A Time for Celebration, but Not for Complacency
Has it really been ten years already? Indeed it has: a long ten years. And the work of rebuilding, the labors of love and determination, dedication, devotion, and sometimes of desperation—aided by countless volunteers from all around America and the world—are incalculable, and we hope that what they have rebuilt and reinforced will last for a very long time to come. Merci beaucoup.
We wholeheartedly join in celebrating the New Orleans area’s rebirth and rebuilding since Hurricane Katrina and the federal flood that ensued—we’ll be there this weekend for the 10th annual Rising Tide conference and other events. We are grateful for the efforts of elected officials to dedicate funding for the rebuilding, and we welcome President Obama and FEMA director W. Craig Fugate and others to New Orleans to participate in the events.
At the same time, while the eyes of the world turn to remember and honor this anniversary—this momentous event so charged with tragic intensity, such widespread human suffering—we remain worried, skeptical about the long term. We feel compelled to sound a cautionary note about coastal Louisiana’s environmental predicament and the state’s political submissiveness to the oil and gas industry. Consider that even as President Obama is launching efforts “to reduce carbon emissions and slow the impacts of climate change” (in the words of WhiteHouse.gov), his administration has also given Shell Oil permission to drill in the Arctic. What we need is a new (early period) Huey P. Long for the environment.
Now, this Katrina 10 weekend, the politicians, even the most eco-friendly among them, will spellbind us with reassuring words we want to hear, about resilience (Mayor Mitch Landrieu will say the word at least 189 times), accomplishments and promises delivered that make their administrations look good, and perhaps rightly so, but they all hesitate to stand up to ExonMobil, Shell, BP, and other oil and gas giants. If it weren’t so, wouldn’t the oil companies pay more than a pittance in corporate taxes?
“I would ask you to respect this important time of remembrance by not inserting the divisive political agenda of liberal environmental activism.”
—Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, letter to President Obama, Aug. 26
We could not disagree more. Since we read it in the paper a few days ago, we haven’t been able to stop thinking about the very serious facts that Oliver A. Houck of Tulane Law School laid down in a letter to the editor of The New York Times:
“How to Save a Sinking Coast? Katrina Created a Laboratory” (front page, Aug. 8), in which I am quoted, understates the seriousness of Louisiana’s predicament and its conflicting responses.
There is no hope of restoring the coastal Louisiana we once knew. Sea rise is accelerating, the substrate is collapsing, and the oil and gas industry has torn the surface to shreds. Some 50 miles of marshes that protected New Orleans are largely gone. The Mississippi no longer carries sediment loads sufficient to offset these losses. We can maintain a few salients like New Orleans and create several deltas. That’s the best-case scenario.
Like many coastal areas, however, Louisiana continues to try to have it both ways, promoting restoration as well as more development on soils that are sinking more rapidly than anywhere in North America. The state’s future is the state’s choice, of course, except that, in the end, nature will have its say. The question is whether we face that fact and deal with it. The answer is not just what we do with the Mississippi. It is what we do with ourselves.
Much Stronger Flood Protection for New Orleans Metro Area
Now, in the ten years since Katrina, some substantial improvements have been made to the area’s flood protection system. Congress has allocated $14.5 billion to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild, reinforce, and install new protections. Times-Picayune reporter Mark Schleifstein describes it as “a $14.5-billion network of levees, floodwalls and pumps that nearly eliminates flooding for most so-called 100-year events and substantially reduces flooding from much larger hurricanes.” The Corps is also spending about $1.2 billion to improve the city’s drainage system, which accounts for the major work currently being done along Napoleon, Jefferson, and other avenues under which closed culverts convey excess water out of the city. The new system stood up well against Hurricane Isaac in September 2013; experts said that without the post-Katrina reinforcements, Isaac could have flooded the city as badly as the disastrous Hurricane Betsy of 1965, which struck almost exactly forty years to the day before Hurricane Katrina.
