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Memory of the Flood 

A year after Katrina, what has America really learned -- and what's to become of New Orleans?

Katrina's winds shredded the Gulf South like a giant scythe, but it was the flood in New Orleans that jolted the national psyche, leaving the deepest memory -- and the deepest scars. The flood turned New Orleans into a disaster zone, planting the image of a Third World backwater.

When has the persona of a city been so altered so quickly, or a president so damaged by a singular event? TV pictures across the globe showed people trapped on rooftops, sloshing knee-high past bloated corpses and sunken cars, old folk in wheelchairs, women and babies, looters with grocery carts. Most people fled to far-flung places, many to stay for weeks or months. With 80 percent of New Orleans underwater, the country that put men on the moon took five days to evacuate hospitals.

Ronald Reagan decried "big government" and dismantled the New Deal forever. Twenty years later, George W. Bush gave us bloated government, slashed taxes, spent trillions and ran up a swollen debt to Chinese banks to finance his war in Iraq. Four years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Katrina's floodwaters exposed an inept emergency response system as more than 100,000 homes went underwater in southeast Louisiana. After telling his soon-to-be-sacked FEMA director, "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job," Bush's popularity plunged, swamped by an image of detachment and incompetence.

As the media gear up for Katrina anniversary stories, we can expect fresh video of the dead neighborhoods, panning the streets and houses still etched with brown waterlines like domestic shells after a neutron bomb. With only 181,000 of the city's 463,000 residents back in town, the infrastructure is fragile -- electricity reaches only 60 percent of the pre-Katrina customer base. Nevertheless, $8 billion in federal funds will soon hit the streets, allowing homeowners and businesses to rebuild or recoup some of their losses.

What are the central lessons of the flood? What changes in policy or political thinking flow from the nation's worst natural disaster? Grief and loss have made New Orleans a schizophrenic place: two cities coexisting inside the shell of what used to be one: one of the new cities functions just fine, as if Katrina had never happened; the other has changed little since the floodwaters receded.

What kind of city will New Orleans ultimately become? Don't look to the federal government for answers. And most of the local officials -- Mayor Ray Nagin, most strikingly -- don't have a clue as to the meaning of leadership. In the old world, pre-K, we could laugh at that. Now it's a numbing spectacle.

HUMAN ERROR PRODUCED THE FLOOD: flawed Mississippi levee projects by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers along with environmental negligence by government and oil companies that caused wetlands south and east of the city to erode. The lost wetlands gave tidal waves an open alley to the city. But the dynamics of this failure are national in scope. Massive flooding could occur in any number of communities along the Atlantic seaboard because of similar mistakes in other communities.

"The cost of a collapsing coast is one of fundamental survival," says Mark Davis, director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, a group that has worked on the issue for years in Baton Rouge. "What happened last year was also the failure of a value system. We assumed we had tamed the forces of nature. We need to understand that if we want there to be a New Orleans or a Miami or a New York 500 years from now, we can't assume they'll be there. We have to plan for them to be there. That's why the rise in sea levels and freshwater management are so extraordinary."

Katrina was a billboard for global warming. As a scientific consensus emerged, Al Gore, then a U.S. Senator, made depletion of the ozone layer a political issue. The Republican majority under Bush scorns the issue. So does ExxonMobil, with its long disinformation campaign to discredit scientific findings, and the automobile industry, which, rather than invest in energy efficient cars, keeps producing SUVs, profitable dinosaurs that release more carbon dioxide.

An Inconvenient Truth, the film based on Gore's ongoing lectures (and the title of his companion book), shows stark scenes of glaciers crumbling and the browning of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Kenya. Gone are the snowcaps Hemingway adored. As gasses from burned fossil fuels eat the ozone layer, a long melt is underway in Greenland, Antarctica and the South Pole. The melted ice causes seas to rise. As seas rise, so do their temperatures rise during hot months. Hotter air and warmer water ignite more powerful storms.

