The Intersection

i-3b79ce2fcb5cc49426e67b685412245f-joe.JPGIn January of 2003, I sat in Joe Kelley’s seminar at the University of Maine as he foretold the devastation that was to come to New Orleans. I’d never heard this chilling story before and listened intently as he explained that as far back as when The Big Easy flooded in the 1920′s, scientists realized that the Mississippi Delta would continue to change its course (rivers have a habit of doing that you see). I began to understand that over time, the already vulnerable city faced increasing threat and felt dizzy amid the whirlwind of so many alarming facts and figures.

The levees are inadequate… Louisiana loses 25-35 square miles of land each year to the ocean… Coastal wetlands (natural buffers to storm surges) are disappearing…. Many parts of the city are below sea level… Which by the way, is rising… Residents are supposed to keep axes in their attics… and on and on…

What?! This surely couldn’t be true. If the situation were really that bad, no one would stay. Did the federal government know? Did residents realize? Maybe the scientists were a bunch of alarmists… (Hey wait, isn’t that what they’re claiming now with regard to global warming?! Michael Crichton take note!)

But Professor Joe Kelley is a nationally renowned marine geologist who’s scientific expertise on the Louisiana coastline has long been sought by private and government organizations. Surely he knew what he was talking about, not to mention he even used to be a professor at the University of New Orleans. So evidently, there was something to all this coastal geology.

In 1984, Joe wrote ‘Living With the Louisiana Shore‘ predicting much of what has come to pass. Obviously, for more reasons than Orwell, we should have paid better attention to what we were warned about that year. The science and history of hurricanes in Louisiana sounded terrifying and it was obvious to me – and everyone in the room – that New Orleans didn’t stand a chance.

Pre-Katrina, Kelley was asked to participate in a National Academy of Science Panel when the Bayou State wanted to request federal funds to address it’s obvious levee problem. The panel recommended $14 billion from the federal government over 50 years to save the Delta, but the Bush Administration ultimately decided it couldn’t commit Congress to 50 years of funding.

Then came the August Category 3 hurricane that ravaged the city.

Exactly two years ago today I saw Joe Kelley at the local market in Old Town, Maine. “Joe,” I said. “You told us. We knew this was coming.” He’s looked tired. He looked so sad. He could only shake his head.

Hundreds of lives lost. Families torn apart. Homes and memories gone forever. And as I stared speechless at him, my thoughts in repetitive sequence like a skipping phonograph, ‘But we knew Joe. You told them. They knew. And did nothing…

Comments

  1. #1 Linda
    August 30, 2007

    Oh Sheril, how is a caring, disgusted human being able to process all this unnecessary devastation because of government apathy…

  2. #2 justawriter
    August 30, 2007

    Common knowledge indeed. I took a hydrology class at the University of Montana in 82 or 83 and the professor told me that it was only a matter of time before New Orleans would be devastated. Between the water table, subsidence and hurricanes he describe the city as a bowl that water would pour into and have nowhere to go.

  3. #3 Jonathan Vos Post
    August 30, 2007

    I hate Emperor Bush II and Bush Administration. But, technically, he was right in that Congress itself cannot commit Congress to 50 years of funding, or even to the next Congress.

    But the mechanism exists in White House/Congress cooperation, and Bush just didn’t care, then or now. You’re doin’ a heck of a job, Bushie!

  4. #4 carey
    August 30, 2007

    Scientific American had a lovely article in October 2001, entitled Drowning New Orleans. It was well written, cogent, and unsparing. Unfortunately, no one in the Bush administration appears to have read it. I know bureaucrats live and die by political connections, but it would be nice if a few of them actually understood the physical world around them, especially if ‘disaster preparedness’ is in their job description.

  5. #5 John the Gnerphk
    August 30, 2007

    Nice point, Sheril.

    And, to the rest of you: This is a government of the people and by the people. If nobody has done anything about this problem since the 60s, there’s nobody to blame but ourselves. Granted, the Bush administration likely would have done nothing either, but let’s not forget that they didn’t even have the time to disappoint us before Katrina hit. Clinton did nothing to fix this; neither did George Sr., Ronny Ray-gun, Jimmy Earl, or the rest. OK; so I oversimplify to make a point – but the point is nonetheless sound.

