Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Cost of Inaction: Mississippi Delta

Have you been hearing about the U.S. national debt recently?  $14.0 trillion, or about $45,000 for every man, woman and child in the country.  Sounds bad, right?  But for perspective, the OECD study which I cited the week before Christmas tabulated the cost of sea level rise in the 21st century on just three U.S. cities – Miami, New York and New Orleans – at $6.6 trillion.

That’s right:  If every single American kicks in a mere $20,000, we’ll be able to pay for the damage to three U.S. cities – not four, five or fifty – but only three, caused by the effects of climatic sea level rise.

To read the report, click here:

Rising seas claimed a truck on the bayou.
I am writing today from New Orleans, one of those three cities, and Ground Zero for the impact of climate change in the U.S.  Yesterday, we took a long trip to the outer edge of the Mississippi Delta, to a barrier island called Grand Isle.  The bayou was beautiful, as were the fishing trawlers in evidence everywhere.  And yet, on this calm, sunny day, the water’s edge lapped gently just below  the roadside.  As we made our way south, we began to see barriers along the road to hold back the swampy waters. Old houses (the few remaining) were built on the ground, while new ones were perched on top of what looked like telephone poles.  The old road disappeared now and then into the water, with towering elevated roads – essentially endless bridges – rising overhead.

At last we reached Grand Isle on the Gulf of Mexico.  To our newcomers’ eyes, it looked like something out of a sci-fi movie.  Entire clusters of houses and shops were built 10-12 feet off the ground, with a virtual forest of sturdy poles holding them aloft.  You could see hundreds of yards around you under the structures.

Living aloft: Park your car under the house!
But as high as they were, they weren’t high enough to give their occupants a view of the Gulf beaches.  These were hidden behind newly-built levies, constructed after Katrina to hold back the rising seas.  The efforts to defend the land didn’t stop there:  Just offshore was the Maginot Line of sea level defenses, a series of concrete rubble breakwaters stretching like a perforated seam to the horizon, a defensive line to break the waves.

Your tax dollars at work.
Does it stand a chance of holding?  Nope.  The locals told us that the entire levy washed away three years after Katrina, when Hurricane Gustav hit.  But the good folks at the Army Corps of Engineers came right back and rebuilt it.  Trucks and heavy  equipment were all over the beach during our visit, and no one was allowed near.

We wondered: Who’s paying for all this stuff, and who benefits?  The answers aren’t all that hard.  The Army Corps is an agency of the U.S. Dept. of Defense, and we know that defense spending is ... well, you know.

Unending bridges over the flooded bayou.
Who benefits?  That’s a trickier question than it may sound.  Of course, at one level, the rich people who have their vacation homes and yachts out there benefit the most.  But some will argue that the bayou benefits from coastal engineering to “save” the barrier islands from the angry seas.  This sounds plausible, but it isn’t true.  Barrier islands are very useful, but only if they move with sea levels.  Levies and sea walls are useless, as they have to be continually rebuilt from inevitable damage and erosion.  And they’re worse than useless in that they prevent natural beaches from moving landward, as they inevitably must. 

In the end, the cry “Save our beaches!” is really nothing more than “Save my vacation home!”  It’s up to you to pay – pay for the new bridges, pay for the elevated highways, pay for the levies, pay to “re-nourish” the beaches, pay for the Federal flood insurance programs, and pay for the mortgage guarantees that permit people to build homes out here.

So what, you ask, is the alternative?  Your newly-elected congressman may tell you we can't afford to cut greenhouse gases and stop the effects of climate change.  And, to be fair, serious climate action now will not stop sea level rise entirely.  But unless you're ready to pass on some unthinkably large debts to your children, you may want to start asking your representatives some serious questions.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.


More pictures from Grand Isle 

Houses in the air:  Even this height won't save this house from a Katrina-like storm surge.

The Army Corps was all over the beaches reinforcing the levies.

This looks like a sand dune, but it's a levee built by the Corps.  It washed away entirely in Hurricane Gustav.

The beach levee, and the offshore breakwater.

For perspective, here's Barbara Elwood standing atop the beach levee.  This thing is big, but it's sand.

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