Elizabeth Kolbert, a writer for the New Yorker, who also wrote a series of articles – Climate of Man – about climate change. Wrote a fairly grim article Watermark: can southern Louisiana be saved, in the Feb 27, 2006 New Yorker. She writes about geology, wetland loss, climate change, and people of New Orleans.
Five thousand years ago, much of southern Louisiana did not exist. A hundred years from now, it is unclear how much of it will remain. The region, it is often observed, is losing land at the rate of a football field every thirty-eight minutes. Alternatively, it is said, the area is shrinking by a large desktop’s worth of ground every second, or a tennis court’s worth every thirteen seconds, or twenty-five square miles a year. Between 1930 and 2000, some 1.2 million acres, an area roughly the size of Delaware, disappeared. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita stripped away an estimated seventy-five thousand acres—a loss as big as Manhattan and Brooklyn combined. The U.S. Geological Survey has published a map illustrating the process. Areas that have already vanished appear in red, and areas that are expected to vanish by 2050 in yellow. On the map, the southern coast looks as if it were on fire. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, “The rate at which Louisiana’s land is converting to water is probably the fastest in the world. [here is an animated map]
Thomas J. Campanella, the co-editor The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover From Disaster (Oxford University Press, 2005), a professor of urban design and city planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a visiting lecturer at Nanjing University’s Graduate School of Architecture, wrote about the resilience of cities and New Orleans in Sept 2005 on the urban planning website Planetizen:
Lost cities are in fact a relative historical rarity. True, Atlantis remains unfound, let alone rebuilt. Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried permanently beneath the hot ejecta of Vesuvius in 79AD. Timgad was sacked by both the Vandals and the Berbers and lost to history until archeologists uncovered it in the 1880s. Monte Albán, on the heights above the modern Mexican city of Oaxaca, flourished for 2,000 years before the Spanish crushed it for all time. But these are the exceptions. Much more common in the annals of urban history are cities that have rebounded again and again from even horrific devastation. The Romans leveled Carthage after the Third Punic War, salting it for good measure. But it was the Romans themselves who later resurrected the port city and turned it into an administrative hub for their African possessions; even today Carthage persists as a suburb of Tunis. By about 1800, urban resilience becomes the rule. No major city in the last 200-odd years has been completely destroyed, in spite of humankind’s ever-increasing power to do so. There are only a handful of exceptions; St. Pierre, Martinique — the “Paris of the Antilles” — was annihilated by a volcanic eruption in 1902 and never rebuilt. Only one man survived, and only because he was locked in solitary confinement. But for every St. Pierre, there are a hundred cities that bounced right back from catastrophic destruction.
The subject of urban resilience is one I explored with Lawrence J. Vale in an anthology entitled The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover From Disaster (Oxford, 2005). Our comparative study revealed no short answers as to why urban sites in the modern age are rarely abandoned (factors such as embedded infrastructure, private property rights and insurance, even the political symbolism of reconstruction for a nation have all played a role). Our study did yield, however, a number of key points and common themes about both disasters and urban resilience, many of which have gained new relevance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. For one, cities vary enormously in their resilience. Just as some people can fend off a traumatic illness while others succumb, not all cities are equally capable of rebounding from a shock to the system.
Richard Sparks writes about the ecological/geological context in which New Orleans exists, how people have changed them, and what rebuilders should consider. His article is Rethinking, Then Rebuilding New Orleans, in the Winter 2006 Issues in Science and Technology.
His article focusses on the natural forces that have shaped the Mississippi and how humans have shaped those forces. One of the most interesting points he raises is how land cover change, and river management have radically changed the sediment load of the Mississippi, shifting the balance between land building and subsidence in the delta. In other words flood protection higher in the river has made lower portions of the river more vulnerable to flooding.
