Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Don't Blame Nature, New Orleans, My Home...

South Louisiana is the land of my birth, and that of my mother, and her mother, and her mother, and so on. It’s a place of strange beauty that is appreciated in the same way that one appreciates a painting by Edvard Munch; it’s so bizarre, so unreal, so “out there,” that it is beautiful in its total uniqueness. The wetlands of the mouth of the Mississippi and the Gulf coast have for thousands of years been murky with a brackish mix of water from the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain, the Chattaoochee River, and the countless bayous and swamps that make up the vast system, and are home to an incredible diversity of wildlife, both animal and human. It is a precious system that has nurtured its environmental biodiversity over these millennia, and for at least several hundred years, has helped to protect the city of New Orleans and other communities of southern Louisiana as one of the most effective natural defenses against hurricanes anywhere in the world.

My hometown of New Orleans, (which for purposes of this article will be shorthand for all of southern Louisiana) has weathered a number of hurricanes over the modern era, most notably, a direct hit by Hurricane Betsy, a category 5 hurricane with winds clocked at Grand Isle, just off the Louisiana Coast, at 160 miles per hour. The storm surge driven by the hurricane was largely absorbed by the wetlands south of the city before pushing across Lake Pontchartrain, which overflowed its banks and the levees and flooded the city, but water in most places only reached the eaves of the lowest-lying houses, and producing the country’s first Billion Dollar hurricane. As a child living in southern Mississippi at the time, I remember riding out hurricane Betsy, and listening to the freight train-like noise from under my grandmother’s bed, as we wondered aloud to each other about the fate of relatives living lower in her path.

This reference is important because of the comparisons which can be made to the effects of Hurricane Katrina, which pounded southern Louisiana and Mississippi yesterday, and missed directly hitting New Orleans by veering just to the east at the last minute.

The wetlands that have protected the city of New Orleans for hundreds of years just aren’t what they used to be. The effects on real people’s lives of environmental stupidity and greed are right there for anybody to see. The draining of the wetlands since the 1960s, which ignored the recommendations of the Army Corps of Engineers (lengthy and expensive studies paid for by taxpayers) for the building of housing developments, commercial developments, oil and gas exploration, and highways, has had a disastrous environmental impact on the wetlands, even if measured only in the effects on wildlife and shrimping. Take into account now that the storm surge which followed Hurricane Katrina washed right across the now chopped and hacked wetlands, or what used to be the wetlands, into Lake Pontchartrain, which flooded its northern banks, broke through levees and overcame the low-lying city of New Orleans, now virtually defenseless against the fury of even a glancing blow from a category 3 hurricane.

Wrought iron balconies in the French Quarter which had stood since the 1600s have fallen into the street onto parked cars, oak trees in Jackson Square which have stood for hundreds of years in front of St. Luis Cathedral were uprooted and toppled, not to mention the devastation of countless other trees, businesses and houses across the city.

Are we to view this as simply the wrath and fury of Mother Nature or God, which is given us, as mere mortals, to endure? It wasn’t God who drained the wetlands that have protected south Louisiana for thousands of years from the fury of hurricanes past. And it wasn’t God who, in the last session of congress, cut $72.5 million from the budget of the Army Corps of Engineers, earmarked for the study of hurricane preparedness in southern Louisiana. And it certainly isn’t Mother Nature receiving the profits from all the oil and gas exploration which has been allowed time and time again in this environmentally delicate area so crucial to the security of southern Louisiana for hundreds of years.

Add to this the effects of global warming on the severity of Atlantic hurricanes, and you have a recipe for disaster which has only begun to reveal itself. The year 2004 ended as the fourth warmest year since records started being kept in 1861, with 9 of the past 10 years among the warmest on record, according to the national weather service. We know that hurricanes derive their strength and destructive power from warm water as it evaporates and transfers heat into the air. Consider this in light of the severity of the hurricanes we have experienced just in the last 10 years as compared with those for the preceding 50, and a pattern emerges of increasingly stronger and more devastating storms. Now remove the natural defenses of the southern coastal areas, which cost us billions in public and private dollars and human lives, and you get the picture.

The president promises prayer, and Federal disaster relief. If this man actually prays, I can’t imagine why he doesn’t turn to salt. As far as disaster relief, great. We’ll need it. Write some more hot checks to pay for the wages of greed drawn by fat cat oil barons and developers at the expense of one of our most unique and treasured natural landscapes. Somebody else’s children and grandchildren will pay for it long after he’s dead, and hopefully, remembered as the empty suit that he is.

Today, the streets of New Orleans run with brackish water full of sewage and chemicals, and teeming with poisonous water moccasins, fire ants, rats, nutrias and alligators, all looking for someplace to crawl up out of the toxic sludge that washes against the antebellum homes of the rich and poor alike. The legacy of my ancestral homeland has been raped and ravaged, not by nature or by God, but by a bunch of bastards. Short-sightedness, avarice, and corruption in government and big business have destroyed much of what made Louisiana the exotic, funky, beautiful place that it was created to be, and today, I weep for it. God and Mother Nature will not be blamed this time.

3 Comments:

Blogger Patrick Lombardi said...

I weep with you over the loss of your ancestral homeland and for those who must bear the heartbreak left in the wake of Katrina. I share your sorrow, your grief and your anger. PWL

2:58 PM  
Anonymous Rusty Dooley said...

This is so sad. I just found out that my neice's husband (25 years old), who is from Hattiesburg, MS and was called out to Biloxi through the National Guard was electrocuted today during a rescue of someone when he fell into flood waters.

So many people to pray for because of a few people's stupidty.

Thank you John ... your post was right on.

7:11 PM  
Anonymous Marion Avery said...

John

You always go straight to the heart of the matter. This is so very sad.

Love to you both.

Marion

10:05 AM  

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