What caused the disaster in New Orleans?

14 September 2005 - 9:45pm

Mississippi Delta near New Orleans from Landsat satellite image

The Disappearing Delta
by Linda Pascatore on 12 September 2005

Last week I watched a segment on the PBS program NOW (see box below for more info on this excellent program) dealing with the problems of the coastal wetlands of New Orleans. It was an in depth analysis of the history of the area, the natural cycle of flooding, our interference with this cycle, and the results and implications.

The Mississippi Delta is everything between Texas and Mississippi for about 50 miles inland. It was built over thousands of years by the Mississippi River. The river picks up silt full of nutrients, minerals and soil particles all along its course. There is a natural coastal wetlands at the mouth of the Mississippi. This wetlands were replenished and fed every few years when the river flooded, and the silt and mud was spread over a wide area.

These wetlands made a natural buffer and protection for New Orleans against storms and hurricanes moving over the Gulf of Mexico. As a hurricane moved over the miles of wetlands, it would lose some of it’s power. The wetlands would soak up a lot of the storm, and act as a shield for New Orleans.
However, these wetlands have been disappearing at an alarming rate. Over the past 50 years, more than 1,000 square miles of Louisiana have been lost. Where there were wetlands, there is now the open water of the Gulf.

There are several factors contributing to the loss of wetlands. A Levee system was built to keep the water from overflowing the Mississippi, but it also starves the wetlands by preventing the deposits of silt and mud that result from the flooding. The Mississippi has been dredged and straightened to facilitate navigation, but that also causes the silt to go straight into the Gulf, rather than be deposited along the way. Canals have been dug throughout the wetlands, for drainage and to access oil deposits there. These canals have allowed salt water to penetrate the fresh water marshes and kill vegetation.

If nothing is done to prevent this loss of wetlands, then in the next 50 years the Gulf of Mexico will move inland more than 30 miles, and New Orleans and other coastal cities will be directly exposed to the Gulf storms. In that case, it will not take a major hurricane to devastate these cities: much smaller storms will be disastrous. There will also be a 30 percent drop in fish harvest, and impacts on agriculture and petroleum supplies.

All of this information is not new. There have been major scientific studies and recommendations made to government commissions for years about restoring the wetlands. It could be done for about 14 billion dollars. Not only did the government ignore the recommendations and not fund wetlands restoration, it also cut funding to maintain the levee system. The disaster which has struck New Orleans has been predicted for years.

So, what do we do now? Now is the time to rebuild the right way, restoring the wetlands. Although it will be expensive, it will create jobs and revitalize the local economy in New Orleans. And in the long run, it will may save us from again spending the billions Katrina will cost us now.
For more on this issue, check out NOW below:


Called "one of the last bastions of serious journalism on TV" by the AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN, the PBS NOW series occupies a unique place in the American television landscape. For three seasons the broadcast was led by Bill Moyers. At the helm in 2005 is veteran journalist David Brancaccio, who joined NOW in fall 2003 after a decade as host of public radio's MARKETPLACE.

"What do the policies set in Washington and state capitols mean for working Americans? It may be a sound-bite society, but there are real-world consequences and Americans are grappling with them everyday," says Brancaccio, whose work has been honored with a duPont-Columbia University Award and a George Foster Peabody Award. "Each week, we're on the ground at the nexus where the policies meet the people with intelligent reporting and thoughtful analysis."

The vulnerability of chemical facilities to terrorist attack, campaign finance, the future of intellectual property, public education, the environment, and America's relationship with the world have been the focus of NOW's exhaustive reportage. In an important post-election year, NOW will compare the promises to the reality — the state of national security, the erosion of jobs, the rising cost of health care, the problems with retirement, and the quality and availability of child care.
Through documentary segments and interviews with original thinkers, NOW goes beyond the noisy churn of the news cycle and gives viewers the context to explore their relationship with the larger world. In an era where commercial values in journalism risk overwhelming democratic values and corporate interests can prevail over the public interest, NOW continues to stand apart as what THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR called the "one program going against the grain."

Now is shown here in Hawaii on PBS on Friday nights at 9:00. If you don’t have a TV, you can view transcripts and summaries of each show, along with pointers to more resources on each subject on their website:


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