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Editor’s note: The companion piece of David Goldston, Republican Chief of Staff for the House Committee on Science, to Bob Palmer’s July 2005 Ogmius article “Science Policy: The Victim of Partisan Politics” will appear in the Winter 2006 edition of Ogmius.

Katrina, Acts of God, and Acts of People

Photo of hurricanePost-Katrina policy is being muddled with too much vague talk of “natural disasters” and “acts of God.”  Disasters are catastrophes affecting people. A hurricane, flood, earthquake or wildfire is a disaster only where there are people present. The American Heritage Dictionary defines disaster as an event causing great distress -- to people. Storms in remote seas and deserts, or wildfires in forests where there are no people, are not disasters. Furthermore, these events do their worst damage where nature has been man-handled; they become truly catastrophic where people have made landscapes un-natural. It is dishonorable to lay off on the Almighty responsibility for the actions of people. And stupid, as well. Only by recognizing the causes and consequences of past man-handling can remediation be done economically and effectively.

Sound policy must arise from putting people first, not buildings, and from a chastened determination to reform and restore now-unnatural nature so that it can be safer for people to live in, to work in, to cultivate and to harvest.  Unnatural landscapes, heedlessly manhandled, are dangerous; they can kill and injure people. Nature will do what it does; our business is to keep each other safe, whatever it does.

As we go about rebuilding levee-and-sluice-systems, we must recognize, first, that they are artificial and have man-created ill-effects that we should acknowledge and remedy; and second, that those ill-effects have been accumulating over time. Like the sudden effects of Katrina, the slow loss of naturally-productive land and marshes has stricken the poor and defenseless. Many of the people who could not escape from New Orleans were there and destitute because they could no longer make a living in the countryside.

For the people of the Delta, the destruction of the natural wetlands by channeling the Mississippi River, turning it into a sewer and conveyer-belt for commerce, has been destroying a way of life for many years, as Gulf and marshland finfish and shellfish become fewer. Stocks are likely to diminish by another thirty percent in the coming four or five decades. That is a lot of food gone and a lot of jobs gone, too. On the dry land, agriculture will lose a half million acres as the sea continues to rise against the land, and the punctures in the freshwater marshlands made by barge canals will bring salt-water inward even faster. This salt water will contaminate and kill freshwater species and render undrinkable water sources for humans. Some of this is inevitable. Some of it is not. It is time to sort out which is which, who gains, who loses.

The loss of the Delta is a slow disaster, and it makes the sudden ones more disastrous. Hurricanes from the Gulf and floods down the rivers  will afflict this weakened land, as ever larger hurricanes come from off-shore and the unnatural river becomes ever more dangerous from the land side.  Deliberate straightening, narrowing, and dredging have altered the natural action of the river; it has become a fire-hose of continental proportions.  But the water that Katrina drove into New Orleans did not come at it from the front, from the straightened, confined, deepened river. It came, instead, from the older river channel, where water oozes to the Gulf through shallow lakes at the city’s backdoor. New Orleans is below both the old river and the new, though not below sea level. Not quite yet. That level is steadily rising against it, at a rate of almost a foot each ten years, or eight or nine feet per hundred years. The island of New Orleans and all the rest of the Delta are subsiding for two reasons. The Mississippi River annually empties four hundred million tons of mud into the Gulf of Mexico. Oliver Houck of the Tulane University Law School has been quoted as saying that it would take 200,000 dump trucks every day to convey that much soil. Two hundred thousand dump trucks full of mud, dumped daily on a landscape composed of dirt and sand, will compact that earth and press it down, inviting the sea to move in. 

And that sea is warming, expanding, as warming water does, and nursing ever greater storms. The greater the storm, the greater the erosion of the land. Already, the Delta is eroding faster than it did a century ago because of all that channeling and dredging and straightening of the Mississippi – and the land is no longer replenished by the fertile, life-supporting dirt and sand that once were spread across it by many small channels of the river. Instead the great fire hose shoots the silt through one deep, concentrated course. It does not settle, it does not replenish, it does not restore fertility.  It spews into the open water of the Gulf its nutrients, its compensating dirt that for millennia replenished that lost to erosion and subsidence. Nowadays it also sends pesticides into the Gulf, killing fish and contaminating water supplies.

And the hose effect also means that the river no longer gradually deposits barrier islands to protect New Orleans from storm surges. Until about 1880 the replenishing of fertility and the creation of islands created a fragile equilibrium. Today, engineers refer to another “poised situation:” the eerie spectacle of ocean-going barges passing above the land carried by river water held in place by levees. People driving the River Road can see a ship’s waterline above the roof-line of their cars. That too, is unnatural. And dangerous. It has a long history of killing people when the poise is broken. 

Under French and Spanish rule, levy-building was the private obligation of each landowner who got a grant to operate a plantation along the river. In the year that  Louisiana was purchased, however, the United States Army Corps of Engineers was organized. Soon thereafter, steamboats appeared, throwing big wakes against natural levees built by outwash of the river’s own sediment, as augmented by the earthen private levees.  The Corps became the beneficiary of commercial outrage as great swaths of private levees were swept away in the great floods of 1858, 1862, 1866 and 1867. The Civil War era floods occurred in the full glare of national attention; the Navy was there as well as the Army. So Reconstruction came to have two meanings in the Delta.

