coastal loss at little or no direct cash cost to you or the rest of the nation.

The issue is that we have deferred indefinitely the costs of ignoring the geological impact of coastal oil exploitation, so that people could choose to live whereever they damn well please thanks to the automobile and highway expenditures.

That bill is now due. We prefer cash.
This post will be included in today's edition of the "Carnival of Hurricane Relief." See:
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