Katrina was the most awesome result.

The hottest year on record, 2005, saw the greatest concentration of hurricanes with record winds -- Katrina, Rita and Wilma. In the 24 hours before Katrina made landfall, the storm doubled in size, blanketing waters of the Gulf "equal in area to California," report John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein in their new book, Path of Destruction. (See "Katrina Troika," Gambit Weekly, Aug. 1, 2006.) As the Category 5 storm and its 175-mph winds neared Louisiana, winds dropped to 127 mph, a Category 3 level, still strong enough to send huge waves across the eroding landscape.

Katrina hit early on Monday, Aug. 29. The eye flattened the coastal town of Buras, sending thunderous waves across towns and hamlets south of New Orleans, tossing cars and boats onto trees and roofs. Winds roared through Lake Borgne, pushing waves westward, toward the city, at least 20 feet high. The giant water sheets rolled towards eastern New Orleans over fragile wetlands between man-made canals. One side of the vast lane straddles a levee along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway; the other levee hugs the eastern side of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MR-GO).

"The Funnel," where the Intracoastal and the MR-GO meet, sent water throttling between and over the tops of those levees and into the city as well as nearby St. Bernard Parish -- the end result of decades of dredging by the Army Corps of Engineers. The barrel-chested St. Bernard Parish president, Junior Rodriguez, had been railing against MR-GO for years, calling it "the biggest challenge of my lifetime." Building MR-GO destroyed 20,000 acres of marshland in the 1960s. As the Corps dug the alternate shipping lane for moving cargo from the Mississippi to the Gulf, the dredging opened an artery 500 feet wide. MR-GO was finished in 1963. In 2001, Christopher Hallowell wrote in Holding Back The Sea, a prescient book on wetlands loss: "Erosion from ships and storms has gouged it 2,000 feet wide and made it a freeway to New Orleans for any hurricane that happens to come from the right direction." Hallowell saw the shape of things to come. "The surrounding marsh, now vulnerable to storms and salt water, has all but died ... along with 40,000 acres of mature cypress trees. Now, storm surges can invade the marsh through the straight-arrow channel and smash into New Orleans."

The smashing happened before, in 1965, with Hurricane Betsy.

Kenneth Ferdinand, an African-American real estate investor and urban planner, grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward -- just across the Orleans line from St. Bernard. In recent years he sat in regional planning meetings with Rodriguez, sharing his hostility to MR-GO. Betsy's surging waters ramped up the MR-GO, burrowing into the levee along the Industrial Canal, which divides the Ninth Ward into upper and lower sections. When Betsy struck in '65, a large swath of the Lower Nine was inundated, drowning 81 people. Ferdinand went into his grandfather's house to claim his body after Betsy. "I've seen this catastrophe twice in my lifetime," he says. "The difference between Betsy and Katrina is that the flooding was much worse. And, Katrina wrecked those communities below the Lower Nine" -- St. Bernard, and further south, Plaquemines Parish.

The Lower Nine and St. Bernard Parish were destined to flood because of MR-GO. Even Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter -- who before Katrina promoted legislation to allow commercial destruction of cypress trees -- has come around to Rodriguez's position, saying the 76-mile MR-GO should be closed. Such a move would allow some of the lost wetlands to be restored.

The flooding put in sharp relief a central challenge to south Louisiana's survival: coastal erosion and how to remake wetlands as a protective buffer to Gulf hurricanes. The wetlands damage was chronicled by Hallowell in 2001, by Times-Picayune reporters Schleifstein and McQuaid in a 2002 series, and by Mike Tidwell in his 2003 book, Bayou Farewell (See "Ravaging Tide," p.9), among others.

The land south of New Orleans has been sinking as Gulf waters rise. Tidwell found fishing communities with submerged cemeteries, people whose property had disappeared into the Gulf. A million acres of Louisiana wetlands have been swallowed by the Gulf, eroding nature's defense against hurricane storm surges and opening a destructive path to the city.