    The problem, as I’ve said before and will say again until they drag me off kicking and screaming, is that we choose not to govern ourselves. The time has come to wake up, America.

  6. #6 Emily
    August 30, 2007

    We ALL knew… the tv reporters who had reported on previous hurricanes that swung left or right at the last minute, the people who lived in NOLA and had battled with Camille, the USACE, the shiny-faced college students who listened to their professors…

    But knowing is ONLY half the battle, getting people interested and excited and willing to fight for putting the issue on the agenda is the other 50%. And even though we could see crumbling infrastructure and vulnerable land, we could not see what it would actually mean when a hurricane scored a (not quite) direct hit on the Big Easy (or, more likely, those who could see didn’t have the means or opportunity to tell our nation’s leaders). Even though we had a vision of what a resilient community should look like, we didn’t (and still don’t) have the means to get there. We could have – after all, if we can get a man on the moon in 9 years spurred by Kennedy’s vision, shouldn’t we be able to repair a few problems down here on earth? Perhaps Congress can’t commit to 50 years of funding, but they can certainly commit to a vision and to opening the tap for dollars to begin to flow – and perhaps the flow will continue.

    So what do we do now? The damage is done – but that doesn’t mean that the opportunity for action is gone. Perhaps we can all throw in with Brad Pitt’s vision to build NOLA back better and stronger. Or try to apply the lessons we have learned to fixing other weak points in the system. The truth is that, no matter how vulnerable New Orleans is to hurricanes, it is a vital port and important piece of our culture – so we must continue to think creatively about ways to reduce risks while acknowledging that the area remains vulnerable.

  7. #7 Wes
    August 30, 2007

    We know it will happen again. It will happen in New Orleans, and the reason is is addressed as Senator. Maybe global warming denier Inhofe is the worst. But when Trent Lott is so good at pulling all of the money into Mississippi (which needs it’s fair share) that is part of the problem. It is the old political game of what have you done for me lately… and done always means brining home the pork that will otherwise go to someone else.

    Those who think that ANY politician does not play that game have blinders on. Elect a a congress that is 100% Democratic and it still won’t change.

  8. #8 blf
    August 30, 2007

    In addition to the Scientific American article in October 2001 (available on the web here), National Geographic also predicted the disaster in October 2004 (here). In both cases, the articles–predictions–are eerily accurate.

    I must admit I had vaguely recalled the two articles both being c.10 years ago. As this post points out, they probably could have been written more than ten years beforehand. I’ve been known to call what happened “the most widely predicted disaster in history” (or similar).

  9. #9 Jennifer
    August 30, 2007

    Yep, New Orleans has flooded numerous times over its history, nobody should have been surprised by the damage. I wasn’t. I was surprised (and infuriated) by the incompetent government response, but not the hurricane. And I gotta say I’m pretty mad they’re rebuilding the city using tax dollars without first addressing issues such as wetland restoration, because the exact same thing will happen again–even if global warming wasn’t an issue. Ditto about Mississippi and Alabama residents rebuilding smack on the Gulf coast. If those people want to rebuild there right in the middle of the surge zone, more power to them. But they shouldn’t get any tax dollars to build in such a ridiculous location.

  10. #10 Melinda Barton
    August 31, 2007

    As a New Orleanian in exile, I can tell you that we’ve been begging for help restoring the wetlands and updating the levees for as long as I can remember. Bush’s government deserves all the condemnation we can throw at it, but the Democrats haven’t done us any favors either. As for why we stayed, there are too many reasons to name, including the fact that our culture is so distinct that we get culture shocked anywhere else. Being culture shocked in your own country is a strange experience, I assure you. Not to be bitter, though, but shouldn’t we ask the same question of those other places that have been regularly damaged by natural disasters and for which the “Big One” is predicted: L.A., San Francisco, the Midwest, etc.