Giving up on New Orleans

MIKE TIDWELL is the author of "Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast" (Pantheon, 2003).

AS WE NEAR the 100-day mark since Hurricane Katrina hit, it’s time we ended our national state of denial and abandon New Orleans for good.

We should call it quits not because New Orleans can’t be made relatively safe from hurricanes. It can be. And not because to do so is more trouble than it’s worth. It’s not. Instead, the hammers and brooms and chain saws should all be put away and the city permanently boarded up because the Bush administration has already given New Orleans a quiet kiss of death.

Although he has encouraged city residents to return home and declared “we will do whatever it takes” to save the city, President Bush last month refused the one thing New Orleans simply cannot live without: a restored network of barrier islands and coastal wetlands.


Katrina destroyed the Big Easy -- and future Katrinas will do the same -- because 1 million acres of coastal islands and marshland vanished in Louisiana in the last century because of human interference. These land forms served as natural “speed bumps,” reducing the lethal surge tide of past hurricanes and making New Orleans habitable in the first place. A $14-billion plan to fix this problem -- widely viewed as technically sound and supported by environmentalists, oil companies and fishermen alike -- has been on the table for years and was pushed forward with greater urgency after Katrina hit. But the Bush administration has turned its back on this plan.

Instead of investing the equivalent of six weeks of spending on the Iraq war or the cost of the Big Dig in Boston, we must now prepare to pay for another, inevitable $200-billion hurricane in Louisiana. Which is why, tragically, we are better off simply cutting our losses and abandoning New Orleans right now.

In the weeks after Katrina, the media portrayed the catastrophe as a matter of failed levees and flawed evacuation plans alone. But these were just horrifying symptoms of a much larger disease. No amount of levee building or stockpiles of bottled water will ever save New Orleans until the barrier shoreline is restored.

Just since World War II, an area the size of Rhode Island has become submerged between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, most of it marshland. Every 2.7 miles of marshland reduces a hurricane surge tide by a foot, dispersing the storm’s power. Simply put, had Katrina struck in 1945 instead of 2005, the surge that reached New Orleans would have been as much as 5 to 10 feet lower than it was.

These marshes, as well as the barrier islands, were created by the sediment-rich floodwaters of the Mississippi River and deposited over thousands of years. But modern levees have prevented this natural flooding, and the existing wetlands, starved for new sediments and nutrients, have eroded and subsided and washed away. Every 10 months, even without hurricanes, an area of Louisiana land equal to Manhattan turns to water. That’s 50 acres a day, a football field every 30 minutes.

The grand plan to change all this, commonly known as the Coast 2050 plan, would use massive pipelines and pumps along with surgically designed canals to guide a portion of the river’s sediment-thick water back toward the coastal buffer zone without destroying existing infrastructure or communities. This would rebuild hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands over time and reconstruct entire barrier islands in as little as 12 months. The National Academy of Sciences recently confirmed the soundness of the approach and urged quick action.

Yet the White House in effect killed the plan by authorizing a shockingly small $250 million out of the $14 billion requested in the spending package sent to Congress. Tens of billions of dollars have been authorized to treat the symptoms -- broken levees, insufficient emergency resources, destroyed roads and bridges. But next to nothing for the disappearing land that ushered the ocean into the city to begin with.

How could this administration, found totally unprepared for this disastrous hurricane, not see the obvious action needed to prevent the next Katrina? My theory is that Bush hears “wetlands” and retreats to a blind, ideological aversion to all things “environmental.”

“Either they don’t get it or they just don’t care,” said Mark Davis, director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. “But the results are the same: more disaster.”

So stop the repairs. Close the few businesses that have reopened. Leave the levees in their tattered state and get out. Right now. It’s utterly unsafe to live there.

As someone who dearly loves New Orleans, it pains me immeasurably to call for this retreat. I mean what I say. Shut the city down. To encourage people to return to New Orleans, as Bush is doing, without funding the only plan that can save the city from the next Katrina is to commit an act of mass homicide.

Anyone who doesn’t like this news -- farmers who export grain through the port of New Orleans, New Englanders who heat their homes with natural gas from the Gulf of Mexico, cultural enthusiasts who like their gumbo in the French Quarter -- should direct their comments straight to the White House.