Place, Money, And Common Sense
Should we rebuild areas that keep getting devastated by hurricanes? From the NYT, this account of the vast gobs of cash that keep going into rebuilding Dauphin Island, off the Mississippi-Alabama coast:
Tax money will go toward putting things back as they were, essentially duplicating the vulnerability that existed before the hurricane.
“We’re Americans, damn it,” said Robert S. Young, a North Carolina geologist who has studied the way communities like Dauphin Island respond to storms. “Retreat is a dirty word.”
This island community of roughly 1,300 year-round residents has become a symbol of that reflexive policy.
Like many other beachfront towns, Dauphin Island has benefited from the Stafford Act, a federal law that taps the United States Treasury for 75 percent or more of the cost of fixing storm-damaged infrastructure, like roads and utilities.
At least $80 million, adjusted for inflation, has gone into patching up this one island since 1979 — more than $60,000 for every permanent resident. That does not include payments of $72 million to homeowners from the highly subsidized federal flood insurance program.
Lately, scientists, budget-conscious lawmakers and advocacy groups across the political spectrum have argued that these subsidies waste money, put lives at risk and make no sense in an era of changing climate and rising seas.
This piece reminded me of a conversation I had with one of the guys I went offshore fishing with a couple of weeks ago. Everybody knows about the vulnerability of New Orleans to flood water during hurricanes, and how that has gotten dramatically worse thanks to coastal erosion. There’s nothing quite like going down to Plaquemines Parish to see with your own eyes how vulnerable that part of the state is. Driving down the main highway linking lower Plaquemines with suburban New Orleans, a fisherman told me, “This whole area was 20 feet under during Katrina.”
Another friend — and sometimes commenter on this blog — who grew up in lower Plaquemines told me that most of what I saw along the road to the coastal fishing village is post-Katrina construction. The storm took nearly everything.
In the boat ride back from our offshore fishing grounds, one of our group mused about what would happen to New Orleans in this century, given its vulnerability. This “60 Minutes” segment from 2005 tells the tale. And look at this fantastic 2008 Times-Picayune series on what New Orleans and southeastern Louisiana face. Excerpt:
Climate scientists recording those results think they add up to something huge. The gauge, they say, may be quietly writing one of the first big stories in the age of global warming: the obituary for much of southeast Louisiana.
In 50 to 100 years, the numbers tell them, rising seas caused by global warming, combined with the steady subsidence of Louisiana’s coast, will lift the Gulf of Mexico two to six feet higher in many areas surrounding New Orleans.
Such a rise would overwhelm the most ambitious coastal restoration plans now under way and submerge almost everything in southeast Louisiana outside hurricane levees. And that means the areas inside the levees essentially would become coastline, far more vulnerable to hurricanes and continuing coastal erosion, and in need of a far more drastic and expensive flood protection apparatus.
“The delta of the Mississippi River is the most vulnerable location in the nation to global warming, because it is sinking at the same time sea level is rising, ” said Virginia Burkett, a senior researcher at the National Wetlands Research Center in Lafayette and one of the nation’s foremost experts on climate change. “And it’s only going to get worse.
“This area is facing big trouble from climate change. I think there’s consensus on that point.”
It’s possible to create a sustainable coast, said Denise Reed, a professor of geology and geophysics at the University of New Orleans. But it will require endless reserves of cash and political will to construct — and perpetually maintain — radical engineering projects such as changing the course of the Mississippi River to harness its sediment in rebuilding the marsh.
If scientists are right, by century’s end, New Orleans will be an island inside a bowl below sea level. How sustainable is that? Not very, it seems to me. But the alternative is more or less to abandon New Orleans. How morally offensive is that? Quite, it seems to me.
It’s not only New Orleans, of course. Think of Dauphin Island. Think of certain Jersey Shore places, in Sandy’s wake. New York City is so economically critical that it makes sense to spend tens of billions to defend it from rare flooding. But New Orleans? Dauphin Island? Places like that?
How do we talk about this? Who makes the decision to tell Dauphin Islanders, or people from Port Fourchon, La., that they’re on their own. Who makes the decision in, say, 2050, to tell New Orleanians the same thing?
I have no answers, and I am well aware that I pose this question from my back porch, here on high ground, 150 miles from the Gulf coast. It’s not my land and my town that’s at risk. Still, if scientists are correct, my grandchildren will live to see this town of mine, which is well inland, become more or less a coastal village, with the Gulf of Mexico only 80 miles away, or less. As uncomfortable as the discussion makes us, it’s a discussion we’re going to have to have one of these days.