There have been other important structural changes that should improve the area’s safety from flooding. One of the main “delivery systems” of the inundation of New Orleans and vicinity was the convergence of the Intracoastal Waterway with the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR-GO, known locally as Mister Go): The convergence forms a funnel that directs storm surges from Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain directly at the heart of Orleans Parish, a low-lying bowl between the river and the lake, enclosed by levees. This danger was predicted before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built MR-GO in the 1950s and ’60s. Following Katrina, a closure structure was built across MR-GO at Bayou La Loutre, completed in July 2009. Closer to New Orleans, a strong $1 billion, 1.8-mile surge barrier was constructed to close the funnel at the convergence of the Intracoastal Waterway and MR-GO. This barrier, completed in 2011, was designed to prevent storm surges from entering the Industrial Canal and Intracoastal Waterway—and, hence, reinforces New Orleans and vicinity’s defenses against flooding.
So, naturally we are grateful for the federal and state funding that has made these major improvements possible. And yet we remain skeptical for the future, doubtful of the realism and practicality of the state’s legislature, which continues to allow the oil and gas industry free rein. A lawsuit against 97 oil companies brought by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East (SLFPA-E) in July 2013 was strangled by Gov. Bobby Jindal and a compliant majority of the Louisiana legislature.
Will New Orleans, Est. 1718, Live to Have a 400th Birthday?
A former vice president of the flood authority, historian John M. Barry (right), mentions that lawsuit and the environmental catastrophe that it could have helped ameliorate in an authoritative overview he wrote for The New York Times titled “Is New Orleans Safe?” (Barry and the lawsuit were profiled by Nathaniel Rich in The New York Times Magazine last October: “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever.”) In “Is New Orleans Safe,” Barry says that it is technically, geologically possible for New Orleans to survive despite the odds, if the right steps are taken, partly by “living with water” and also by intelligent use of diversions to rebuild sedimentary deposits from the Mississippi River.
But then he gives a sober assessment:
. . . the political reality is that taxpayers around the country are not going to be sending Louisiana tens of billions of dollars anytime soon, especially while Louisiana’s politicians avoid dealing with another major cause of land loss.
Oil, gas and pipeline companies have dredged an estimated 10,000 miles of canals through the coast; ensuing salt water intrusion killed plants, without whose roots land dissolved. Companies also sucked so much material from below ground that the surface sank. . . .
On the 10th anniversary of Katrina, there will be much congratulating over how far the city has come. Mayor Landrieu has declared rebuilding over and is preparing to make New Orleans an international showpiece for its 300th anniversary in 2018. If the city and state focus on the one existential threat they face. New Orleans could have a sustainable future. But if focus dissipates, if politics blocks action, the 300th anniversary will most likely be the last centennial the city celebrates.
And so, if you see an elected official during this weekend’s events in New Orleans, please urge him or her to help press the oil and gas industry to share in the efforts to rebuild a sustainable coast for Louisiana. It’s not easy but it’s not as naive or impossible as it may sound. Ask them—they’re people too—to shift toward renewable energy sources, to give up some of their profits, or look beyond their next reelection, and to support the practicable, realistic projects that geologists and engineers have devised that could slow the degradation and help regenerate the wetlands around southern Louisiana.
Some ideas for coastal restoration can be found in our interviews with Ivor van Heerden, Harry Shearer, Mark Schleifstein, and in the Coastal Conservation Conversation panel held at Loyola University in New Orleans in August 2014. For the nitty-gritty of paying for the state of Louisiana’s master plan for coastal restoration, click here for a PDF of “Turning Coastal Restoration and Protection Plans Into Realities: The Cost of Comprehensive Coastal Restoration and Protection,” published by the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy on August 18, 2014 (discussed at the Loyola panel mentioned above).
Sorry, didn’t mean to bring you down. Just trying to keep it real. In medieval and renaissance banquets there was often a skull on the table as a reminder to the guests (memento mori). We’re just trying to help make sure that there is a four hundredth birthday for the great, low-lying city we love so dearly.
Now, let’s pass the bottle and celebrate a job well done . . .
Is New Orleans Safe? by John M. Barry (New York Times)
Ten Years After Katrina (New York Times interactive)
Mapping Katrina and Its Aftermath (New York Times interactive)
Rebuilding Nature in Wake of Katrina (NYT slide show)
A decade after Hurricane Katrina, new books, new insights, old memories (New Orleans Advocate)
Wetlands photo and John M. Barry photo by Jeff Riedel for The New York Times.