An Unmitigated Disaster
September 9, 2005
By David Helvarg
“There’s a 9-11 waiting to happen in the oceans if we let it,” Admiral James Watkins (Ret.), chair of the Bush-appointed U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy warned two years ago. With Hurricane Katrina we just let it happen. A huge natural disaster was hugely magnified by greed, folly and a refusal to respond to a situation long recognized as critical.
In its final report issued last fall the Ocean Commission stated that if New Orleans protective levees failed during a storm surge “the city and surrounding areas could suffer upward of $25 billion in property losses and 25,000-100,000 deaths by drowning.” Luckily, because these failures occurred after the storm had passed the real casualty figures are likely to fall well short of those numbers while still proving catastrophic.
Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Mark Schleifstein of the New Orleans Times-Picayune has been writing of the risk of a category 4 or 5 hurricane striking the city for so many years his editor began referring to it as his ‘eco-porn, piece.’
Only now the obscenity we face is that of a million environmental refugees who, like refugees from ever more extreme floods, droughts and hurricanes elsewhere in the world tend to be among the poor and powerless of society.
Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana went on TV Wednesday August 31st and said that disaster relief has been slow in coming because Katrina was such an‘unprecedented’ event. Actually there have been a number of past storms like Hurricane Camille in 1969 that have blown with similar force. The difference is that 36 years ago the Gulf had far more protective wetlands, less risky development along its coasts (and in coastal flood plains) and, until recent decades, was not in the footprint of fossil-fuel fired climate disruption.
Flying over the Bayou I’ve seen shredding islands of brown spartina, or salt grass, cross-hatched with canals built by the oil companies to access their facilities along with massive flood control channels and levees built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Traditionally the river’s flooding deposited sediment that built up the delta, but now that sediment is flushed out into the deep Gulf by these hydrologic speedways. This, in combination with land subsidence from oil-drilling and over a foot of sea-level rise from the burning of coal and oil have combined to shrink the wetlands by some 35 square miles a year in recent decades.
“The Army Corps has given us a levee system that’s traded periodic Mississippi river flooding for permanent coastal flooding, and that to me is a bad deal,” Mark Davis Director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana told me years ago.
Did he believe he could mobilize enough popular will to turn around the forces of sprawl and development, not to mention the Army Corps, I asked him.
“If our advocacy is inadequate to the task,” he said, “then a hurricane will make the case for us.”
When it was built in 1718 New Orleans, although at some risk of flooding even then, had about 200 miles of protective wetlands between itself and the Gulf. Every few miles reduce hurricane storm surge by a foot. Last week when Hurricane Katrina veered to the east of the city there was less than 30 miles of wetlands buffer left in that direction.
At the same time towns such as the now devastated Biloxi Mississippi filled in their salt marshes with waterfront Casinos that drew thousands of new residents in harms way. Today 17 of America’s 20 fastest growing counties are coastal including many in hurricane-prone Florida and the Gulf.
Ironically, since 1968 much of this coastal sprawl has been driven by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood insurance program that now covers $763 billion worth of property, about half of which is in Florida and the Gulf Coast. Before this government insurance became available banks refused to provide mortgages for construction on barrier islands and in flood plains. Today there’s so much money to be made in coastal development that even destruction on a massive scale may not prevent high-risk reconstruction. After Hurricane Ivan destroyed Gulf Shores, Alabama last year the mayor (who’s also a real-estate developer) envisioned the disaster as an opportunity to convert his “Redneck Riviera” into a more desirable “Gulf Coast Resort Destination.”
While last year’s 42 billion dollar hurricane season was the most costly in U.S. history, this year’s had the most named storms until Katrina came along and blew all those other statistics away along with thousands of lives. And this year’s season still has two months to go.
Along with the upswing of a natural 25 year cycle of Atlantic hurricane intensity first identified by Florida scientist Chris Landsea, warming of the world’s oceans, sea-level rise, and erosion from human-caused climate disruption are also contributing to ever more extreme weather events.
A recent study by Swiss Reinsurance, one of the world’s largest insurance companies estimates that global losses from climate change impacts will run around $150 billion a year by the end of the decade. The largest property reinsurance company in Britain projects that, unchecked, climate change impacts could bankrupt the global economy in 65 years. Even in a $3.5 trillion economy like the United State’s we’re already seeing the effects of a single storm.
There are things we can do to prevent the kinds of horrors now being experienced by the victims of this hurricane. These include wetlands restoration, sensible coastal development, and a commitment to a major transition from fossil fuels to carbon-free energy systems.
The European Union is already moving in this direction. The low-lying Netherlands may prove a model for the Gulf. There they have breached many of their levees and converted hundreds of square miles of farmland back to marsh to absorb the impacts of rising seas. They are also introducing a new generation of green (or ‘blue’) architecture including jack-up homes designed for coastal flood zones. And they are moving rapidly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop new carbon-free sources of energy.
After 9-11 there was a moment when Americans appeared ready to make sacrifices and embrace change as they reconsidered their obligations as citizens of a democracy. Instead President Bush went on TV and told us to go shopping.
This latest national disaster need not be another lost opportunity. Solutions can be found among the recommendations of two major ocean commissions, a comprehensive Ocean Protection Bill introduced in June by California Senator Barbara Boxer, and in calls from both the left and the right to end our dependence on fossil fuels.
Sadly we can no longer trust in our government whose prevention policies, preparations and response have proved so inadequate time and again. Instead we are going to have to help ourselves, including the poorest among us, if we are going to get through this crisis and learn the lessons of New Orleans. If we don’t there will always be another hurricane to make the case.