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Synthesis/Regeneration 39   (Winter 2006)


New Orleans: Whose Fault?

by Lorna Salzman

The New Orleans tragedy will spark diverse opinions on why it happened and who is to blame. In truth, while the proximate causes were Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the engineered flood control systems, the ultimate causes lie both in American history and in the American dream.

Serendipitous geography created the mighty Mississippi and its tributaries, more accommodating and cheaper for international trade than the Atlantic Ocean, and facilitated the opening up of a two-way trade system that allowed American agricultural commodities to find global markets and in turn allowed foreign mineral resources in for the increased industrialization of the US heartland.

When originally settled, New Orleans lacked the “benefits” of flood control technology and industrialization. Consequently it had to work around and accommodate the natural features of the Mississippi delta. The free run of the river brought down silt from thousands of miles away, which built up the delta and raised the land. The flood plain north of the delta and within it was undisturbed so that high tides and storms were allowed to run off into uninhabited swamps, streams and ponds, where the swampy soils absorbed many times their volume in water. The natural swamp that was New Orleans served to siphon off water rather than channelize and hold it back.

But the economic value of the New Orleans port grew rapidly, and with the onset of the Industrial Revolution greater infrastructure as well as modern amenities like sewage, water and electric systems became not only possible but necessary. The late 20th century, with its financial power, saw New Orleans become a commercial and tourist center because of its history, culture, music, cuisine and social freedoms, though little of this filtered down to the service workers, mostly poor and black, whose work was vitally important to the tourist sector.

New Orleans is not the only American city living off the energy and muscle of others. Las Vegas and the retirement communities in Arizona and California became established in hostile and droughty areas with no local resources, and sucked in what they needed from outside their state, regardless of cost or environmental impact.

All of these places have their service workers at the bottom of the economic ladder. In New Orleans, the average income of blacks is $11,000. Of the 485,000 city residents, over 100,000 (probably all black) lack private transportation and would thus have been unable to evacuate the city. In contrast to New Orleans, Cuba was able to evacuate 1.5 million people prior to a hurricane.

[R]emove all structures and infrastructure from the Mississippi River flood plain for its entire 1,500-mile length…

Many areas of the country such as the middle and southern Atlantic and Pacific coasts similarly saw population influxes to hazardous areas such as the flood plain of the eastern barrier island ecosystem. Californians built houses perched on cliffs subject to landslides, or in chaparral and savannah habitats where wildfires were the natural climatic regime. Throughout the Mississippi River basin and watershed, whole cities established themselves with the help of government-funded channelization and diking of the river, with adjacent natural flood plains obliterated, reducing the ability of these areas to absorb heavy rains and leading to regular massive flooding.

This is the history of American settlements, but one that was exacerbated by an ignorant federal government desperate to promote development without regard to the exigencies of nature. The Bureau of Reclamation (note the inference that untamed flood plains and wetlands needed to be reclaimed) and the Army Corps of Engineers were set loose with trillions of dollars of taxpayer money to accommodate all manner of unsound development and commerce. Where problems were detected, more money was thrown at them, as it was at New Orleans for its levees, canals and pumps.

No one doubted that engineering would protect them from the wild forces of nature. The declarations of these agencies about the remote risk of natural disaster were intentionally deceptive. When they refer to a 200-year flood, what they mean is that for any given year the chance of a flood is 1 in 200, which any mechanical engineer (especially one at a nuclear power plant, or a jet pilot) would consider very bad odds.

As for New Orleans, there was a political decision made, probably based on economics, that the Army Corps would plan for a Category 3 hurricane, even though the Corps itself and other scientists had said this was insufficient. We can now expect planners to plead for higher protection levels. This will once again give a false sense of security.

It would be naive to expect that any agency of government or either of the major political parties would consider, much less propose, anything different. For both parties, economics, business, development, prosperity and investment are the objectives and environmental concerns secondary since in their view these can be mitigated. New Orleans is now a test case, but if past experience can be trusted, we will see a massive influx of taxpayer dollars to rebuild the city in the same place, where it will be permanently at risk.

Is there any alternative? Well, yes, and it might even be less costly. This would be to remove all structures and infrastructure from the Mississippi River flood plain for its entire 1500-mile length, but especially in its lower reaches. This would not only allow the natural river flow but would accommodate without death or destruction most severe climatic events.

The flood plain could be farmed by people living outside of it. The silt from the upper reaches of the river would flow unimpeded down to the Gulf and, as occurred up to the 19th century, would be deposited in the delta and gradually raise the land above sea level.

New marshes and swamps would be created, enticing wildlife and waterfowl and creating shrimp and fish hatcheries. The area would become a natural wildlife refuge supporting small-scale sustainable agriculture, fishing, shrimping and tourism.

Support towns could be built outside the flood plain and sufficiently far north of the Gulf coast. Population density could be limited, local agriculture and fishing could be encouraged to eliminate importation of food, innovative sewage systems such as marsh sewage treatment plants could be built, and renewable energy emphasizing self-sufficiency (photovoltaics and wind farms for small towns) would eliminate the dependency upon central generating facilities that are easily disrupted. People would be prepared with boats for transport in the event of flooded roads, including ferries to go to work or recreation.

If ever there was a lesson demonstrating the need to unhook ourselves from oil and dependency upon private cars, this was it.

As for the oil industry? If ever there was a lesson demonstrating the need to unhook ourselves from oil and dependency upon private cars, this was it. The loss of the Gulf oil production capacity is not huge but would be even less if the US had the good sense and perspicacity to shift its efforts into massive construction of wind generators, wind farms, photovoltaic cells, co-generation and other serious energy efficiency strategies.

The government that talks about national security apparently never considered natural climatic events to be a threat. Now we know that global warming, by increasing ocean temperature, is a definite contributor to hurricane intensity. We can take steps to mitigate this temperature increase though it cannot be reversed. But above all we need to reformulate our land use principles radically, simultaneously reforming or eliminating those policies that allow and encourage construction in those areas at most risk from hurricanes, flooding, fire, and earthquake. This is a public health issue equal to the threat of bird influenza or acts of terrorism, and it is a self-imposed threat.

The overconsumption of oil by the US is indeed a self-inflicted act of terrorism.

Lorna Salzman was a candidate for the USGP presidential nomination in 2004 and a Suffolk County Green Party candidate for congress in 2002. She has been an environmental writer and activist since the early 1970s. Her web site is www.lornasalzman.com.

[21 feb 06]

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