Damage Control in New Orleans

In an interview with TV anchor Diane Sawyer, President Bush proclaimed confidently, "I don"t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." The statement had about as much grounding in reality as one made a few days later by his mother, Barbara Bush, who was visiting Houston as part of Republican spin control and was favorably impressed with conditions inside the Astrodome: "And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this—this is working very well for them," she said. As blogger Andrew Sullivan noted, it was her Marie Antoinette moment.

We knew not only that the levees could breach, but that they were likely to do so. We even knew what to do about it, but the Bush administration had other funding priorities. President Bush committed $22 million over five years to Army Corps of Engineers flood control efforts, but the Corps and the state of Louisiana had asked for five times that much. "For years, Congress has consistently approved far more for New Orleans-area projects than the White House has proposed," said the San Jose Mercury News.

Absent such preparation, we knew what to expect. New Orleans’ Time-Picayune ran an exhaustive series on the impending disaster. Here"s a brief excerpt from a National Geographic report from 2004: "The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the most dire threats to the nation, up there with a large earthquake in California or a terrorist attack on New York City. Even the Red Cross no longer opens hurricane shelters in the city, claiming the risk to its workers is too great."

The article quotes Joe Suhayda, a retired coastal engineer at Louisiana State: "The killer for Louisiana is a Category Three storm at 72 hours before landfall that becomes a Category Four at 48 hours and a Category Five at 24 hours—coming from the worst direction."

Nobody anticipated a horrific flooding of New Orleans? Here"s National Geographic"s graphic but imaginary scenario from 2004, which was only too painfully realized. The actual storm differed only in details: "The water crept to the top of the massive berm that holds back [Lake Pontchartrain] and then spilled over. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level—more than eight feet below in places—so the water poured in. A liquid brown wall washed over the brick ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over the white-columned porches of the Garden District, until it raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet (eight meters) over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it."

Here"s another warning, from the pages of Mike Tidwell"s newly timely Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana"s Cajun Coast, published in 2003 by Pantheon. The state"s coastal wetlands, Tidwell pointed out, were disappearing at a rate of 25 square miles per year, meaning that "hundreds of Louisiana towns and cities, all just a few feet above sea level, lie increasingly prone to that deadly wrecking ball of hurricane force known as the storm surge. Coastal wetlands, it turns out, provide more than just a critical nursery for shrimp, crabs and fish. Every 2.7 miles of marsh grass absorbs a foot of a hurricane"s storm surge, that huge tide of water pushed inland by the storm"s winds. For New Orleans alone, hemmed in by levees and already on average eight feet below sea level, the apron of wetlands between it and the closest Gulf shore was, cumulatively, about 50 miles a century ago. Today that distance is perhaps 20 miles and shrinking fast. With very slow evacuation speed virtually guaranteed (there are only three major exit bridges that jump over the encircling levees for central New Orleans" 600,000 people, it"s not implausible that a major hurricane approaching from the right direction could cause tens of thousands of deaths."

We still don"t know the full human toll from Hurricane Katrina. The full extent of the environmental damage may be long in coming, too. Environmental reporters say the EPA has so far been unresponsive in providing an overview on oil spills, chemical releases, fires and other accidents. Tanks capable of holding two million barrels of oil were seen to be leaking into the Mississippi River near the Louisiana town of Venice, Reuters reported.

The oil industry was still largely out of commission at presstime, with 70 percent of normal oil production and half of natural gas output shut down. Twenty oil platforms were reported missing. Eight major refineries—vital to produce gasoline from crude oil, and already strained before the hurricane struck—were out of commission. As the Associated Press noted, the hurricane disabled 10 percent of U.S. refining capacity and "contributed to a surge in retail gasoline prices and spot shortages around the country."

The environmental community is anticipating that politicians will twist the oil shortage to their own ends. New York Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jeanine Pirro called for a suspension of the federal gas tax, which would surely put more people on the road, increasing demand and exacerbating the problem. Calls to drill in Alaska weren’t far behind. The Sierra Club"s David Willet: "Some members of Congress have already used Hurricane Katrina—which killed untold hundreds or thousands of people to advance their narrow political agenda.Now because Hurricane Katrina seriously affected the production, refinery capacity and price of oil in the United States, some in Congress are trying to use it as an excuse to renew calls to drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and our fragile coastlines.Have they no shame? Are they so bankrupt of ideas?"

The Chicago Tribune called the environmental after-effects of the storm a "creeping catastrophe," though it noted that, according to early reports, the chemical plants and refineries to the south and east of New Orleans had mostly escaped serious damage. And of course, the floodwaters themselves were hardly benign. "Even before the storm hit, many of the region"s waterways were among the dirtiest in the nation," the Tribune said. "Louisiana ranks fourth in the nation for releases of toxic chemicals into rivers and streams, and it leads the nation in releases of chemicals that persist in the environment and build up in the human body, according to government data." There was concern about tetanus spreading through the area, and contaminated sediment being left behind when the floodwaters recede.