Former Gov. Mike Foster (1996-2004), a Falstaffian millionaire whose grandfather served as governor a century earlier (and ushered in the Jim Crow era), gave petrochemical industries an easy ride for toxic waste disposal, treating his Department of Environmental Quality like a serfdom. But Foster, an avid sportsman, also likes the outdoors and became concerned about coastal erosion, thanks to a cross-section of business people, fishermen, industrialists, state officials and ecologists who collaborated on a 1998 report, "Coast 2050: Toward A Sustainable Coastal Louisiana." Foster personally gave George W. Bush copies of Hallowell's and Tidwell's books. There is little evidence that Bush read them. "Coastal 2050" estimated $14 billion would be needed to restore the lost wetlands -- big money, but a fraction of the $200 billion in estimated losses from Katrina. In 2004, Bush cut the Army Corps' funding request for levee maintenance by more than 80 percent.

Meanwhile, Louisiana's southern parishes are sinking. This stems in part from 20,000 miles of pipelines that criss-cross the coastal floor to deliver oil and gas from offshore rigs. Many canals are long abandoned, yet continue to erode and widen. Another factor for the massive sinkage is the impact of levees built by the Army Corps of Engineers in response to the Great Flood of 1927. Containing the Mississippi's currents with stronger levees kept the city safe from the River, but it capped diversionary outlets that formerly served as sluiceways to replenish tidal marshes. Instead, torrents of river silt now pour like a chute into the deepest reaches of the Gulf. Starved of river nutrients and gouged by pipe excavations, the wetlands eroded and lower Louisiana began sinking.

Nearly 25 percent of all the oil and gas consumed in America travels through Louisiana's wetlands. Roughly a quarter of the nation's seafood was generated from Louisiana's coastal area before Katrina. Since 1932, the state has lost 1,900 square miles of wetlands, an area larger than Rhode Island. Ten square miles disappear annually.

HELICOPTER VIDEO COVERAGE OF THE flood fixed on two canals that drain the city into Lake Pontchartrain: 17th Street Canal and the London Avenue Canal. Corps-built floodwalls along those canals broke the first morning of Katrina after the canals swelled with lake water. So did defenses of the Industrial Canal, where a 200-foot grain barge bashed through the levee wall in an explosive clap, washing into the Lower Nine, splintering houses and crushing cars as chunks of broken concrete poured in. A post-storm investigation by the National Science Foundation found flaws by the Corps in designing and building the floodwalls.

The flood burrowed down where cameras don't go, sucking at roots, upending trees, cracking pavement and punching 17,000 leaks in the city's system of water, drainage and sewerage pipes, according to the Sewerage and Water Board (SWB). The water board is struggling to repair pipes and maintain its 180-mile system of drainage canals. SWB has 24 pumping stations to channel rainfall into Lake Pontchartrain. Half the pumping stations flooded after Katrina; thousands of water and sewer lines ruptured. With electricity down across the city, pumping plant workers learned of a working traffic light in Jefferson Parish, and persuaded Entergy, the utility company, to run a distribution line to one of the stations.

"The great pumps coughed to life and started sucking 4,000 cubic feet of water a second out of the precinct," reported John Burnett of NPR's All Things Considered on Sept. 26. "An official with the US Army Corps of Engineers predicted it would take months to dewater the drowned city, but they'd calculated a task based on the Corps' portable pumps. As the Water Board's mammoth pumps began to come back online, the job was accomplished in about three weeks."

About a third of the city's piping system is a century old; the entire network of pipes needed upgrading before Katrina, according to a knowledgeable insider. An attempt by then-Mayor Marc Morial to push a privatization plan that would fund the needed overhaul stalled as his term was ending; new Mayor Ray Nagin did not make it a priority before Katrina. Now it's one in a welter of crises the city confronts.

