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…

(originally published August 30, 2007)

Comments

  1. #1 tceisele
    August 29, 2008

    And now, we see Gustav winding up, with good odds for hitting New Orleans late Monday or early Tuesday as another Category 3 storm. Are they ready for it this time?

  2. #2 llewelly
    August 29, 2008

    I think I first read about the dangers facing New Orleans in about 1985 or so. I recall a vivid and alarming National Geographic article on the topic.

  3. #3 NoAstronomer
    August 29, 2008

    Many parts of the city are below sea level… Which by the way, is rising

    IIRC the city is actually sinking faster than the sea is rising due to consolidation of the underlying silt deposits.

    IMHO One of the things that lead to the general administation malaise at all levels in 2005 was that NO had dodged a bullet in 2004 when Ivan narrowly missed the city.

  4. #4 John Sea
    August 29, 2008

    It’s not over. To save N.O. will require much more than 14 billion. It will also require that we let the Miss change it’s course to go down the Atchafalaya as it’s been trying to do for decades. Even than the delta is going to continue to subside as long as the natural processes of the river system are curtailed as much as they are on the Miss.

    The only way to save N.O. is to move it.

  5. #5 decrepitoldfool
    August 29, 2008

    There were probably ACoE reports for the president to read but as a dumb ‘ol citizen I remember reading these when they landed in my mailbox:

    Scientific American, Drowning New Orleans, 2001 article by Mark Fischetti reposted this week on sciam.com. Discusses in detail what would happen – and why it would happen – if a large hurricane were to hit New Orleans.

    National Geographic, Oct ’04 Gone with the water describing in detail with lots of pictures (presumably so our president would understand) what would happen – and why it would happen – if a large hurricane were to hit New Orleans.

    The New Orleans Times Picayune also did a 2-part series predicting what would happen if a hurricane hit the city, but I can’t find the link. They got almost every detail right.

    “No one could have predicted the failure of the levees”
    - Michael Chertoff after Katrina