It wasn"t surprising that the media suddenly took an interest in Mike Tidwell"s prescient Bayou Farewell book. E spoke to an impassioned Tidwell in the midst of a barrage of calls from major news outlets:

TIDWELL: I think that the fact that the President can make a comment like "no one anticipated the breach of the levees" in New Orleans is all the evidence America needs to see how profoundly out of touch this President is with basic homeland security issues here in America

. How can you have homeland security when you don"t have a home, like a million people along the Gulf Coast? How can you have homeland security when those people have no security whatsoever? How can you have homeland security when people can"t even afford to drive their cars because gas is $1.50 more a gallon?

Author of Bayou Farewell, Mike Tidwell.

This President says he didn"t know the levees could break, but his own administration was virtually besieged with urgent requests for levee restoration and building by the State of Louisiana and by New Orleans itself for years. They heard repeated urgent pleas for federal money contributed towards the $14 billion coastal restoration plan, which is a plan to reengineer the coast of Louisiana and recreate the islands and the wetlands that have disappeared. This President ignored or dramatically under-funded all requests for federal involvement in that plan.

So there is a paper trail that is as tall as Mount Everest. Governor Kathleen Blanco met with Bush just a few months after she was elected. She brought up three issues, the most important of them was that our coast is imploding, it"s disappearing, it"s outlandishly vulnerable to hurricanes. The President"s response was, "I"d like to help you as long as the science is sound." And they then proceeded to do nothing. You know that same phrase "sound science" was used to do nothing about global warming, even though the science is irrefutable.

JIM MOTAVALLI: I edited the book Feeling the Heat: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Climate Change, which came out last year and details the global warming effects that are already underway and measurable. There"s a chapter that I wrote looking at barrier islands and what they do, and why we"re losing them because of global warming. It focuses on the vulnerability of the New Jersey and Florida coasts, which are doubly in danger because development has removed wetlands and housing extends right to the shore.

TIDWELL: I"m trying to bend the discussion towards climate change. I"ve been given a platform and, my God, every media outlet in the country is contacting me. I will be on MSNBC and CNN tonight, and NPR"s Morning Edition tomorrow morning. I owe a call to the Wall Street Journal. What I"m saying to them is that the same Bush administration that ignored the warnings about the levees in New Orleans also ignored the warning about the barrier islands and the wetlands buffering the coast in Louisiana. They did nothing, and now we have a million refugees and tens of thousands of people probably dead and who knows how much economic damage. Their negligent policy led to or contributed to this catastrophe. They"re now ignoring the same iron-clad data from their own agencies saying that climate change is real. And one of the impacts is going to be one to three feet of sea level rise in the 21st century.

If we continue to ignore these warnings, every coastal city in America and around the world could turn into a New Orleans. Whether the land sinks three feet in a century or the sea level rises three feet a century, you get the same effect. So if we want to know what Shanghai, Bombay, Miami and New York are all going to be like 50, 70 or 100 years from now, turn on your television right now: It"s on full graphic display.

MOTAVALLI: Let me just ask you one more question, because I know you have to go. What do you think really needs to be done not just to rebuild New Orleans, but to save it from another such tragedy?

TIDWELL: We can rebuild New Orleans: A lot of those structures are still there and can be either rebuilt or refurbished. We could rebuild the levees, and make them much bigger. We can do all that, but in my view it would be immoral and irresponsible to repair a single broken window or pick up a single piece of debris to repair a single cubic foot of levee without simultaneously committing to a full coastal restoration plan. You"ve got to repair the barrier islands at the same time that you fix the windows; you have to replenish the wetlands at the same time you drain New Orleans. To do one without the other is an invitation for another nightmare.

We need to listen to Tidwell"s warnings. What happened in New Orleans could likely also happen to New York and many other big cities. As we reported in Feeling the Heat, "On December 11, 1992 a nor"easter storm hit the great city [New York] head on. With wind gusts of up to 90 miles per hour and water surges eight-and-one-half feet above mean sea level, New York"s transportation infrastructure sputtered to a halt. Four million subway riders were stranded. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive, the main highway along the east side of Manhattan, flooded up to four and one-half feet in some areas
[In 1999] rains soaked the city in late August that year, once again flooding the FDR Drive and the West Side Highway, and drowning some subway tracks in five feet of water. The big rainstorm was followed in September by Hurricane Floyd. The worst of the hurricane just bypassed the city, but total regional property damage was estimated at $1 billion. Since global warming brings with it the certainty of rising sea level and stormier weather, the city"s aging infrastructure and delicate natural balance face unheard-of challenges."


Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana"s Cajun Coast

Feeling the Heat: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Climate Change

Jayasudha K. Joseph contributed editorial assistance.