Repairing the system is estimated at $2 billion. SWB is functioning on a $32 million federal loan, and losing millions of gallons of water daily. Lower water pressure is an inconvenience to many homes and businesses, but a more serious issue for the Fire Department. At a recent blaze in a moribund neighborhood of the Seventh Ward, fire fighters went through four hydrants before finding one that worked, according to a witness.

The city owed its fire fighters $60 million in a legal judgment on pensions before Katrina. That remains unpaid as the city is starved for revenues. Meanwhile, the city is down 85 firefighters (from 770) and has approximately 550 on duty on an average day.

The city work force is a fraction of what it was in the golden era of the 1970s, when the Superdome went up, a line of corporate towers rose along Poydras Street and Mayor Moon Landrieu had 12,000 employees, thanks to the Nixon Administration's program of revenue sharing with cities. In the early 1980s, Mayor Dutch Morial had to cut the city work force as the Reagan Administration cut urban funds. Nagin took office with 6,000 employees, half of whom he had to fire post-Katrina as the city cut back on basic services.

From 12,000 to 3,000 city workers in 30 years.

Streams of Latino immigrant workers have flocked to New Orleans for construction jobs since the flood. The city will resemble an Alaskan boomtown, without the cold or the gold, in the next few years. Music and strip clubs will hum; the spirit of jazz and spontaneous cultural improvisations will roll forth like a wave from the soul. But the smaller city, with fewer schools, will still be stalked by poverty and crime, with drug dealers fighting for smaller pieces of turf. It is hard to imagine any of that changing, given the fractured Police Department.

So the city will produce for tourists and conventions the spectacles and cuisine for which it is known as the low-end workers who staff the hotels and restaurants struggle to find housing. In all of this, the dead silence of absent leadership -- particularly Nagin's -- hangs like a heavy fog in the muggy night. New Orleanians cry out for a comprehensive recovery plan, but Nagin has effectively punted back to the citizens themselves, offering a "plan for a plan" that will take at least until the end of this year to materialize. By then, millions if not billions in federal aid that has been sent down to the Louisiana Recovery Authority, a state agency, will have been committed to other parishes that have already adopted recovery plans. When the money runs out, Nagin will no doubt blame somebody else.

"A RELIEF BILL PASSED BY THE GOP HOUSE in March managed to omit critical funds for battered levees," The New Republic editorialized Aug. 8. "At times, negotiations stalled because some Republicans tried to divert Katrina relief away from Louisiana."

Yes indeed.

The social Darwinists who control Congress see New Orleans as expendable, an outer edge of the Third World. This mentality among Christian triumphalists who fueled the GOP resurgence stands in jagged contrast to the scores of churches from red states that sent members to the muddy city at the bottom of America -- gutting houses, cleaning streets, helping people recover. The same moralists behind Bush bought into a Faustian bargain on the environment. As the administration withdrew from the Kyoto treaty and gutted EPA, so many sheep-like "Christian" politicos found their place at the table by betraying the message of Genesis, that earth and waters are sacred. Some Pentecostal leaders have started to speak out about global warming, fraying the edges of GOP unity, but don't bet on a herd of new Sierra Club members.

Through the winter, as senators and congressmen flew down to tour the dead neighborhoods, offering condolences and support (the meaning of which remains opaque), the Democrats failed to make an issue of Katrina -- why the flood happened, how to prevent future floods. The war in Iraq was keeping Bush down in the polls, but the flood had put him there. Perhaps the portent of mass ecological breakdown is a migraine for most pols in the daily rush of seeking money at the trough. Apart from the environmental lobby, it was left to certain members of the media, and Al Gore, to stay on point.

According to one survey, 70 percent of Americans recognize the plight of the city, but popular sympathy counts little without the political will to back it up.