Figure: The sediment loads carried by the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico have decreased by half since 1700, so less sediment is available to build up the Delta and counteract subsidence and sea level rise. The greatest decrease occurred after 1950, when large reservoirs constructed trapped most of the sediment entering them. Part of the water and sediment from the Mississippi River below Vicksburg is now diverted through the Corps of Engineers’ Old River Outflow Channel and the Atchafalaya River. Without the controlling works, the Mississippi would have shifted most of its water and sediment from its present course to the Atchafalaya, as part of the natural delta switching process. The widths of the rivers in the diagram are proportional to the estimated (1700) or measured (1980–1990) suspended sediment loads (in millions of metric tons per year).
The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article by David Glennn on Sociology and Hurricane Katrina Disaster Sociologists Study What Went Wrong in the Response to the Hurricanes, but Will Policy Makers Listen?
The article discusses what disaster sociology has to say about the disaster in New Orleans. The article makes a number of good points about panic, command and control, and managing uncertainty.
The article starts up with a discussion of the panic myth:
One of the central tenets of disaster sociology is that most communities can, to a large degree, spontaneously heal themselves. People affected by disaster obviously often need resources from the outside world — food, water, shelter. But that does not mean that disaster victims also need outside direction and coordination, most scholars in the field say.
A prime example of spontaneous cooperation was the extraordinarily successful evacuation of Lower Manhattan during the September 11 attacks. James M. Kendra, an assistant professor of emergency administration and planning at the University of North Texas, estimates that nearly half a million people fled Manhattan on boats — and he emphasizes that the waterborne evacuation was a self-organized volunteer process that could probably never have been planned on a government official’s clipboard.
“Various kinds of private companies, dinner-cruise boats, people with their own personal watercraft, the Coast Guard, the harbor pilots — in very short order, they managed to organize this evacuation,” Mr. Kendra said.
The evacuation in New Orleans, of course, was not so smooth. Disaster sociologists say that they are eager to determine how much chaos and looting actually occurred there, and how much was conjured through rumor and news-media exaggeration.
On Sept 2 I posted about an article Dreaming a New New Orleans.
In another post on WorldChanging Alan AtKisson follows up in A New New Orleans – Issues, Leverage Points, Scenarios
From A New New Orleans – Issues, Leverage Points, Scenarios:
Another tool for producing best-possible outcomes is scenario planning: imagining several likely future-history pathways, starting from present conditions. In a short brainstorming session, at an international conference on regional sustainability held in central Hungary, an informal workshop group produced several possible scenarios for what New Orleans could become. Three of these scenarios are named after the Dutch cities they most resemble — appropriate, given the city’s position at the end of a major river, under sea level — and they roughly correspond with some scenarios floated by other US commentators (which I had heard about largely through conversation with a BusinessWeek editor reporting on the story).
On the Sustainability weblog WorldChanging, Alan AtKisson writes about rebuilding New Orleans –Dreaming A New New Orleans, Version 1.
He sees the possibility of a future New Orleans that combines elements of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Scenarios TechnoGarden and Global Orchestration, by using technological innovation to ‘green’ the city, ecological engineering to produce a safe livable city , and poverty alleviation to produce a fair and open city. He envisons how these things can combine to noursh a vibrant distinctive creative city.
AtKisson writes based upon his experience with a regional vitalization process in New Orleans:
What follows are very preliminary thoughts on principles for eventually creating a “New New Orleans,” one that is more environmentally secure, more economically successful, and more socially healthy and equitable, while retaining the culture that made it world famous. As the news reports continue to create a picture of the city’s horrible descent into hell, such an exercise feels a bit foolhardy; but there is so much dreaming to be done, to restore this great and wondrous city, that the dreaming must begin now.
Beginning in 2001, my firm was engaged by a consortium of regional leaders in New Orleans to help them design and launch an ambitious regional initiative, called Top 10 by 2010. … this extraordinary group worked together for a year and a half to craft a new foundation for regional progress. It was just in the process of re-forming and assessing progress so far when Katrina struck.