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Katrina and the Levees
Emily Gertz, 30 Aug 05

Check out "After Centuries of 'Controlling' Land, Gulf Learns Who's the Boss," a thorough, readable, straight talking, and slightly arch article in today's New York Times on the suite of environmental factors that have contributed to Katrina's enormously devatating impact on the Gulf Coast.

Reporters Cornelia Dean and Andrew C. Revkin chart development and depletion of coastal ecologies in the region since the 18th century, "when French colonial administrators required land claimants to establish ownership by building levees along bayous, streams and rivers":

As long as people could control floods, they could do business. But, as people learned too late, the landscape of South Louisiana depends on floods: it is made of loose Mississippi River silt, and the ground subsides as this silt consolidates. Only regular floods of muddy water can replenish the sediment and keep the landscape above water. But flood control projects channel the river's nourishing sediment to the end of the birdfoot delta and out into the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico.

They continue,

Although early travelers realized the irrationality of building a port on shifting mud in an area regularly ravaged by storms and disease, the opportunities to make money overrode all objections.
When most transport was by water, people would of course settle along the Mississippi River, and of course they would build a port city near its mouth. In the 20th century, when oil and gas fields were developed in the gulf, of course people added petrochemical refineries and factories to the river mix, convenient to both drillers and shippers. To protect it all, they built an elaborate system of levees, dams, spillways and other installations.
As one 19th-century traveler put it, according to Ari Kelman, an environmental historian at the University of California, Davis, "New Orleans is surprising evidence of what men will endure, when cheered by the hopes of an ever-flowing tide of dollars and cents."

Dean and Revkin note that a "few small efforts" are being made to mimic what the river would do naturally to restore sediment along the coast, but overall the impression is that the simple fact of long-term human investment in the changed landscape makes a wholesale transformation back to more natural systems of flood control unlikely. It'll cost too much. But with the damage from Katrina already estimated at $9 billion, and the death toll as yet unknown, one does have to wonder when cost the former and costs the newer might just sit down already, have some coffee together, and arrive at an understanding. How we factor "cost" may yet turn into a more malleable and ecologically sustainable science in this century of global heating superstorms.

As I've tracked the news on Worldchanging of how healthy mangroves and coral reefs -- where they endure -- contributed to protecting the Indian Ocean coast from the December tsunami, and how much restoration of those coastal ecologies can contribute to sane and distributed economic development in the South, it hasn't been lost on me that up here in my own hemisphere, many of the same observations and critiques could be applied. I would love to hear about more projects in the Caribbean and the Americas that are grappling not only with the storms of now, but the mega-storms that are likely coming, by undertaking coastal ecological restoration. I've heard of a few, like efforts at the Punta Cana resort in the Dominican Republic.

Meanwhile, a new bit of info on reefs in the tsunami zone: A study published in the August 16 issue of the newsletter Eos (sadly, not availabe to non-subscribers, as far as I can tell) suggests that in areas on the southwestern Sri Lankan coastwhere corals had been stripped by mining, the tsunami struck with more force and caused more damage and death. In an area where rock reefs were present, and corals were being reseeded by local hotels right offshore to provide sights for glass-bottomed boat tours, the tsunami's force was blunted, and no deaths were reported.

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For a timely and wonderful series of stories focusing on place, environment, and ecology, pick up a copy of THE CONTROL OF NATURE By John McPhee. Illustrated. 272 pp. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. One of the three stories is about the Mississippi River, bayou ecology, and our efforts to go against the flow. Here is a link to a NYT review.
and McPhee on wikipedia

Posted by: Ints Luters on 30 Aug 05

This issue was also discussed on NOW with Bill Moyers back in 2002. I blogged about it yesterday.

Posted by: Kerim Friedman on 31 Aug 05

Good name for a band: Katrina and the Levees

Posted by: Dendrobium spurium on 1 Sep 05

Does anyone know who designed and built the levees??

Posted by: Josh White on 1 Sep 05

To the best of my knowledge, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began designing and building South Louisiana's levees and channels in the early 19th century.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 1 Sep 05



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