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New Orleans: A Strategic Retreat?

New Orleans: A Strategic Retreat?

I lived in New Orleans in 1965-66 during my civil rights era and have returned several times, both before and after Hurricane Katrina. The city has charm, history, good music, and delicious food. Parts of it are also under sea level and increasingly vulnerable to flooding as climate change raises sea levels and large hurricanes become more frequent. Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 flooded low-lying areas, particularly in the Ninth Ward, which was and is heavily African-American and poor. New Orleans has a long history of floods, and I was there during a 1965 hurricane which threatened damages like Katrina, but without Katrina’s follow through.

The Katrina damage was so severe, and the city’s resulting population decline so large, that a panel commissioned by then-Mayor Ray Nagin suggested that large areas be converted into green space instead of trying to rebuild. There was a political outcry and the recommendation was rejected, only to have much of the Ninth Ward turn into jungle as people stayed away and and nature took over. The story is covered in the NewYork Times Magazine’s cover article, “Jungleland,” of March 25, 2012.

We are faced with the reality that average sea levels have increased seven inches in the last century, and the world is on a path to higher waters as polar ice melts and sea water expands as it warms. Likely changes ahead were summarized in the 2009 report of the United States Global Change Research Program, a coordinated program among federal agencies mandated under the Global Change Research Act of 1990. Among the 2009 report’s key findings:

1. Global warming is unequivocal and primarily human-induced.
Global temperature has increased over the past 50 years. This observed increase is due primarily to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases.

6. Coastal areas are at increasing risk from sea-level rise and storm surge.
Sea-level rise and storm surge place many U.S. coastal areas at increasing risk of erosion and flooding, especially along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts,
Pacific Islands, and parts of Alaska. Energy and transportation infrastructure and other property in coastal areas are very likely to be adversely affected.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  issued a 594-page report written by a small army of scientists, yet understandable. The report devotes attention to topics such as “Extreme Sea Levels” and confirms that coastal areas are threatened by rising seas and by frequent and powerful storms. The report gives a formula for evaluating disaster “risk” that I like:  “In its simplest form, probabilistic risk analysis defines risk as the product of the probability that some event (or sequence) will occur and the adverse consequences of that event.  Or in mathematical form, Risk = Probability x Consequence.

“For instance, the risk a community faces from flooding from a nearby river might be calculated based on the likelihood that the river floods the town, inflicting casualties among inhabitants and disrupting the community’s economic livelihood. This likelihood is multiplied by the value people place on those casualties and economic disruption. All three factors – hazard, exposure, and vulnerability – contribute to ‘consequences.’ Hazard and vulnerability can both contribute to the ‘probability’: the former to the likelihood of the physical event (e.g., the river flooding the town) and the latter to the likelihood of the consequence resulting from the event (e.g., casualties and economic disruption).”

Within that framework, the political issue is whether society’s limited resources should be committed to protecting areas, such as New Orleans, where there are high “risks” that floods will overwhelm affordable barriers. We should make strategic retreats from rising waters, much as we don’t build near volcanos that are likely to erupt. Mayor Nagin’s commission was right; the areas destroyed by Katrina should have been deliberately returned to nature. Public monies could have been used to relocate the flooded-out Ninth Ward residents, rather than trying to rebuild their neighborhood behind larger levees.

True, New Orleans has came back from hurricanes before Katrina, but climate change makes catastrophic flooding ever more likely, and it would be wise to move people out of harm’s way rather than trying to cap the volcano. More selfishly, as a taxpayer, I am unhappy with tax monies going for flood control projects which benefit relatively few people, like those designed to protect tourist beaches, or which are destined to fail, like affordable levees in a sinking New Orleans which are pitted against rising seas and bigger storms.


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