House Democrats stripped New Orleans Congressman William Jefferson of his seat on the Ways and Means Committee for being a liability to the party agenda, which seeks to tar the GOP with its DeLay-Abramoff lobbying scandals. It's hard to fault House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for turning the knife on "Dollar Bill." Up to his eyeballs in his own bribery investigation, Jefferson is an embarrassment to the state as well as to his party. FBI agents, having previously found $90,000 in the freezer of his Virginia home, raided Jefferson's office, seeking documents on an alleged bribery scheme involving a telecommunications deal in Nigeria. Politically kneecapped when his district needed him most, Dollar Bill now stands for reelection against a dozen opponents.

"Environmental defense" is not an issue in most people's mind. The stirrings of a Louisiana plan to prevent future disasters is based on that idea, though no one is calling it that. Here again, the implications are national in scope.

On Aug. 1, the Senate approved a bill by Sen. Mary Landrieu that would give Louisiana and other Gulf states a 37.5 percent royalty on 8.3 million acres newly designated for drilling in the Gulf, providing an estimated $200 million annually in the next decade. A bill by Congressman Bobby Jindal would give Louisiana higher royalties, netting $2 billion a year, but even Jindal's fellow Republicans doubt his measure can pass. If a compromise bill emerges from a House-Senate conference, the state will get sorely needed funds for coastal erosion. For her part, Gov. Kathleen Blanco sued the federal Minerals Management Service to halt a scheduled lease of oil and gas exploration in the Gulf, arguing that the agency ignored environmental damage caused by the drilling. A windfall in offshore royalties would give the state some leverage in shoring up erosion and preventing future destruction as the oil rush on water continues -- provided the money is not diverted or wasted, as has so often been the case in Louisiana.

Last week, a federal judge denied Blanco's request to halt the lease but warned potential bidders that the state is likely to prevail on its central argument, which could stop drilling on the leased tracts. The federal agency has a 90-day window to accept the bids, just about the time of the scheduled trial. Against that backdrop, Sen. Vitter asked the White House to call off the sale until the issue is resolved. For now, that's what passes for progress.

ONE YEAR AFTER KATRINA, THERE IS NO institutional mechanism to rebuild the eroding coastline. Mark Davis, the outgoing director of the coastal restoration coalition, says that "awareness is at an all time high, but the decision-making apparatus is not there to do what needs to be done. It's like watching a revival movement, with everyone talking about how good heaven is, but you don't see a great shift in behavior as if people are planning to get there."

Davis, who worked the issue for years with everyone from bank presidents to commercial fishermen, faults a mountain of red tape -- and inertia in Washington. Even if the revenues in Jindal's or Landrieu's bill materialize, he explains, the state lacks jurisdiction over levees and navigational structures, which fall under federal authority. "The state's ability to change is not just a question of money," he says. "Blanco has come to the realization that the state has to lead the federal government to the answers."

Davis credits Blanco for suing the Minerals Management agency; she sent a message that the feds must participate in rebuilding the coast.

That is barely a first step. Beyond it lies the question of what kind of institutional mechanism should guide coastal restoration. And then, how do you pay for it? These issues weigh on Davis' thought field like invasive meteors.

"A big problem with major environmental projects is that Congress authorizes funds which take forever to materialize," he explains, warming to his topic. This has happened in restoration of the Everglades and in a California project to prevent flooding from the Sacramento River. Finding a dependable revenue stream is a big hurdle out of the gate. Congressional committees have annual appropriations that go through endless negotiations involving a range of special interests, like a revolving door, year after year.

Levee repair and coastal restoration must be permanent priorities with guaranteed funding. A year after the flood, they are not.

The Tennessee Valley Authority delivered electrification to the middle South during the Great Depression, as a federal agency. Why couldn't a similar agency rebuild Louisiana's wetlands as part of an Atlantic coastal protection agenda, with immunity from Congressional pork barreling, which has historically diverted the Army Corps of Engineers funds to the detriment of flood control?

