A Perfect Storm: The Submerged Cities at the Nexus of Climate Change, Political Ideology, and Coastal Development

In October of 2004, National Geographic published an article by Joel K. Bourne, Jr. entitled Gone With The Water that warned what would happen should a hurricane hit New Orleans.

Hurricane_Katrina_August_28_2005_NASA

The storm hit Breton Sound with the fury of a nuclear warhead, pushing a deadly storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain. The water crept to the top of the massive berm that holds back the lake and then spilled over. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level—more than eight feet below in places—so the water poured in. A liquid brown wall washed over the brick ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over the white-columned porches of the Garden District, until it raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet (eight meters) over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it. Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.

This apocalyptic prophesy wasn’t far off the mark, except (THANKFULLY) for the body count. When the monster storm Hurricane Katrina hit NOLA in 2005:

at least 1,245 people died in the hurricane and subsequent floods … Total property damage was estimated at $108 billion … The storm caused severe destruction along the Gulf coast from central Florida to Texas, much of it due to the storm surge and levee failure … Over fifty breaches in New Orleans‘s hurricane surge protection were the cause of the majority of the death and destruction during Katrina on August 29, 2005. Eventually 80% of the city and large tracts of neighboring parishes became flooded, and the floodwaters lingered for weeks.

Part of the massive damage was because humans keep thinking they can outsmart mother nature and do stupid things before understanding the consequences. As Bourne’s article explained:

Delta soils naturally compact and sink over time, eventually giving way to open water unless fresh layers of sediment offset the subsidence. The Mississippi’s spring floods once maintained that balance, but the annual deluges were often disastrous. After a devastating flood in 1927, levees were raised along the river and lined with concrete, effectively funneling the marsh-building sediments to the deep waters of the Gulf. Since the 1950s engineers have also cut more than 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers) of canals through the marsh for petroleum exploration and ship traffic. These new ditches sliced the wetlands into a giant jigsaw puzzle, increasing erosion and allowing lethal doses of salt water to infiltrate brackish and freshwater marshes.

New_Orleans_Elevations

We’ve been constructing artificial levees to build houses in NOLA since the 1700s, and the damn things have caused the ENTIRE CITY to sink to below sea level.

nola-sealevel-map

Furthermore, the barrier islands off the Gulf of Mexico coastal states were eroding so fast it was practically detectible to the human eye. A report in 1989 warned that the barrier islands needed help or there would be flooding in urban areas and massive loss of wildlife, but no one cared enough to FUND helping the barrier islands. Not on a state level, and not on a federal level either. Neither the first Bush administration or the Clinton administration stepped up to help.

coastal-erosion-usgs

In 2003 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, perhaps to make up for past sins, worked with scientists “to forge a radical plan to protect what’s left”. This plan, called the Louisiana Coastal Area (LCA) project, was going to cost “up to 14 billion dollars over 30 years”. So of COURSE the second Bush Administration, yet another in a long line of post-Reagan noodle-heads determined to not let the government pay for anything but war so that billionaires can avoid being taxed, didn’t want to fund it.

But the good news is a billionaire was able to add an EXTRA billion to his bank account by avoiding taxation! So YAY!

KatrinaNewOrleansFlooded

Then Katrina hit in 2005, and people died when a government funded restoration of wetlands could have saved them. People – mostly poor people – freaking DIED so billionaires could stay a wee bit richer.

Katrina aftermath

Things are made worse by the fact that the siren song of lucre meant that MORE swamp lands, with the tough marsh plant life which would absorb the impact of a hurricane and keep it from decimating places like NOLA and Houston, were being drained every single year to build more cheaply constructed houses. This is so dumb it isn’t even funny. The National Wildlife Federation has been screaming about this for DECADES. In 1998 they warned that enough damage had been done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ “nationwide permit program set up in 1977 to provide developers and other potential wetland fillers with quick responses” and that Nationwide Permit 26, which “allowed for the filling of as many as 10 acres of wetlands under certain circumstances” was the “cause of more than half of all wetlands destruction every year in this country.” The treehuggers – and the treehugging lawyers – threw such a massive fit that the Corps agreed to phase out the permit 26 by the year 2000. But the Corps wouldn’t budge on Nationwide Permit 29. Put into play in 1995, the permit “gives expedited approval for filling as much as one-half acre of wetlands for construction of single-family homes and such attendant features as septic systems or pools.”

The wetlands have been nibbled into near extinction to make developers rich.

wetland encroachment

Houston is one of the places that has taken the most advantage of both the lax Army Corp of Engineer rules and the hard-right Texan creed of ‘death before regulations’. A newspaper article from January 2005 warned that wetlands were “vanishing from the Houston region faster than from any other urban area in the nation. A new study found that 13 percent of inland, freshwater wetlands in Harris County were filled or drained over the past decade and the vast majority were lost since 2000. If the development continues, most of the region’s freshwater marshlands could disappear in 20 years.” It is now 2017, and thanks to absent wetlands and Hurricane Harvey, Houston is underwater. Christ alone knows how the city will rebuild. NOLA is still in tatters and it’s been 12 years since Katrina.

NOLA recovery slow

Denying climate change and pretending these disasters aren’t going to be chewing up the North American coast for the foreseeable future isn’t helping things either.

