We’ll all be residents of southern Louisiana someday.
Five years ago next week, the mother of all natural disasters — well, maybe not all — struck New Orleans. And as much as Hurricane Katrina was the calamity’s main cause, the human contribution made it far worse.
More than 1,800 people died in the hurricane and her wake, largely because of an abysmal emergency response at all levels of government. More than three-quarters of New Orleans was flooded and $81 billion worth of property was destroyed in the city and elsewhere, mainly because the strength and height of the city’s levees didn’t match the faith that property owners had placed in the flood-control system.
It was the Mississippi coast that actually took a more direct hit. The storm surge hollowed out casino resorts that never should have been built so close to the beach. The ebbing tide carried towns like Pass Christian out to sea. But it was New Orleans — built, people used to joke, where a city shouldn’t be — that stood as a testament to the folly of flouting the laws of nature, in this case the law that says water runs downhill.
We may have contributed to the disaster in an even more profound way. A couple of weeks after Katrina’s landfall, a landmark study was published in the journal Science. Georgia Tech climate scientists found that as the atmosphere has warmed due to climate change, the power of large hurricanes has grown greater. The 2005 tempest seems to have fit that pattern. In other words, it’s difficult to say whether the word “natural” properly, or at least fully, describes Katrina.
Slowly, New Orleans has built back. But swaths of decrepit, moldy buildings still encircle islands of revival. Grand promises of redevelopment have been left unfulfilled. In particular, Congress dangled the offer of 17 restoration projects, and then pretty much failed to fund them. The Corps of Engineers was supposed to come up with a long-term plan to protect the city, but still hasn’t done so.
And New Orleans’ rich culture lurches sideways at best, traumatized not just by the hurricane’s wallop but by a realization among residents that the country as a whole didn’t care. The most powerful, wealthiest nation on Earth couldn’t muster the will or the resources to restore the nation’s most unique city and to find a way to make it great again.
There are those who continue to make a fine living in New Orleans and the surrounding area, mostly (until recently) by exploiting the region’s natural resources — oil, seafood, natural gas. Then, there are the educated professionals who are bound to benefit from whatever money floats around even in a lame economy. But the bulk of former New Orleans residents have either become long-term refugees or have returned to the homes of their ancestors, only to find life more difficult than before.
“What [Katrina] created is a tale of two cities, the haves vs. the have-nots,” retired Lt. Gen. Russell Honore wrote recently in a column for CNN. “Enormous progress in the city's business district overshadows the lingering blight in the 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish, where folks are still struggling to rebuild and many lots remain empty.”
With tourist attractions and a revived downtown right across major thoroughfares from slums and vacant neighborhoods, New Orleans has taken on the flavor of a capital in the developing world. It’s still a long way from Lagos, Nigeria, but it’s moving closer.
This is what we have to look forward to.
Two or three decades ago, most Americans imagined a future that improved upon the past. Rising standards of living. Better health care. More leisure time. A cleaner environment.
Does anyone still believe we’re headed in that direction? The rose-colored glasses have taken on a dark hue. In part, it’s a future battered by the not-so-natural disasters likely to come with climate change, along with our mad scramble for resources, especially fossil fuels.
Needless to say, the disasters are difficult to predict. Climate models project more severe storms, rising sea levels and damaged ecosystems along the Gulf Coast and in Florida. In some scenarios, much of the Southeast’s productive pine forests will give way to grassy savannas. The Midwest may see longer droughts.
We really don’t know what will happen — just that it’s more likely that individual communities and our nation as a whole will face increasingly harsh “natural” disasters and increasingly sparse natural resources.
At the same time, we as a nation remain locked in divisive political warfare that seems to freeze every attempt to deal effectively with each crisis. In that environment, the idea that we can muster the strength to address the central issue — our gross dependence on fossil fuels — is laughable. Too many interests benefit from the status quo: too many jobs, too many large companies, too many lobbyists.
So mountains are exploded in West Virginia in a desperate quest for more coal. Farms and small towns in the Northeast and the Rocky Mountains are upended for natural gas. A remote area in northern Alberta that's larger than some states is being skinned alive for precious oil.
And then, of course, there’s Louisiana. It’s as if God is directing a grand morality play, an omen for all of us about the true cost of energy. So before the five years ran out, the players in the second act of southern Louisiana’s tragedy were pushed unwillingly onto the stage: BP, out-of-work fishermen, out-of-work oilmen. A governor scoring political points by pushing the very policies that created the mess. A president caught between his penchant for compromise and the need to do what’s right.
They are oracles. They are telling us what our future will be like. If we do not change.
Related on MNN:
- Book review: "Catastrophe in the Making: The Engineering of Katrina and the Disasters of Tomorrow"
- Previous columns by Ken Edelstein