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THERE'S A 9/11 waiting to happen in the oceans if we let it," retired Adm. James Watkins, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, warned two years ago. With Hurricane Katrina, we let it happen. A huge natural disaster was hugely magnified by greed, folly and a refusal to respond to a situation long recognized as critical.
In its final report issued last fall, the ocean commission cautioned that if New Orleans' protective levees failed during a storm surge, "the city and surrounding areas could suffer upward of $25 billion in property losses and 25,000 to 100,000 deaths by drowning." Luckily, because these failures occurred after the hurricane passed, the real casualty figures will probably fall short of those numbers while still proving catastrophic, though property losses won't.
Mark Schleifstein of the New Orleans Times-Picayune has been writing about the risk of a category 4 or 5 hurricane striking the city for so many years that his editor started calling the stories "eco-porn."
But many politicians and officials, including President Bush, claimed that disaster relief was slow in arriving because Katrina was an unprecedented event. Actually, there have been a number of storms — Hurricane Camille in 1969, for one — that blew with similar force. The difference is that 36 years ago the Gulf of Mexico had far more protective wetlands and less risky development along the coast (and in coastal flood plains). Also, until recent decades, it was not in the footprint of fossil-fuel-fired climate disruption.
Flying over the bayou, I've seen shredding islands of brown spartina, or salt grass, crosshatched with canals built by oil companies and flood control channels and levees built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Historically, the Mississippi River's flooding deposited sediment that built up the delta. Now these hydrologic speedways flush that sediment out into the deep Gulf. Oil drilling has caused land subsidence, and the burning of coal and oil has raised the sea level by more than a foot. All this has shrunk the wetlands by about 35 square miles a year in recent decades.
"The Army Corps has given us a levee system that's traded periodic Mississippi River flooding for permanent coastal flooding, and that to me is a bad deal," Mark Davis, director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, told me years ago.
Did he believe that he could mobilize enough popular will to turn around the forces of sprawl and development, not to mention the Army Corps?
"If our advocacy is inadequate to the task," he said, "then a hurricane will make the case for us."
When New Orleans was built in 1718, there were more than 150 miles of protective wetlands between it and the Gulf. Every few miles reduce a hurricane's storm surge by a foot. When Katrina veered to the east of the city, less than 30 miles of wetlands remained.
At the same time, cities such as Biloxi, Miss., filled in their salt marshes with waterfront casinos. Today, 17 of the United States' 20 fastest-growing counties are coastal, including many in hurricane-prone Florida and along the Gulf.
Ironically, since 1968, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood-insurance program has driven much of this coastal sprawl. It now covers $763 billion worth of property, about half of which is in Florida and along the Gulf Coast. Before government insurance became available, banks refused to provide mortgages for construction on barrier islands and in flood plains.
Today, there's so much money to be made in coastal development that even destruction on a massive scale may not prevent future high-risk reconstruction. After Hurricane Ivan destroyed Gulf Shores, Ala., last year, the mayor (who is also a real estate developer) envisioned the disaster as an opportunity to convert his "Redneck Riviera" into a more desirable "Gulf Coast Resort Destination."
At $42 billion, last year's hurricane season was the most costly in U.S. history. This year, the number of named storms set a record. Then Katrina came along and blew all these statistics — and probably thousands of lives — away.
And this year's season has two months to go.
Along with the upswing of a natural 25-year cycle of hurricane intensity in the Atlantic, a warming of the world's oceans, a rise in sea level and erosion from human-caused climate disruption are contributing to ever more extreme weather events.
A recent study by Swiss Reinsurance, one of the world's largest insurance companies, estimates that global losses as a result of climate change will run around $150 billion a year by the end of the decade. The largest property reinsurance company in Britain projects that, unchecked, the effects of climate change could bankrupt the global economy in 65 years. Even in a $3.5-trillion economy such as ours, the effects of a single storm are already evident.
There are things we can do to prevent the horrors that victims of Katrina have experienced. These include wetlands restoration, sensible coastal development and a commitment to a major transition from fossil fuels to carbon-free energy systems.
The European Union is already moving in this direction, with the low-lying Netherlands a potential model for the Gulf Coast.
The Dutch have both breached and strengthened levees and converted hundreds of square miles of farmland back to marsh to absorb the effects of rising seas. They are also introducing a new generation of green architecture, including jack-up homes designed for coastal flood zones. And they are moving rapidly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop new carbon-free sources of energy.
After 9/11, there was a moment when Americans seemed prepared to make sacrifices and embrace change. Instead, Bush told us to go shopping.
The Katrina disaster need not be another lost opportunity. The recommendations of two major ocean panels — the Commission on Ocean Policy and the privately funded PEW Oceans Commission — offer solutions, as does an ocean protection bill introduced in June by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
Sadly, we can no longer trust government to adequately prepare for and respond to such disasters as Katrina. Instead, we have to help ourselves, including the poorest among us, if we are going to get through this crisis and learn the lessons of New Orleans.
If we don't, there will always be another hurricane to make the case.