Friday, March 09, 2007

Last Call, America

The New Orleans Times-Picayune's provides an excellent three-part summary of what those paying attention to coastal erosion have known for decades: the last chance to save the coast (and New Orleans) is fast approaching, with no sign of action.

The problem is that the rest of America could probably care less. They're getting their oil and gas, the crops go out and the steel comes in, and Chinese crawfish are cheaper. To that end, I will dredge out an analogy of a sort from a post I wrote in June of last year:

Like the levee failure in New Orleans, the collapse of the coastal environment in Louisiana is largely man-made catastrophe, the outcome of a series of choices made for the benefit of the entire nation at our expense. Yes subsidence plays a part, but only a small one in the vast losses of the last half century. What has occurred has been the theft of land from Louisiana, without compensation, in order to provide additional agricultural land elsewhere, and to produce oil-and-gas.

Imagine this if you will: Los Angeles is the city most closely associated with America's lust affair with the personal automobile, and production of the oil necessary to make that lifestyle possible is in large part responsible for coastal erosion.If we applied Louisiana's coastal erosion rate to the L.A. coastline (which Google tells me stretches 76 miles from Malibu to Long Beach), the city would have to move back from the sea a little under one mile a year. Would the Hummer continue to be so popular in SoCal if it were their land they were giving up at such an alarming rate in the name of cheap gas?

Somehow we should find a way to place this entire series as an insert to USA Today, the New York Times and the LA Times. Hell, why stop there. I suggest Le Monde as well (because we know the French love us second perhaps only to Jerry Lewis). Everyone in America and the world. needs to understand the danger here.

Forget al-Qaeda. The Gulf of Mexico is the enemy at the gates. The country to the north thinks Katrina was The Big One. They do not understand that it was a glancing blow to the city and that what happened to New Orleans was The Federal Flood, a failure of engineering. When the real Big One comes, it may sweep away the exposed river levees in East Plaquemines, and the river might decide to take another path to the Gulf. Without the flow of the river to keep the channel open, there would be no outlet for ships. No agricultural products would leave the Midwest. No bulk cargoes of steel and other products would enter. In short order, the economy of the central United States would grind to a halt.

Or perhaps the storm will come ashore in south-central Louisiana. How much oil-and-gas infrastructure built to sit safely inside the protective marsh is now exposed in open water? The glancing blow of a mere Category 2 storm named Katrina wreaked havoc on 1/3 of the nation's oil and gas supply (a figure that includes the off-shore super port for tankers). What will happen when a true Category Five complete destroys that infrastructure. How many years could the people to the north survive at five, six, seven dollars a gallon. Two years? Three? Five? Where will the people who can't afford oil to hear their homes go? To the warm winters of the hurricane coast?

The sad part is that I wrote stories on the same subject almost 25 years ago for Guide Newspapers. The only details that have changed are the few tentative steps taken to reverse this entirely man-made disaster. The handful of projects so far put in place were already on the drawing boards back then. What has changed are the lines on the map showing the losses that have occurred since then, and the project future rate of erosion.

It is an entirely man-made catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. As the article points out, the historic coastline could have persisted for another several thousand years, even with the channelization of the Mississippi. The root cause is oil-and-gas exploration along the coast. America has chosen to sacrifice an entire city and region in its quest for the longest commute in the biggest car. There was an ugly joke on the far left as we went to war in Iraq, asking how many dead Iraqi's per mile a Hummer H2 gets. I thought that was a bit outre.

It is, in the context of Louisiana, a question we can fairly ask of every American. How many lives will you willingly and knowingly ruin to keep the vehicle and the habits you have today. If asked, will you answer "yes, bulldoze Louisiana into the ground..."? If I lined up 1,417 Louisianians on the street between you and Starbucks, would you run them down?

I don't think the tens of thousands who have come down here to volunteer would answer in the affirmative. I know how the people America sends to Washington will answer because they already have: they do not care so long as they can have their oil-and-gas and access to the sea. The question is, do you care? Do you? Really?

This is not some insignificant if rare fish or butterfly whose habitat you are destroying, not the homes of some to you benighted tribe of third-worlders whose home you're denuding to redo your cabinets, people you may feel would be better off relocated to some nice cinder-blocks homes with a new well provided by Operation Blessing. We are people you may have gone to college with, people you've passed in an airport or sat next to a long flight, people you might run across a Disneyworld or the Mall of America. It is their homes that are being destroyed, their lives that hang on the brink of ruin to keep the price at $2 a gallon.

Hey Mark, no one is ever going to run into me at Disneyworld or Mall of America, but otherwise, great post... and I remember those stories you wrote at the wbg. Annette
I'd kill 1,417 Americans to save south Louisiana.

Oh. That's not what you asked, is it.
I think it is possible to stage a non-violent movement threatening succession sufficient to get their attention.

I think a secession congress for Fourth of July weekend is an excellent topic for the next Rising Tide. We should simply structure it as a pro and con discussion.
great post Mark!!
I think (sadly) one way to make the idiots in Washington listen would be to emphasize the economic impact...

Having seen the HUGE trucks and SUVs in this city I think New Orleans needs to take a look at our own behaviour too!

Great blog!!
A pox on monster trucks and SUV's. It's hard for me to take anyone who professes to care about the environment, etc seriously if they drive one.
(Said with a smile to bloggers who smog with said vehicles).
Mark, it's a sad state that the lust affair with Super-sized McMobiles is more important than the relationship of Louisiana to the United States and the world. Thank you for the sobering truth. I'm sorry you have to repeat yourself on a subject that seemed that it might garner serious consideration only a year and a half ago to the people (The Feds) who instigated your first article. I am not living there right now; but it is always on my mind. And as hurricane season--and El Nina--draws near...God better be on our side, 'cause the Administration and the Average American AIN'T.
The cure could be worse than the disease. What needs to happen is that we need to take down the river levees in rural St. Bernard and Southern Plaquamines so that we can have some seasonal flooding that will deposit more sediment into those marshes. The river levee along those stretches is less about flood control and more about maintaining year round navigation.

If you are unconvinced about the ability of the river to deposit sediment, you need only look at the Bonne Carre Spillway and the endless supply of river sand they truck out of there every year. Even when the spillway is open about once every 7 years.

As far as getting the rest of the country to pay attention, this November or December everyone in S. Louisiana should take a couple weeks off. With the grain coming down the river about then and heating oil becoming an issue in the north, we would have the nation's attention.
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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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