02 September 2005

A Tragedy in the Deep South

This has been a troublesome week, as Katrina wrecks havoc on the Gulf Coast. Enviros and NeoCons start pointing fingers at each other over whether the severity of this storm has any relation to global warming. Meanwhile, the relief effort seems positively underwhelming and even Newt Gingrich questions the preparedness of our Homeland Security. While the loss of life and livelihoods pales in comparison to December's tsunami, it is still beyond comprehension.

Especially when it hits relatively close to home: my wife's family is from Gulfport, Mississippi, practically the epicenter of Katrina's impact. Her parents met there and were married for 57 years until her father died this past June. We were in Gulfport a couple of months ago for the funeral and burial. Someone told us the cemetery was now under water. All of her family, cousins and aunts and second cousins, are okay, but their homes have either been lost or suffered damage. While others watched their businesses wash out to sea.

The fact is rising water temperatures will lead to more hurricane forming conditions -- hurricanes feed on warm water, it's where they get their strength. But more to the point is the damage may have been lessened had the islands and wetland marshes along the coast survived the onslaught of development and levee construction. As Andrew Revkin and Cornelia Dean wrote in The New York Times this week, the barrier islands are the first line of defense for the coasts, marshes are the second.

"Maybe it's because of all those casinos," a resident of Biloxi said. The casinos and development all along the Gulf Coast has depleted the already degraded wetlands and marshes, which provide coastal protection and natural flood control. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) spoke of the importance of restoring her state's coast to its natural state. Louisiana is losing ground most significantly due to erosion and the diversion of Mississippi River silt from the Delta. Some estimates say the Louisiana Coast has shrunk by an amount equal to the size of Rhode Island since the 30s. And the EPA estimates that the Mississippi Delta Region has lost roughly 95 percent of its floodplain forest.

It's hubris to think that we can continue to build indiscriminately in these areas and that we can simply throw engineering solutions at flood control. It comes down to money and, as David Usborne wrote in The Independent yesterday, "In the battle between dollars and nature, you know who wins."

And once again, who suffers most from environmental degradation and the misuse of natural services? The poor, who can ill afford to lose the protection afforded by nature.

I am not about to pass judgment on anyone involved in the response, this was clearly an unprecedented event of a magnitude that we can only imagine. The logistics, even before victims started shooting at rescue helicopters and each other, were clearly complicated. All we can do is pray for the victims and hope for their recovery.

Yet, I can't help looking at the satellite images of Gulfport, where everything south of the railroad tracks is wiped out, and recalling the images from Aceh Province, Indonesia, and elsewhere of eight months ago. I have to wonder when we will wake up to the real benefits nature provides and stop letting dollars trump it every time.

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Simmons B. Buntin said...

Amen, brother.

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