After 1874 the Corps began to use steam power to build two levees of concrete, steel, and earth, two almost continuous parallel dams, each a thousand miles long with a river in between that carried barges.  After steam power replaced slave power, deep-water navigation came to New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Barge lines became big business, sustaining other big businesses. Sellers of the agricultural products from nearly half the continent, sellers of iron and copper ore, of coal, petroleum, and heavy manufactured goods came to depend upon the Corps, its levees, and its dredges. A levee-industrial complex grew stronger after each successive flood -- 1884, 1897, 1902, 1912, 1913, 1922, and the truly Greatest Flood – so far – that of 1927.

The end of the 1920s was the Hoover Era of Great Engineers, when the Mississippi seemed to be becoming “fully engineered.” A giant spillway was built to carry flood waters into Lake Ponchartrain. Hurricanes came and went as commerce on the river thrived. Meanwhile the Delta sickened and shriveled. Twenty-five to thirty-five square miles of it slid below the sea every average year – a football field every half hour.

That apparent equilibrium, “poised” for trouble, was set in its fragile state not by  acts of God but by acts of man, making Louisiana more dangerous, not less. And the number of people exposed to its dangers is much larger than it was five thousand years ago when its wary inhabitants began mounds -- artificial hills -- on its vast watery plain. On some of those mounds, towns and temples were constructed. They were manifestly safer situations for such precious buildings than the marshland below. (The earliest French maps of the Delta show many of these.) Some of those places of safety and of celebration of human interaction with nature itself, in the vast, flat Delta, were built about the time the first large town was laid out  on one of the fingers of higher ground running between river channels into the sea. Sometime before 1700 it was engulfed by a hurricane, though it was still recalled by the Indians building New Orleans in the 1720s as “Balbansha” – big city. When the European planters came, some constructed their houses on the mounds as far upriver as Baton Rouge and Natchez, giving their plantations names such as “Monte Sano” and “Belmont,” and prudently retiring to their summits when the floods came.

Photo of floodingThe Spaniards and French were not ready at first to accept the risks of the Delta itself. Their maps showed the site of New Orleans as available, and strategic, for two hundred years before they put a settlement there. The first French villages were in Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama. Natchez, Natchitoches, Biloxi, and Mobile were all thriving before 1719. Finally in that year the managers of the Company of the Indies, operating Louisiana for King Louis of France, could no longer resist the strategic value of a fort on the portage between the two courses of the river, the new, deep, and most obvious one in front, and the old, now shallow, one behind, through Lake Ponchartrain. That portage left the riverbank, traversed the boggy top of its natural levee, descended to cross a marsh, and up another natural levee to the other river’s wide spaces or lakes.

A town built there would be important but dangerous. It has been, all along, ever since its founders built up the levees against the water at the same time as their fortifications against Indians, hostile Europeans, and rebellious slaves. Levee and town went together from the first day of the life of New Orleans; there has not been a moment when protecting the population from flood was not inherent in the existence of a town in a swamp between two rivers. As if to remind its founders of that necessity, three years after the founding of New Orleans a hurricane wiped out those parts of it still vulnerable to flooding. The port has grown. The city has grown with it. But the people have not been protected. All discussion of “reconstruction” is morally hollow unless that reconstruction once again couples the safety of the people to the prosperity of the place.

Reconstruction is not the same thing as restoration. Reconstruction is about buildings. Restoration is about natural and human systems, about ways of living. A fragile “poised” system now keeps traffic flowing up and down the river, as people are returning to live below the levees and thus below water level in the countryside as well as in New Orleans. What kind of life will it be? The Louisiana Department of Resources Office of Coastal Restoration and Management estimates that in fifty more years, Louisiana will have lost more than 500,000 more acres of coastal wetlands, and our nation will have lost even more of a precarious and precious culture.  What remains, and what is rebuilt will still be more dangerous than it is now because the Gulf will be thirty miles farther inland, its barrier islands long gone, and with them all natural barriers to storm surges.

Yet the lesson of the recurrent floods and human tragedy that have shadowed the history of the Delta can instruct the future as well. In the twentieth century as construction and technology advanced, the will to protect the people did not. The Corps of Engineers got enough money to make the Delta safe for commerce but not for people. As a freshman Congressman, Robert Livingston, called attention to the flaws in the protection system in the levees, and for twenty years thereafter the United States government, having assumed the responsibility for those levees, did not act as if people mattered. Neither the defenses against floods nor the means to escape them were adequate, though 6,000 years of history had taught that both would be necessary.

Mankind failed. Behind whatever sea walls are built in the coming years to compensate for the further decline of the land level against the sea level, the island of New Orleans will be open to the full force of the Gulf from front and rear. All of this is the consequence of acts of man not of God. As people strive to live in what will be an even more unnatural landscape, seek to ply their trades and make their music, they may tell their children tales of the life that once was led where the waves have covered the old Delta. Surely it is not beyond expectation that other acts of man may by then have commenced to make them safe – though the costs of doing so will grow each year. Furthermore, mankind may act to restore the land upon which the waters lap; it can once again be fruitful. But not if we try to lay off on God the tasks that are our own.

Roger Kennedy
Former Director, National Park Service