The next New Orleans

The author who predicted Katrina now forecasts watery catastrophe for New York, Houston and Miami in "The Ravaging Tide."

Published August 14, 2006 11:22AM (EDT)

Mike Tidwell predicted Hurricane Katrina and the catastrophic flooding of New Orleans in his 2003 book "Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast." In his new book, "The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas and the Coming Death of America's Coastal Cities," Tidwell argues that building stronger, higher levees for the ruined city, like devising better evacuation plans, amounts to treating the symptoms instead of the disease. When President Bush tells businesses and residents to return to New Orleans, Tidwell says, it's an act of "mass homicide." The multibillion-dollar plan that would have prevented the tragedy was never implemented before Katrina, and even after the storm the plan languishes.

But Tidwell's new book is about more than the fate of one city. It's a warning about a much bigger disaster looming on the horizon. "The Ravaging Tide" draws a stark parallel between the apathy now gripping the U.S. about climate change, despite all the well-documented signs, to the apathy that gripped pre-Katrina New Orleans. Tidwell argues that the sea-level rise and bigger hurricanes caused by global warming will put many cities -- including New York, Miami and Houston -- at risk of becoming the next New Orleans, ultimately endangering as many as 150 million Americans who live within 100 miles of the coast. Tidwell spoke with Salon via phone from the Maryland office where he directs the nonprofit U.S. Climate Emergency Council.

You argue that New Orleans flooded not because the levees were breached but because the levees held for so many decades. What do you mean by that?

The hurricane levees broke, but the levees on the Mississippi River held, and the levees on the lower Mississippi River have not broken since 1927. It's the taming of the Mississippi River, the three-century policy of preventing the river from flooding, that triggered catastrophic land erosion along the coast that basically created the watery flight path for Katrina to finally ruin the city.

The whole land platform of south Louisiana on which New Orleans rests was created by 7,000 years of Mississippi River flooding, depositing sediments and nutrients flowing down from two-thirds of America. This process of taming the river prevented the natural flooding that created the land and maintained the land's physical integrity over time. So, when that flooding stopped in a major way, especially in the 20th century, the land just subsided. This created 3 feet of relative sea-level rise over the course of the 20th century. About 2 feet of it was from subsidence, and about a foot of it was from global warming.

And it's that 3 feet right there that explains Katrina. Not levees. Not insufficient bottled water for evacuees. It's 3 feet of relative sea-level rise, followed by a gigantic storm. If you just got the 3 feet of relative sea-level rise, you'd have the inconvenience of disappearing wetlands, and impacts on fisheries, and drinking water turning salty, but presumably people could adapt. People wouldn't die as a result of just the land disappearing. But when the land disappears because of 3 feet of relative sea-level rise, [and that's] followed by a gigantic storm, then you have a catastrophe. And it's those two elements that are being replicated throughout the U.S. Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

Because of global warming?

In Louisiana it was 3 feet of relative sea-level rise. Everywhere else it's 3 feet of absolute sea-level rise. That's because of global warming. You'll have the same repositioning of the relationship between land and water, and you'll have the same ferocious hurricanes, all because of global warming. Even the Bush administration is on record saying that because of climate change we will see between 1 to 3 feet of sea-level rise in the 21st century, and we also know that hurricanes are becoming more ferocious. And again, these are the two conditions that destroyed New Orleans.

You write that the president telling people to return to New Orleans now is an act of "mass homicide," like sending civilians into the path of a tsunami. Why is that?

The president and all the offices of the federal government combined have done nothing at all to treat the disease that killed New Orleans. They've haphazardly tried to treat the symptoms, to improve the hurricane levees, to create better evacuation plans, to have more supplies pre-positioned for subsequent hurricanes. These are all symptoms. The disease in south Louisiana has been catastrophic land loss, and there's been a plan that's been on the table to reverse that land loss, since the '90s. And for reasons that are truly inexplicable, this government refuses to invest any real money into that plan.

