Our hearts go out to New Orleans today as they did to New York four years ago. We all have great sympathy and our attention is rightly focused on the human tragedy which is astounding and gut-wrenching.
But when the rescues have ended and the recovery has begun, the same question asked in New York will have to be asked in New Orleans.
Should we re-build?
My first reaction, like everyone’s, is that of course we should. New Orleans has always been a national treasure, and the very insanity of having a major city where New Orleans precariously sits has always been part of its charm. Still…
In 2001, FEMA warned that a hurricane striking New Orleans was one of the three most likely disasters that could befall the United States. Katrina was no sneak attack. We’ve known this one was coming.
Unlike New York’s debate about the World Trade Center Towers which was about the appropriateness of leaving the ground barren or building a memorial or re-building the Towers over again, this debate about New Orleans will be more focused on feasibility.
How we can do it, what it will cost, and how long it will last?
There is a fascinating article that was written for the insurance industry in December of 2000. It talks about new research by the U.S. Geological Survey which indicates that New Orleans is sinking faster than many realize and could be untenable within 50 years no matter what we do. Even before Katrina’s devastation, the city was facing a series of issues — disappearing wetlands that protect from hurricanes, levees that are too low to hold back flood waters, rising water tables, to name a few. The article concluded that New Orleans could suffer "the same fate as Atlantis." There’s a lot more, and I’m sure you’ll be hearing these themes over and over as the terrible tragedy moves into its next phase. Here’s a sample.
"Another factor in how the city survives a hurricane is the natural buffer between the city and the sea. Louisiana’s marshes are depleting at a rate of 25 miles to 30 miles per year, or the equivalent of a football field every 15 minutes. Since 1930, the state has lost well over 1,500 square miles of wetlands. Each year, New Orleans inches closer and closer to the Gulf of Mexico. The shrinking wetlands that bring the city closer to the coast are the same ones that have protected the city from catastrophic disaster in the past. Wetlands and barrier islands are a natural protection against hurricanes."
"New Orleans sits on a bed of silt, sand and clay, which historically has been rebuilt with each flooding; new silt and sand are deposited when the river floods. But the levees that protect the city from flooding also prevent the rebuilding of the silt. As a result, New Orleans is sinking at a rate of one-third of an inch per year, which is not good for a city that is already eight feet below sea level. To make matters worse, global warming is causing the sea level to rise."
If you would like to read the whole article, here is the link. The point is that re-building in the short term may be asking the Army Corps of Engineers to do things that cannot solve the long-term problem of a city built under sea level during a time of global warming that will always be at risk for being in the path of hurricanes.
Another prescient writer, Chris Mooney, just last May, discussed the possibility of losing New Orleans and concluded that, no matter what it takes, losing this city would be "out of the question." At the time, he was calling us to action to try to avert this catastrophe. Now that it’s happened, I wonder how he feels.
It will be an agonizing decision. I suspect we will re-build and it will be our children’s children who will one day be forced to give up the dream.
Sorry to digress. Pray for more survivors.