The Perfect Disaster

Man vs. Nature

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, leaving hundreds dead and thousands of homes destroyed in the most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history. The aftermath of Katrina laid bare the catastrophic consequences of irresponsible population and environmental policies that our nation has carried out for decades.

The intense development of the Gulf Coast and the destruction of the protective coastal wetlands severely intensified the tragedy left in the hurricane’s wake. In the end, the most vulnerable were left to suffer from destructive practices conducted brazenly in the face of known risks.

The Nation’s Oil Pipeline

Settled in a shallow bowl between the levees holding back Lake Pontchatrain to the north and the Mississippi River to the south, New Orleans is in a precarious place. At the bottom of the Mississippi River, southern Louisiana bears the brunt of the erosion and flooding that occurs in the central United States. Meanwhile, the Gulf of Mexico has been edging closer to the city each year as more and more wetlands disappear. The coastal wetlands that provide natural flood and storm surge protection for southern Louisiana are disappearing at an unbelievable rate: Every half hour, a piece of land the size of a football field disappears beneath the Gulf.1

The levees and canals built along the Mississippi River to make the land more hospitable for development and industry have played a large role in the wetlands’ disappearance. These engineering projects allow communities to exist in close proximity to the river and provide the infrastructure for the oil and shipping industries in the region. The center of oil production in this country lies just off Louisiana’s coast, where a third of the oil consumed in this country is drilled or refined. What’s more, much of our imported oil enters the country through the ports on the Gulf Coast and is then transported on canals through the delicate wetlands to the Mississippi River. In addition to oil, the shipping canals handle a wide array of goods — 20 percent of all U.S. imports and exports pass through Louisiana’s ports.

Recipe for Disaster

This development has had the devastating side effect of disabling the natural sediment distribution system that created the largest contiguous area of wetlands in the United States. Before large-scale construction of the levees began in the 1930s, the Mississippi River naturally changed course within a 200-mile wide arc. It deposited sediment as it shifted, creating huge expanses of wetlands.

The levee system, however, confines the Mississippi to a single path by erecting artificial barriers to the river’s movement, preventing the natural wetlands-building process. The sediment that used to replenish the wetlands is instead either stuck at the bottom of manmade canals or channeled far beyond the marshes and into the Gulf of Mexico. In the words of Time Magazine columnist Nathan Thornburgh, the levee system has converted the Mississippi River into the “world’s largest high-pressured hose.”2 The 8,000 miles of shipping canals cut through the state’s southern marshes significantly increase the rate of wetland erosion. When first built, the shipping canals average a width of 300 feet. But after five short years, waves erode the canals to double their original width.3 Dredging canals further damages the fragile coastal ecosystem by accelerating saltwater intrusion into the wetlands.

As a result, the wetlands and marshes in southern Louisiana are disappearing at a rate of almost 25 square miles a year, roughly an acre every 33 minutes, for a total of 1,900 square miles since the 1930s.4

As the wetlands disappear, with them go the wildlife habitats and the systems of natural protection against storms and floods that have proven exceptionally difficult and expensive for humans to replicate.

Wetlands act like a speed bump, slowing down storms that pass above them. Scientists say that roughly two to four linear miles of wetlands reduce storm surge height by one foot.5 “There were two parts to the Katrina disaster,” explains Mary Nagle of the Environmental Integrity Project. “The first part of the tragedy was created by the natural disaster, the second part was manmade. The extreme suffering that we saw unfold on our television sets was the result of canals and levees constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers that gave Hurricane Katrina a direct pass into the heart of New Orleans.”

The Population Connection

The levees and canals along the southern coast of Louisiana are part of an infrastructure built to feed the needs of a growing national population. The country’s soaring demand for oil and other consumer products increased the barge traffic and construction projects on the region’s delicate wetlands. As a major supplier of oil, and a critical shipping hub for the rest of the nation, the Gulf Coast saw the population pressure of the entire United States converge on its fragile ecosystems.

Population pressure along the Gulf Coast itself has also contributed to wetlands loss in the region. Like many urban centers across the country, the city of New Orleans lost residents in recent years while the population of the metropolitan area steadily grew, from approximately 900,000 in 1960 to 1.3 million in 2000. Over the years, wetlands were drained to build homes, agricultural fields, roads, and shopping malls for this growing population. Tourism also increased the population pressure on the fragile ecosystems of southern Louisiana. Tony MacDonald, former Executive Director of the Coastal States Organization, says that it is “not only the population growth, but the population of second homes and trade and tourism that creates some significant impacts as well.”6 In 2004 alone, a whopping 10.1 million people visited New Orleans, adding stress to the already vulnerable ecosystem.

From Coast to Coast

Coastal areas all around the United States are experiencing similar population pressures. The government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report entitled, “Population Trends Along the Coastal United States: 1980-2008,” sounding the alarm about the upsurge in coastal population growth. The report reaffirmed other findings by the United States Coastal Commission and the Pew Ocean Commission, concluding that the country’s coastal populations cause dramatic degradation of coastal land. The report found that more than half of the population of the United States lives along the coast on just 17 percent of the country’s total land (excluding Alaska). While coastal counties are not growing faster than the nation as a whole, growth in these areas is degrading many of the country’s most diverse and vital ecosystems.7 Coastal counties are seeing a glut of new construction: 1,540 new single-family homes gain permits for construction in coastal counties every day.8 Florida— a perennial victim of hurricanes and tropical storms — has seen the most astounding growth: Since 1980, its coastal population has increased by 75 percent.9 Numbers like these are making coastal city planners and environmentalists everywhere nervous.

A Toxic Dust Bowl

Katrina inflicted devastating human, economic, and environmental tolls upon the Gulf Coast. The images on television and in newspapers during the aftermath of Katrina showed us the immense human suffering caused by the storms, but the environmental part of the story has been left largely untold. Chemical and biological contaminants from submerged cars, human feces, dead bodies, and uprooted chemical and oil facilities filled the floodwaters. The Coast Guard estimated more than seven million gallons of oil were spilled in southeast Louisiana. The floodwater has been drained from New Orleans, but the toxic sludge remains even now.

“Now that this toxic sludge is drying out, these toxic particles are being carried into the air, creating a toxic dust bowl,” explains Nagle. “This extremely polluted air is going to result in long-term illness and disease for the people who live in the region. This is just one aspect of the huge environmental health crisis that we are seeing along the Gulf Coast.”

Picking up the Pieces

Instead of learning from past mistakes, many in Congress are calling for more of the same environmentally destructive construction projects that intensified the Katrina tragedy. A flurry of bills offered in the House and Senate would waive limits on the amount of pollution emitted by refineries, cars, and other sources. If Congress continues to rebuild the area in ways that benefit the energy and transportation industries above all else, they will further degrade the Gulf Coast’s ecosystems, laying the foundation for the next disaster.

The critical importance of the wetlands is all too obvious. Left naked to Katrina first, then Hurricane Rita, the Gulf Coast suffered for the convenience of a nation that refused to curb its consumption, and for a government that refused to address the implications of disappearing wetlands, the massive under-funding of flood prevention, and intense coastal population growth.

Diverting river water, manually depositing sediment, and other antierosion projects can help revitalize the wetlands temporarily. But any long-range strategy to protect our nation’s ecosystems must address the root cause of destruction – the rising consumption of a growing population. Otherwise, we will just be sticking our finger in the dike and waiting for the next flood.

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