Therefore, if you tell people to go back and you tell them to repair their homes and re-enroll their children in schools in New Orleans, and you've done nothing to treat the disease, then the cancer is going to return. New Orleans is still catastrophically vulnerable to another Katrina. Nothing substantive has been done to protect the city from another record surge tide. The only thing that can protect that city from mammoth surge tides from future hurricanes is to rebuild the land that has been lost. There's a plan on the table, and it's not expensive, certainly not compared to other ways that we spend money. Fourteen billion dollars to substantively rebuild barrier islands and begin rebuilding wetlands is about the cost of six weeks of fighting in Iraq, or the cost of the Big Dig in Boston.

Who is really to blame for the destruction of New Orleans if this has been on the table since the '90s?

There's lots of blame to go around. The leaders of Louisiana have been very, very slow to wake up to this issue. The Clinton administration did not come forward with the proper federal assistance in the 1990s. The Louisiana delegation to Congress did not make this a strong enough priority on Capitol Hill. The Bush administration, beginning in 2001, completely ignored the issue, even though they were hearing more and more about it from Republican Governor Mike Foster, and then from Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco in her first year, prior to Katrina. She made it clear to the president that this was a big issue. The Army Corps of Engineers failed the people of south Louisiana with improperly constructed and insufficiently maintained levees.

The people of Louisiana themselves have to take some of the responsibility. Many of them were fully aware that a Katrina was coming. They'd seen the land loss with their own eyes over the decades, and yet the sort of grassroots rebellion that was needed to force politicians to act never emerged. Part of that is, the culture in south Louisiana runs counter to political organizing. The joke is, it's hard to get 10 Cajun shrimpers to agree on what day of the week it is, much less to agree on a political action plan.

It's a tragic drama with a cast of millions who finally share some degree of blame.

Basically, you think that the city shouldn't be rebuilt without this kind of restoration of the barrier islands and the wetlands?

I think that rebuilding the city without simultaneously addressing the issue of barrier islands and wetland restoration is a recipe for continued disaster. It's irresponsible, it's irrational and it's tragic.

New Orleans needs three things: It needs a comprehensive upgrade to its entire hurricane levee system. That is starting to happen. It's not happening fast enough, and they're not committing to levees high enough, but it's starting to happen. New Orleans does need better hurricane levees. It also needs coastal land restoration. That's number two. And number three, just as important as the first two, if the city is to be a viable metropolitan area in the 21st century, New Orleans needs an end to global warming.

New Orleans needs the rest of the world to take action on energy consumption in a way that stabilizes the global climate. If that third element doesn't happen in concert with the first two, then the first two will be insufficient to save the city. You can revamp the hurricane levee system, you can rebuild the barrier islands and the wetlands, but if we get 3 feet of sea-level rise from global warming in the 21st century, and hurricanes continue to become more ferocious and more numerous and longer lasting, then New Orleans is a doomed city.

There are a number of cities, like New York, Miami, Tampa, Houston, Baltimore, that you say could be the next New Orleans. Why are they at risk?

Miami is appallingly vulnerable to the New Orleans model of disaster. Much of the city is at or below 3 feet above sea level. It's also dependent on land barriers to its south and to its west that will not exist with 3 feet of sea-level rise. Most of the Everglades will disappear with 3 feet of sea-level rise. Miami will either be abandoned or it will live behind levees. It will have its own great bowl like New Orleans 25, 50, 75 years from now, because of global warming. And that's just from sea-level rise. Of course, you add on top of that more intense hurricanes, more frequent major hurricanes, and you see why Miami will begin to look a lot like New Orleans. A third of all the hurricanes that strike the United States strike Florida. Miami is in the middle of this giant pinball machine of hurricanes. All one has to do is look at New Orleans for a foretaste of what's to come for that city.

New York City is a special case. Significantly fewer hurricanes travel that far north and strike land, because of various climatic features. But ... roughly every 40 to 70 years a big hurricane hits New York, or comes close. New York is a geographical time bomb when it comes to potential hurricane catastrophe.

Much of Manhattan, but especially Lower Manhattan, is right at sea level. Additionally, because New York harbor is like a funnel, surge that enters the harbor has nowhere to go. It's going to go up the Hudson River. It's going to go up the East River. There's nowhere to spread out. These are narrow river valleys, and there's nowhere to go but up. So, the water gets funneled into New York harbor, it goes into the rivers, accelerates its speed, elevates in height, and suddenly you've got some of the highest storm-surge values in America.

