In what some analysts are calling the worst environmental disaster in recent history, New Orleans remains underwater following the wrath of Hurricane Katrina last week. The Big Easy’s extensive man-made levee system—built to protect the city, which lies largely below sea level in a geological bowl—may be turning a bad situation worse by keeping the surging floodwaters in the city, where they can harbor the disease-bearing viruses and bacteria that thrive in stagnant water.
“We are gravely concerned about the potential for cholera, typhoid and dehydrating diseases that can come as a result of the stagnant water and conditions,” said the federal government’s Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt. Public health officials warn that tainted water can also seep out into neighboring areas, potentially contaminating drinking water supplies otherwise thought to be safe—and getting thousands more sick in the process.
Beyond the flood, experts say that the very existence of the levees over the past several decades has led to the decay of nearby wetlands, which historically have played a huge role as buffers in protecting against flooding and other storm damage. Louisiana has lost more than a million acres of coastal wetlands since the 1940s. New Orleans’ plight has also reignited the debate over whether human-induced global warming is to blame for an increase in the severity of hurricanes and other dynamic weather events around the world (see last week’s “Our Planet” column, “Stormy Weather”). But with rescue missions still underway, it will be a very long time indeed before environmentalists can get answers to some of these larger questions.