Thursday, February 09, 2006

Required Reading

By Steve White

“Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast”
By Mike Tidwell

“Holding Back The Sea: The Struggle on the Gulf Coast to Save America”
By Christopher Hallowell

“Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood and How It Changed America”
By John Barry

What a difference 36 years can make!

Hurricane Camille, which made landfall on Aug. 17, 1969 (just a month after my own birth), had long been the benchmark by which the Gulf Coast region had defined the so-called worst-case scenario. Homes and buildings that survived Camille were assumed to be impervious to hurricane force winds and waters, especially considering that gusts of more than 200 miles an hour were reportedly measured atop my high school alma mater, St. Stanislaus College in Bay St. Louis, Miss, during that storm. So why did Katrina, a Category 4 hurricane at landfall, wreak so much more havoc than the Category 5 Camille?

Likewise in New Orleans, Hurricane Betsy in 1965 punched holes in the levees along the industrial canal and flooded parts of the city (ironically in some of the same areas hard hit by Katrina). But the devastation didn’t approach Katrina levels, and New Orleans bounced back in weeks as opposed to the months or years it is likely to take in the aftermath of last year’s post-hurricane flooding.

The reasons for the disparity are many including the sheer size of the storm, the power and height of Katrina’s wave surge, lower barometric pressure levels, making landfall at high tide, global warming and the resulting active hurricane season and the failure of the Army Corps of Engineers to maintain levees properly along the 17th Street and London Avenue Canals in New Orleans (possibly because soil data may have been improperly recorded, according to reports on

The overriding issues are the loss of wetlands in southeast Louisiana, where hundreds of miles of marsh has turned to open water, and the erosion of barrier islands off the coastlines of both states. These land masses protect the metro New Orleans area and the coastal towns in Mississippi. “Every 2.7 miles of marsh grass absorbs a foot of a hurricane’s surge,” explained author Mike Tidwell is his 2001 book “Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast.” “For New Orleans alone, hemmed in by levees and already an average of 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.”

So why are the wetlands disappearing? Again, environmentalists point to a number of reasons including warmer temperatures, which have raised the level of the globe’s oceans, some say as a result of global warming. That may be part of the problem, but the main issue at hand is simple: the entire Louisiana wetlands were formed as a result of sedimentary deposit from the Mississippi River over literally thousands and thousands of years of flooding. Man finally tamed the wild river following the great flood of 1927, bringing to an end this natural land creation process. Plus, the land on the other side of the levees continued the natural process of settling (i.e. sinking). The land is falling; Gulf water is rising. Thus the wetlands begin to disappear at a rapid pace, producing a wide array of negative fallout including the steady loss of land, the demise of a Cajun culture that thrived by living off the fertile bayous of southern Louisiana and the disappearance of a much needed buffer zone when destructive hurricanes roar into the Gulf of Mexico headed for Louisiana and Mississippi.

The three books I have listed above including Tidwell’s “Bayou Farewell,” a literary travelogue that examines the issue from many angles; Christopher Hallowell’s “Holding Back the Sea: The Struggle on the Gulf Coast To Save America,” taking a slightly more wonkish approach to the same material; and, lastly, John Barry’s landmark history on the 1927 flood, “Rising Tide,” that explains the drive by federal agencies to finally subdue the dangerous river behind a levee system, are all crucial to understanding the problems and solutions. These books set the stage and spell out what this all means in painful and frightening detail.

I am ashamed to say that it took a storm like Katrina to wake me up to these issues, despite the fact that I grew up along the Mississippi Coast and lived in the New Orleans area for more than a decade. I may be a day late and a few environmentally conscious brain cells too short, but it’s not necessarily too late.

Plans have long been on the table ( to build a massive river diversion near Donaldsonville, La., thereby managing a man-made split in the mighty Mississippi and creating a second river delta. The result: the creation of new land that within a short period of time can begin to rebuild the wetlands, save many endangered species and a unique way of life in Acadia, and ultimately restore crucial marshland to blunt the effects of Katrina-like storms in the future.

Let’s hope the pain, suffering and loss of Katrina will prompt action on the part of this country’s leaders. It’s not as if we don’t have the money (approximately $14 billion); so far what we have lacked is the political will to stem land loss averaging more than 25 miles of coastline, each year!


Blogger NuanceNamVet said...

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11:47 AM  
Anonymous Steve of Gretna / NO, LA said...

In considering the erosion of the wet lands please do not forget the hundreds and thousands of miles of access canals dug for the oil and gas industries development and maintenance that power your California that has effectively barred your developing your own energy reserves. These canals allow salt water intrusion into fresh water plant estuaries effectively killing them with the tide breaking them apart and moving them out to sea. We are effectively melting to fuel Governor Arnold’s hummer fleet in California and so very many others!

2:38 AM  

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