Hurricane Katrina

Author Mike Tidwell points to environmental problems behind storm damage

Mike Tidwell, author of "Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast," and executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, explains how environmental problems contributed to the massive destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. From disappearing coastal marshes and barrier islands to rising sea levels and global warming, Tidwell describes how ecological issues magnified the storm's impact. Plus, he advocates a massive $14 billion federal plan to restore the marshlands of the Gulf Coast and try and minimize damage from future storms.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining us today to talk about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath is Mike Tidwell, author of the book "Bayou Farewell: the Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast." Mike thanks a lot for being here today.

Mike Tidwell: Thanks for having me.

Brian Stempeck: You were on "Meet the Press" last week and you said that before they fix a single thing in the city of New Orleans what they need to do is take a real hard look at the ecological restoration that has to happen first. Explain what you meant by that.

Mike Tidwell: Well, Katrina was not a natural disaster. There wasn't a lot that was actually natural about it. The reason it destroyed New Orleans and the reason that there could be tens of thousands of people dead and the reason there are a million refugees inside our own borders right now is because we -- human activity set the table for this catastrophe. We set the table by completely causing to vanish all the buffering marshes and barrier islands that once protected New Orleans and the coast from hurricanes like Katrina. Three hundred years ago when the French first settled in this giant crescent of the Mississippi River that later became known as New Orleans, there was, between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, vast hardwood forests. There were vast freshwater marshes and swamps. There were, beyond that, salt marshes, vast salt marshes leading up to this fortress like network of formidable barrier islands. Almost all of it's gone now. There's almost nothing left. There are no forests between New Orleans and the coast. There are no freshwater marshes really. There's some remnants of salt marshes and there's just wisps of stranded sand that used to be barrier islands and that's all because we've levied the river. By levying the Mississippi River we have taken all the land building out of the coast of Louisiana. It used to be that the Mississippi River, every spring, flooded and it was 7,000 years of flooding in the river that actually created the ragged soles of the Louisiana boot. And in any delta region, anywhere in the world, you have two phenomenons that are going on. One is the flooding, depositing sediments. That's why we have those fans shaped delta regions that everybody's familiar with. But the other phenomenon that's happening is subsidence. That soil, that alluvial soil that's deposited from flooding is fragile. It's fine silky soil that over time compacts and it shrinks in volume. So the whole land platform of south Louisiana has been sinking for a long time. An area of land the size of Manhattan turns to water in south Louisiana every 10 months, 50 acres a day, without a hurricane. So that's why we have all this open water between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. That's why there was almost no barrier islands left to slow down this hurricane and that's why New Orleans has been devastated.

Brian Stempeck: You're also talking about, basically, the reason is that New Orleans is below sea level while a lot of other cities are not. But at the same time when you're talking about us building these levees around the city has caused a lot of these ecological problems. But at the same time how could New Orleans ever exist without those levees?

Mike Tidwell: No, I mean the levees were necessary in order to allow human beings to live so close to the great river. The levees were put up for perfectly rational reasons, to save your children from drowning, to keep crops from being inundated and property from being destroyed. But you live by the levees and you die by the levees. The same levees that made New Orleans habitable now, through their failure, are making it uninhabitable. The levees cause the land to sink and what we have to do now is figure out a way to maintain the levees. No one's talking about ripping the levees down. This can't happen. You can't let the river go wild. But maintaining the levees, beefing them up so that they actually protect people, instead of the failures we saw after Katrina. At the same time, raising the elevation of the rest of the coast, raising the elevation of the barrier islands and the marsh land, creating new land if you will through controlled diversions of the river.

Brian Stempeck: Now for years now there's been talk about planning called Coast 2050, which is basically -- people want to spend $14 billion to reroute some of the water and get some of the sediment back out over the marshlands. Tell us exactly, how do you do something like that? How do you take that -- where does that water come from and what kind of projects are we talking about?

