Friday, September 09, 2005

How best to rebuild after a long-awaited disaster... part II

 Last time I wrote: After we care for the people, what is the most practical and beneficial way to help rebuild the great city of New Orleans? ... What should be done with a below-sea-level isthmus of soggy, termite-ridden ground that lies between a Gulf bay called Lake Pontchartrain and a river that’s become its worst enemy? How can we not rebuild a city that was so grand and wonderful and fun...

Of course, first we must care for our fellow citizens. All displaced residents must get generous help from their countrymen, to rebuild lives and livelihoods, enter decent homes, find jobs and so on. Moreover, the cultural gift that was New Orleans should be saved for us all. But how? The discussion continues.

Suggestion #2: Listen to Nature and accept her adamant plan.

In EARTH, I describe how desperately the Mississippi wants to change its course. Every year, it strains harder against the Army Corps of Engineers’ magnificent - but someday doomed - Achafalaya Control Dam. Look at a map and ponder.

Is it possible that NOW may be the right time to let the river go?

There have always been benefits and drawbacks to this idea, with political balance choosing to leave things as they were... spending hundreds of millions to keep forcing Ol’ Miss down its old channel, which continues silting and rising. (Today, the river’s BOTTOM now lies above the second floor of some NoLa buildings. Shall we keep fighting nature till a syrup-sluggish flow passes the THIRD floor? Fourth? Any higher and the river will flow backwards!)

Obstinacy has had huge, expensive and destructive effects - artificially lengthening the official channel, hampering shipping, robbing the barrier islands and swamps of silt, until Louisiana’s delta is almost gone... the old natural hurricane barrier that might have saved the city from Katrina.

Benefits of opening the gates: a new, straight and fast channel to the Gulf - especially if it were prepared and then water scoured - would require little in the way of ongoing dredging or levees. Carried swiftly to the Gulf, silt would spread wide, rebuilding wetlands and islands, recreating the natural storm barriers.

After an adjustment period, river commerce should be more efficient. And the endeavor may partly be paid off by nongovernmental money, attracted to an entirely new rivermouth economic zone. (Providing jobs preferentially for the displaced?)

Earth, by David BrinAn added bonus. For the first time we will see before us a proposed mega-engineering project that environmentalists will probably not block. While some may resist out of a reflex to oppose any ambitious alteration of nature, others will see it as restoring a long-lost balance and offer enthusiastic backing. Might this even set a new tone for the years that follow? One of cooperation between those with a keen eye for spotting problems... and those with bold proposals to solve them?

Drawbacks: This plan would require finally buying out a chain of Achafalaya farms - and some villages - that have long known the river would someday come a-calling. Some will kick and scream while others welcome getting the waiting over with, calmly, deliberately. Some may even relish new riverfront views.

But let’s face it, the real opposition to releasing the Imprisoned Mississippi always came from NoLa itself, which took pride and identity from being America’s greatest River City. Only now the Big Easy may be ready, at last, to accept a different role.

Please, I am not offering this suggestion in order to kick New Orleans while it’s down. Indeed, this may be the best and only way to rebuild all of this great town... and more. For example, if the Mississippi moves away, NoLa will remain a GULF city, with Pontchartrain right next door. Its port could stay valuable, though much traffic would be diverted to trans-shipment facilities at the new Achafalaya outlet. In any event, this would cut in half the number of dikes that New New Orleans has to maintain. That savings, alone, might pay for the diversion.

(Actually, it may cut the number by more than 2/3.)

And picture this. Today’s riverbed would then become an amazing raised plateau, winding through town. Envision it supporting a rail corridor, to replace some essential portion of traffic from the transplaced river. Or, better yet, imagine a sinuous path of view-rich housing for many of the displaced, so high that even a future break in the Ponchartrain dikes would never touch them. And the sogginess that rots every beam and timber of New Orleans today? Presumably that would decline, as well.