We’ve been warned what will happen since the 1990s and we didn’t do enough to stop it. This hell will be the new ‘normal’ and we’d better start preparing for it. We also need to stop dumping so much CO2 from fossil fuels into the air. But, no. In order to support Big Oil who are Big Donors who also own Big Chunks of media, politicians and many conservatives are convinced stopping global warming is a commie, liberal plot to destroy capitalism and they’ll have none of it.

Alas, they aren’t the only ones who will suffer for their stupidity.

Causes of Sea Level Rise: What the Science Tells Us

Another reason why hurricanes can do massive damage to costal cities and kill Americans is governmental ineptitude.

The governmental response to Katrina was complete shitshow on both a state and federal level.

Louisiana is a poor state, and didn’t have the wherewithal to save itself. That is where the federal government was supposed to step in. However, the federal government was being dismantled by the post-Reagan GOP, who thinks all government ‘interference’ is axiomatically bad. None of that evil socialism for them! So the same Americans who had voted George W Bush into office were the same ones who were now “aghast at the bumbling response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) … Liberals argued that Katrina showed why, as James Galbraith, a vocal leftist economist at the University of Texas, put it, the “government of the United States must be big, demanding, ambitious and expensive.” A Wall Street Journal column, in contrast, argued that the hurricane showed the danger of relying too heavily on inefficient government.”

cartoon katrina

Hurricane Sandy proved that the liberals were right. Although President Obama was a moderate centrist who only edged back toward liberal in his second term, he was always Democrat enough to understand the purpose of government was to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” as laid out in the US Constitution. Thus, the feds worked with the states to brace for Hurricane Sandy, to keep people as safe as humanly possible, and to repair the damage.

Hurricane Sandy demonstrated a strong government response, properly funded, saved lives in the event of a natural disaster. An evaluation by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that although there were still things needed to be done, like building decent infrastructure, all in all the Obama administration did an good job both minimizing the impact of the hurricane and helping the recovery after.

President Barack Obama receives an update on the ongoing response to Hurricane Sandy  at the National Response Coordination Center at FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C., Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and Richard Serino, FEMA Deputy Administrator, are seated next to the President. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Was it perfect? God, no. But it was excellent compared to the response to Katrina and not bad at all considering that in the two years running up to Sandy the Congressional Republicans pushed through a whopping 43% cut in FEMA grants, while arguing the country needed to move disaster relief back to the states, where they think it belongs. FEMA is just another sign of that big, bloated Federal government that we should all hate.

Now that Houston is under water due to rainfall accompanying Hurricane Harvey, Texans are discovering that a competent FEMA is a really good idea. Fortunately, most of the Obama administrations changes to FEMA are still working. FEMA and the Coast Guard (both who will have finding cut yet again by Republicans) are doing an excellent job. It helps that the USA is still functioning under Obama’s last budget, which is in effect until 1 October 2017. The budget that Trump is threatening to shut down if Congress won’t fund his Wall between the USA and Mexico.

FEMA in Houston

Speaking of Mexico – it has offered to send aid, like it did during Katrina, but so far Trump hasn’t taken them up on it. Trump needs Mexicans to remain ‘The Enemy’ in the minds of his racist voting base and if that means some Americans die in the flooding or go hungry, so be it.

In contrast, President Bush was grateful for the help, and displayed his gratitude warmly. Trump has managed to make Bush’s response to Katrina look good. Wow.

2005_09_13_KATRINA_NewOrleansLA_Bush with Mexican Army

Trump is parading around taking credit for the FEMA response in Houston, of course, but his contributions have been weak at best. While Mike Pence did the President’s job, Trump was bleating on Twitter about a NAFTA, his magic Wall between the US and Mexico, and shilling Sheriff David Clarke’s book. Trump has also finally bothered to GO to Texas, where he has discovered it is a “a very expensive situation”. He’s promised to see what he can do about getting Texas some disaster relief.

houston harvey

I wouldn’t hold you breath for Trump’s help, Texas. After Hurricane Matthew hit North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) requested $929 million in federal aid through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program, and he was left to reel in “shock and disappointment’’ when the Trump administration “denied more than 99 percent of the aid Cooper sought, providing the state a mere $6.1 million.”

hurricane-matthew-north-carolina

Even worse for Texans, if they don’t file their insurance claims by 1 September – This FRIDAY –  then a new state law, House Bill 1774, will take effect and reduce the amount of penalty interest insurance companies have to pay customers they’ve screwed over with slow payments or denied claims “from 18% to about 10%”.

hurricane-harvey-nursing-home

Meanwhile, the same Republicans that voted against Federal aid to victims of Sandy, such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), are desperate for help and are begging the the same evil, bloated monster of the Federal Government that they despise for money. Happily, it looks like Congress is going to give it to them, because it would be a complete dick move to withhold funds from people who are hurting just because they voted for jerks. As Rep. Pete King, (R-NY) said, “as badly as I feel toward Ted Cruz, and what a hypocrite he is, I’m not going to take it out on the people of Texas.”

harvey houston evacuate

I will bet you cold, hard cash that no one learns anything from this. Developers will continue to decimate wetlands for housing, the GOP will keep denying Climate Change and trying to slash federal spending, and Southern costal states will keep voting for the same politicians that will leave them up the creek with no paddle the next time disaster strikes.

It’s depressing.

2 thoughts on “A Perfect Storm: The Submerged Cities at the Nexus of Climate Change, Political Ideology, and Coastal Development


  1. The share options included things I know not, but none of them enabled me to email it.


    1. Hmmm … they should have. Let me check with my technical support … i.e. my hubby in charge of this stuff.

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