Mike Tidwell: We're talking about diversions of the river that will work. No one doubts that these diversions will create land. There are already two experimental diversions that are creating land. One of them is south of New Orleans called the Caernarvon Diversion, assuming it's still there, was creating thousands of acres of land over the last 13 years. So we know that if we get the water of the river out into the marshes, out toward the barrier islands, land will be created. But how do you do it? You do it by building these dam like control structures right into the levees that then that would let the water out in a controlled way into either pipelines that would then pump this sediment rich water out and just literally spray it out into the areas where we need land the most. Or the water would flow into canals and channels that would surgically direct the water itself into these broad bays where wetlands would then grow up.

Brian Stempeck: The big barrier to doing this of course has been the cost, its $14 billion. It's about double what they're going to spend to try to restore the Everglades. Do you think now that the hurricane has hit we're going to see more political will to getting that money?

Mike Tidwell: For the last six years, since I first started writing about this story for the Washington Post, I've told journalists or anyone who asked me that, well, this $14 billion to restore the coast is expensive, but doing nothing is going to be more expensive. Now doing nothing has been so expensive we know that we've -- not just -- we've lost thousands of lives. So much of our energy infrastructure is gone. Maybe we've lost the city. So $14 billion seems really, really cheap now. I mean within days Congress appropriated $10 billion for the emergency phase of this whole thing. So now $14 billion seems like pocket change. They're talking about a total appropriation of maybe $150 billion to restore all of the Gulf Coast. So it's not expensive now. I can't imagine that Americans would not spend this money now. And I do believe that unless and until we commit to a full-scale emergency rapid program of rebuilding land between New Orleans and the gulf it would actually be criminally negligent of us to restore the city of New Orleans. It would be irresponsible of us to fix a single window or pick up a single piece of debris because to do one without the other, to repair the city without building the barrier islands, is just setting the table for another nightmare.

Brian Stempeck: I mean some people though would say it's almost too late at this point. The barrier islands, as we saw, have been pretty much destroyed from the storm. And as you said for the past 20 or 30 years we've seen an area the size of Manhattan disappearing every year from Louisiana. Isn't it at some point you have to say this is beyond our control to fix? This is not something that we can actually reverse.

Mike Tidwell: I don't think it's beyond our control to fix and what are the options? I mean I don't think this country is emotionally and psychologically and economically prepared to abandon New Orleans. I mean we just -- we can't. It's too important. I mean the industrial and agricultural might of this country meets the world at the Port of New Orleans. Our energy infrastructure, as irrational as it is, our addiction to fossil fuels, we can't get off of them immediately, which means we're stuck with these horribly exposed pipe lines that come from the offshore wells. These refineries that are behind levees that break, it's just an irrational system in the middle of a hurricane alley. But we can't get off of it immediately as much as we'd like to switch to wind power and hydrogen cars, it ain't going to happen immediately. So we can't abandon this. So we have to engage in these restoration efforts as fast as we can and hope that no more huge hurricanes strike for a while.

Brian Stempeck: But at the same time when you look at some of the other major restoration efforts, you're talking about the Chesapeake Bay, you're talking about the Everglades. These are pretty massive federal projects with great deals of money being spent and they haven't had the best results so far. There are a lot of allegations of mismanagement. You have too many agencies working on the same thing. Do you think this can be done effectively at the federal level or is this too large a project to even attempt?