You could easily see JFK under 20 feet of water from a major hurricane. Lower Manhattan disappears, including the site of the 9/11 Memorial. You have really fantastically high surge-tide values there. Just sea-level rise will cause big problems, especially for Lower Manhattan, and then with more intense hurricanes you're likely to see at some point a catastrophic event where surge tides are a really big threat.

Beyond coastal cities, you claim that all 150 million Americans who live within 100 miles of a coastline are in danger. How so?

Again look at south Louisiana. The whole state of Louisiana has been affected by Katrina and Rita, but especially Katrina. You had the problem of evacuees. You had state services that were so great that it bankrupted the state treasury. You've got the psychological trauma of these evacuees coming hundreds of miles inland and requiring services of local schools, just the wrenching effects throughout the broader coastal areas from a catastrophe of this size. It's not just if you have a house on the beach.

You call the denial that existed in New Orleans before Katrina about the city's watery fate a kind of "mass psychosis." How does American apathy about global warming compare to the apathy about the risks to New Orleans before Katrina?

They're very, very similar. There is the natural tendency to deny anything that is inconvenient, as Al Gore says.

In south Louisiana, the denial that the land loss was going to cause problems made catastrophe inevitable. Even though people had been through hurricanes, nobody had been through a hurricane like Katrina. When we have to address a threat that's beyond our lifelong experience, we're not that good at doing it. We basically are evolved to respond to claws and fangs in our face, not to a change in atmosphere that could reach a level in 10 or 25 years that will make us hungry. We didn't evolve to respond to those kinds of threats.

How can you be optimistic that we'll behave any differently when it comes to global warming then we did with New Orleans?

Well, I can't say that I am optimistic that we're going to behave any differently. Certainly, the evidence so far is that we're going to behave exactly the way people in south Louisiana did prior to Katrina. Even though people were starting to see this threat emerge, times were good. People were making money in the fisheries and tourism. It's the same now in terms of our global economy and national economy. We see the warning signs, we have people saying there's a problem, but basically the economy is roaring along. Everything seems OK, and that further accommodates our instinctive desire to deny the problem.

I want to believe that we can learn a lesson from Katrina. The other factors that might help us in our tortured relationship with global warming is that we are running out of oil, which is the chief driver of global warming. Our addiction to oil is a huge national security nightmare. I probably have more optimism that we'll do the right thing and switch to clean renewable energy faster as a result of our national security vulnerabilities than we will from global warming.

Looking at this coming hurricane season, what do you expect?

So far it's been a lot quieter than last year. NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] just announced that they were revising down their earlier predictions for the number of tropical storms and hurricanes for this season. But they're still expecting a higher than normal number of total storms and a higher than normal number of major hurricanes. Going by their forecasts, and my own knowledge of recent hurricane history, I think that it's very likely that America will experience another appalling hurricane event this year. Where and when, I don't know.

But the waters in the Atlantic and the Gulf are above normal in terms of temperature. The first six months of 2006 were the warmest on record since human record keeping began worldwide. All the trends are more heat, more water, warmer water, warmer atmosphere, and we know where all this leads.

Three of the six most powerful hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic basin over 150 years of record keeping happened in 52 days last year. In 2005, there were 27 named storms in one season, which beat the previous record from 1933, which was 21. Never before had 14 full-blown hurricanes formed in a single season. The old record was 12 in 1969. It just goes on and on and on. And that could be the new normal, maybe not this year, but on average.

Up in the Arctic, people have no words for the wasps and the barn owls and all these other species that are showing up because of global warming. They've just never seen them before. They have no words in their language for these species. The same way for the 2005 hurricane season, we really don't have any way to describe it and make sense of it. It's so anomalous and so far outside our experience that Americans really haven't come to terms with what happened in 2005. We have no word for it. It was as foreign to us as a barn owl in the Arctic Circle is to an Inuit hunter.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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