Published on Wednesday, September 14, 2005 by the Baltimore Sun
<p align=justify><b>Unintended Consequences</b>
by Mike Tidwell
The Bush administration is ignoring reports from its own agencies that say every coastal city in America - from New York to Los Angeles - could become a New Orleans within a generation or two.
The flooding, storm damage, death toll and economic ruin we are seeing in the Crescent City could become an annual occurrence in some other U.S. city spread across some other American coastline.
Why? Because of the phenomenon known as the "law of unintended consequences." In Louisiana, we built huge levees that for centuries kept the lower Mississippi River from flooding. The unintended result was that the entire coast of Louisiana, including New Orleans, began rapidly sinking, dr
opping 2 to 3 feet in the last century alone.
Worldwide, a different dynamic but with similar catastrophic potential is playing out. Year after year, we burn massive amounts of fossil fuels - oil, coal and natural gas. The result is that we've profoundly warmed our planet's atmosphere. This global warming, according to the administration's own reports, will lead to a rise in sea level of 1 to 3 feet worldwide by 2100.
Here's the crux: Whether the land sinks 3 feet per century (as in New Orleans) or the oceans rise 3 feet per century (as in most of the rest of the world), the result is the same for America's 150 million coastal residents and the 3 billion shoreline inhabitants worldwide: record storm surges, inundated infrastructure, massive human relocation, economic disruption, untold suffering and death.
In all the recent coverage, the media seem to have uncritically accepted the very weird fact that New Orleans lies below sea level. Why is it below sea level?
the levees. The huge earthen river dikes that have kept the city dry and inhabitable for 300 years have also created the giant bathtub we now see on TV that is full of putrid water.
Every great river delta in the world is shaped by two unforgiving geological phenomena. The first involves flooding. The annual overflow of the sediment-rich Mississippi River is what created Louisiana's vast deltaic coast, depositing water-borne sediments and nutrients flowing down from two-thirds of America over the past 7,000 years.
The second major deltaic feature is "subsidence," or sinking. Those sedimentary deposits of alluvial soil are extremely fine and unstable. Over time, they compact, shrink and sink. Historically along the Louisiana coast, it was new flooding, new annual deposits of sediments, that counterbalanced the sinking and, in fact, led to net land building.
But by corseting the river with levees right out to the precipice of the Gulf of Mexico's continental shelf, we are left only wi
th subsidence. Every day, even without hurricanes, 50 acres of land in coastal Louisiana turns to water. Every 10 months, an area of land equal to Manhattan joins the gulf. It is, hands down, the fastest disappearing land mass on earth.
This is why the flooding from Katrina happened.
When French colonists first settled Louisiana 300 years ago, there were vast tracts of dense hardwood forests between what is today New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. There were extensive fresh water marshes and endless saltwater wetlands and a formidable network of strong barrier islands.
Today, all that land is essentially gone. It has turned to water. Because of the levees and the law of unintended consequences, New Orleans is a sunken, walled city essentially jutting out like an exposed chin toward the fast-approaching fist of the gulf. Had Katrina struck 200, 100 or even 50 years ago, the destruction would not have been the same. In 2005, there simply were no land structures left to slow Katrina's s
The good news is there is a plan to re-create much of that lost land. A detailed restoration scheme has been on the table since the 1990s to literally re-engineer the coast, according to Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. The plan is to build up to a dozen dam-like control structures right into the levees of the Mississippi. These would then release the sediment-thick water into canals or pipelines that would surgically direct the liquid soil toward the barrier islands and the buffering marshlands that need immediate restoration.
This so-called "Coast 2050" plan will take many years to fully implement, but the cost is ridiculously cheap at $14 billion. That's just six weeks of spending in Iraq or the cost of Boston's "Big Dig." Yet tragically, like Louisiana's pre-Katrina requests for federal help to bolster insufficient levees in New Orleans, the Bush administration has spent more than four years repeatedly refusing even modest investments in the larger coastal res
Given the horror of Katrina, one can only assume that President Bush will reassess his budgetary priorities. As a nation, our first responsibility is to address the storm's great humanitarian crisis. Beyond that, it would be criminally irresponsible of us to fix a broken window in New Orleans or pick up a piece of debris or repair a cubic foot of levee without simultaneously committing - as a nation - to the massive plan to rebuild the entire Louisiana coast. To do one without the other is to simply set the table for the next nightmare hurricane.
But even this multibillion-dollar coastal rehabilitation effort will be in vain unless we immediately address another facet of the law of unintended consequences: global warming.
Remove from your mind any thought that global warming is a junk theory peddled only by Greenpeace extremists. No less an authority than the Bush administration has confirmed this climate change to be real.
Soon after taking office in 2001, M
r. Bush asked the nation's premier scientific body, the National Academy of Sciences, to look into the issue. Its report to him: Global warming is happening, it's driven by our use of fossil fuels and one major consequence will be a 1- to 3-foot sea-level rise by 2100 from melting glaciers and the "thermal expansion" of the world's warming oceans.
Mr. Bush's 2002 "Climate Action Plan" drew the same conclusion: a 1- to 3-foot sea level rise by 2100. In an August 2004 letter to Congress signed by then-Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, the administration again confirmed that fossil fuels are driving global warming, with all the implications for serious sea level rise.
A sea-level rise of 3 feet worldwide would mean battered and fragmenting barrier islands on a par with those sinking in Louisiana. It means vanishing coastal marshes, the need for massive hurricane and flood levees worldwide. It means vulnerable ports and other imperiled infrastructure. It also means the risk of massive human su
ffering, death and staggering displacement problems along every shore.
Just as levee repairs in New Orleans have been underfunded and barrier island restoration has been ignored, the administration refuses to join the rest of the world in pushing for greenhouse gas reductions under the Kyoto Protocol. Repeatedly, Mr. Bush has refused to discuss even modest plans to address global warming while his own reports create the paper trail that future historians will use for what certainly will be harsh condemnations.
We don't need massive new levees to protect Miami. We need a rapid global switch to modern windmills for our electricity. We don't need sea walls to save San Diego. We need hydrogen fuel cell cars and energy-efficient appliances and bio-fuels.
The Kyoto Protocol is just too expensive for our country to adopt, Mr. Bush says, presumably the same way bolstering New Orleans' 17th Street Canal levee was once deemed too expensive. We're now spending tens of billions of dollars and
burying at least hundreds of people because of that mistake. How much will global warming cost us?
Mike Tidwell is the author of Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast. He lives in Takoma Park. </i>
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