Mike Tidwell: This is bigger than 9/11. This is going to affect people more directly than 9/11 ever did. Already people are spending a dollar, a dollar and a half more per gallon for gasoline. Perhaps tens of thousands of Americans are now dead because of this. The psychic trauma is going to be even bigger than 9/11. We will get it done because of that. The event was so huge that I believe this country will respond on the scale necessary to begin the restoration. Nothing is going to stop another Category 5 hurricane if it chooses to come ashore in the gulf two weeks from now, two months from now, two years from now. There's nothing we can do about that, but we can begin to prepare for the hurricanes that are going to come 10 and 15, 20 years from now. We also, however, have to start looking at this other thing and that is global climate change. It's impossible to connect any single weather event to global warming. It's impossible to say -- it's impossible to prove or disprove that Katrina was a product of global warming. What we do know is that it crossed the Florida peninsula as a Category 1. Then it crossed record high sea surface temperatures in the gulf, 90-degree temperatures, sea surface temperatures, and then slammed ashore. For awhile it was a 5 and came ashore as a 4. We do know that while scientists are uncertain whether global warming will spawn more hurricanes, there is a growing consensus that the storms that we're seeing are more ferocious now because of climate change affect. There was an MIT study that said that wind speeds from hurricanes now are 50 percent greater than they were 50 years ago because of warming. But putting all of that aside, let's just assume that that part of global warming just goes away somehow. We have this other problem and its called sea level rise. The coast of Louisiana sank about 2 to 3 feet in the last 100 years, in the 20th century. It sank because of the subsidence problem and that is a big part of why Katrina had such a devastating impact. Because that 2 or 3 feet drowned untold acres of wetlands, destroyed unbelievable amounts of barrier island structures. So Katrina came barreling in, but whether the land sinks 3 feet a century or sea level rises 3 feet a century worldwide, which the Bush administration itself says is going to happen. The Bush administration's own scientists, own agencies and own studies and own reports have said, several times since the president took office in 2001, that A, global warming is real. That it's driven by the use of fossil fuels and that one consequence will be between 1 and 3 feet of sea level rise. So we are in effect, due to our addiction to fossil fuels, not only driving more intense hurricanes and maybe even more hurricanes, but we are also driving, according to the Bush administration, a sea level rise that could quickly turn every coastal city in the world into a New Orleans.

Brian Stempeck: What you see as the political ramifications of this? The global warming issue has been -- it's been all over the media. A lot of papers are writing about this. It seems to be hitting the American consciousness harder than most climate change issues tend to have done in the past. Do you think the Bush administration is now going to have to answer for their environmental policy because of this storm?

Mike Tidwell: I hope so. I believe that this has huge political ramifications. Katrina has revealed that everything we've done since 9/11, all the money that we spent, all the foreign policy initiatives that we've launched have been a complete failure and a disgrace. We are no closer to being prepared for catastrophic events, whether they be natural phenomenon or weapons of mass destruction on our soil, we're no closer to being prepared for those than we were on Sept. 10, 2001. And that's a complete failure of our federal government and they have to answer to that. Part of that failure has been the failure to understand that you cannot dominate nature forever. A friend of mine is fond of saying that nature always bats last. In south Louisiana, for 300 years, through the levees, we've been hitting doubles off the wall. We've been hitting home runs. We've been cleaning up, but nature has batted last. Nature gets to come to the plate last and that's what's happened with Katrina and that's what's happening in terms of global climate change. Or as Kofi Annan says, "The climate is speaking back." And I hope that Katrina finally gets us thinking about sustainability. How can we live along the coast of Louisiana, enjoy the bounty of that great fishery, enjoy this great city of New Orleans and the music, have an energy infrastructure that's rational, have all these cultures living along there without in any way compromising the ability of future generations to feed themselves, shelter themselves as well? And not only for Louisiana, but we've got to start thinking about it globally. We have to start thinking about living here sustainably and treating the planet as if we intended to stay, because you can flee a Katrina. There is a mainland ready to accept you. As a planet we have nowhere to go. We're a tiny island in a vast sea of black space. There's no mainland to receive us. There's no safe shore for our retreat. We have to start dealing with the planet as if we intended to stay.

Brian Stempeck: All right. Mike, we're out of time. We're going to go ahead and stop there. I'd like to thank our guest today. That was Mike Tidwell, author of the book "Bayou Farewell," a book about the Louisiana coast. I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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