Environmental Ignorance Threatens New Orleans

That’s according to Time. Remarkably, the cover story leads with the importance of wetlands, as a natural defense against hurricanes (and a natural protector for levees).

The same dynamic, on a much less dramatic scale, can be found in Southern California, where only after trapping rivers in concrete did we slowly come to realize that without estuaries and wetlands and outflows, our local beaches and ocean health are threatened. Beaches need to be replenished with sand, for one, but without wild rivers, where will that sand come from? In Ventura County, we are trying to heal the coast by taking down Matilija Dam. It’s a good idea, but it’s slow work.

On New Orleans, here’s the magazine:

Bigger levees aren’t all bad. New Orleans desperately needs them; one
local slogan is, "Make Levees, Not War." But New Orleans needs its
eroding wetlands just as desperately; another local slogan is, "Fix the
Coast, or We Are Toast!"


New Orleans wasn’t always a city in a bowl. The French founded it in
1718 on high ground along the Mississippi, a "natural levee" of
sediment deposited by the river. That’s why tourists in the French
Quarter stayed dry during Katrina. And that’s how all of south
Louisiana was built—by the Mississippi River mutinying its banks and
rambling around its floodplain like an unruly teenager, dropping mud
around its delta and creating roughly 4.5 million acres (1.8 million
hectares) of wetlands between New Orleans and the Gulf. So while the
French built an earthen levee 1 mile long and 3 ft. high (1.6 km long,
1 m high) to block the river’s annual tantrums, they didn’t bother
trying to block the occasional hurricanes that swept up the Gulf. "They
didn’t need hurricane levees," says Kerry St. Pe, a marine biologist
whose ancestors arrived in 1760. "They had wetlands to protect them."
New Orleans wasn’t on the coast, and hurricanes wilt over land.

The Corps ordered communities to imprison the river in a narrow
channel with a strict "levees only" policy, rejecting calls to give the
river room to spread out. So levees rose, and the Corps repeatedly
declared the river floodproof. But the constrained river also rose, and
its jailbreaks repeatedly proved the Corps wrong. In the epic flood of
1927, crevasses shredded the entire valley and nearly destroyed New

Congress rewarded this failure by allowing the Corps to seize
control of the entire river and its tributaries, an unprecedented Big
Government project that foreshadowed the New Deal and established the
Corps as the U.S.’s manipulator of water and manhandler of nature. It
built dams, floodways, revetments and pumped-up levees throughout the
Mississippi basin, caging the beast in its channel, safeguarding
riverfront cities, creating a reliable web of liquid highways. But by
walling off the river, trapping its sediments behind giant dams and
armoring its erosive banks with concrete, the Corps inadvertently
choked off the land-building process. The straitjacketed river now
carries less than half its original sediment load down to Louisiana. So
there’s little new land-building material to offset the natural erosion
of the coast, much less the unnatural rising of the sea fueled by
global warming.

The result is that New Orleans is sinking, and about 30% of the
coast’s wetlands have slipped into the Gulf, jutting Louisiana’s chin
even further into the path of Mother Nature’s fist, endangering the
U.S.’s largest offshore oil and gas fields, a lucrative seafood
industry, a busy network of ports and about 2 million people. If Mexico
had seized all that land, we’d be at war.

Great line, and here’s what I think is a great picture of the St. Louis Cemetary in New Orleans, from a  set on the city today, posted under the disturbing title A Rehearsal for the Apocalypse.


Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

One thought on “Environmental Ignorance Threatens New Orleans

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