Whatever the mechanism necessary for a solution, it is way overdue. Mike Tidwell's new book, The Ravaging Tide, uses Katrina as a springboard in assessing the wider damage from global warming. In the last 30 years, Alaska has seen a temperature rise of five degrees. He cites a 4-million acre "forest of spruce trees so vast it's bigger than the state of Connecticut -- yet every single spruce is dead." The dead forest (a distant cousin to New Orleans's dead neighborhoods) is caused by a spruce beetle reproducing at twice its normal rate. "The result is the largest forest die-off by insect infestation ever recorded in North America," he reports.

Congress has aped Bush's "What-Me-Worry?" attitude on the environment. But as scientific data mounts, smarter people are taking a harder, deeper look. "Britain's largest insurance company, CGNU, in 2002 predicted that unchecked global warming could bankrupt the entire global economy by 2065," writes Tidwell. "A key threat highlighted by the insurer was sea-level rise that would directly destroy valuable land, buildings and agricultural assets while indirectly exposing everything farther inland to more intense storms expected in a warmer world."

Perhaps the most chilling scene in Al Gore's movie is an aerial map of Manhattan turning blue-green from flooding. Don't laugh. One hard northerly turn from a Cat 3 hurricane and the Big Apple could be a mess.

"A sea-level rise of one-to-three feet," writes Tidwell, "will, to a greater or lesser extent, impact every inch of American shoreline from the Texas coast to the Florida Keys to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to Cape Cod. The low-lying areas of San Diego and San Francisco and much of Puget Sound on the West Coast are at great risk, too.

"A rise of just two feet in sea level will, according to the EPA, eliminate up to 43 percent of all U.S. coastal wetlands ... [N]o fewer than one in four U.S. buildings within five hundred feet of a coastline will be destroyed by erosion by mid-century."

The only way to prevent these scenarios is with a massive campaign to protect wetlands and reduce global warming. Getting a national strategy is the tallest order, given the slovenly mindset in Congress and the leaderless White House. A policy that rewards industry for cutting carbon dioxide emissions, developing energy-efficient cars and homes, and shifting the economy from dependency on fossil fuels may seem unreachable in this maddened time of terrorism and oil wars. But alternative is worse: sinking into a deeper passivity of consumerism. Couch potatoes at the apocalypse, we'll fill up at $5 a gallon and head for the heartland each time the next big one comes, trying not to collide with sweaty nomads from Alaska who have fled southward -- all of us carrying a collective memory of the Katrina flood.

Jason Berry is a New Orleans writer whose books include Lead Us Not Into Temptation, Vows Of Silence, and a new novel, Last of the Red Hot Poppas, forthcoming in September.

click to enlarge A 200-foot grain barge bashed through the levee wall in an - explosive clap, washing into the Lower Nine, splintering - houses and crushing cars as chunks of broken concrete - poured in. - DAVID RAE MORRIS
  • David Rae Morris
  • A 200-foot grain barge bashed through the levee wall in an explosive clap, washing into the Lower Nine, splintering houses and crushing cars as chunks of broken concrete poured in.
click to enlarge Katrina's floodwaters exposed an inept emergency response - system as more than 100,000 homes went underwater in - southeast Louisiana. - DAVID RAE MORRIS
  • David Rae Morris
  • Katrina's floodwaters exposed an inept emergency response system as more than 100,000 homes went underwater in southeast Louisiana.
click to enlarge The social Darwinists who control Congress see New - Orleans as expendable, an outer edge of the Third World. - DAVID RAE MORRIS
  • David Rae Morris
  • The social Darwinists who control Congress see New Orleans as expendable, an outer edge of the Third World.
click to enlarge According to one survey, 70 percent of Americans - recognize the plight of the city, but popular sympathy - counts little without the political will to back it up. - DAVID RAE MORRIS
  • David Rae Morris
  • According to one survey, 70 percent of Americans recognize the plight of the city, but popular sympathy counts little without the political will to back it up.


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