(Certainly on the west and south sides of the old riverbed, this solution would be permanent. A drier life, free of mildew. Only then the suburbs will be physically linked to Old NoLa... perhaps something they won’t like, given the unneighborly behavior that some displayed during this crisis.)

Indeed, this may be the one way to ensure that even old neighborhoods can be rebuilt, without the nation worrying that it’s all for nothing.

With a year's warning, a new Achafalaya path for the Mississippi could be prepared (the one it wants to take and will take, sooner or later). If done carefully, the new river will be healthier, better for commerce, and the whole region ecologically improved. What’s more, it’s probably much cheaper than any other plan, as well. Heck, the river itself should do most of the work.

The alternative? Spend billions restoring and then maintaining an impossible situation... keep chaining up an adamant river that pushes harder every year against the artificial bonds that enslave it to our shortsighted will... until the Dam eventually gives way anyway, releasing the Father of Waters to come sweeping down upon unprepared farms and villages... leaving NoLa just as high and dry.

Well, it’s a thought. I hope that was at least entertaining. Again here’s my standard warning. Especially for any angry riverfolk.

I am paid to be interesting. I am not paid to be right.

Feel free to weigh in with your own alternatives, now. I’ll be too busy hiding.


Finally, a few misc items:

1 - some complain that it’s hard to check my website from Asia. This problem must be solved, since I believe Asia is the future home of optimistic science fiction. But for now, all my host suggests is - “If you know the IP address range that someone is trying to reach us through - something in the subnet Class C level - I'd be happy to unblock specific areas.” So, send me this info and I’ll see what I can do.

2 - check this example of self-organized networking to post what’s needed and where.(

3 - I am still trying to decide which place to send three boxes of Childrens books and a box of EARTH hardcovers. I had them addressed to the Astrodome. But now I hear it’s emptying fast.


Anonymous said...

"This plan would require finally buying out a chain of Achafalaya farms..."

Y'know, this reminds me of ANOTHER river-related, farm-complicated ecological problem.

Arid central Washington is home to a bunch of marginal farms established in a fit of plains-breaking hubris a hundred years or so ago. The farms are utterly dependant on river water for irrigation. Which would be fine, if the Klamath weren't utterly vital for the survival of wild salmon.

Dry weather brought things to a head a few years back. Needless to say, the Bush Administration favored the farmers over environmentalist and Native American interests. Water required for a healthy salmon run was held back for irrigation purposes. In one incident, tens of thousands of fish died in shallow, sluggish stretch of river.

If we're willing to let a city die because it is situated in an impractical place, why not a bunch of unsustainably situated farms?


daveawayfromhome said...

holy crap! This is just a quickie, something I just saw and have to share that is tangentially connected with the subject at hand. Bush has released federal contractors from paying prevailing wages in the rebuilding effort in the regions devestated by Katrina! So BushCorp has screwed NOLA in preventative Flood Management, screwed them in the Rescue Operation, and now intends to screw them in the Rebuilding Effort (no doubt to be held in great part by Halliburton). Aargh! If this guy had any bigger balls he'd need a cart.

Sorry. I'll try to stick with the program next time.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to stray from the blog just a little, but as an Australian I was wondering why a group of individuals were taking shots at the rescue workers and being a**holes in general to the other victims of this tragedy. I am not sure that we would handle a large scale disaster with any more efficiency, but I would like to think that the rescue workers would have no need to arm themselves to the back teeth (any time I have seen our army guys helping out with flood, fires etc; they have not been armed).

From news footage I also noticed our guys were not armed when helping out at the Tsunami disaster in Aceh.

Sorry once again for the puzzlement, but it was rather disturbing to see that guys heavily armed in a wealthy, peaceful country.

Rob Perkins said...

@David, would your proposal work if it were not so extreme, if the balance of drainage at the Atchafalaya Control Dam were 50/50, rather than 70/30? Or if the dam breach were more gradual than one or two years?

@Stefan -- Not to put *too* fine a point on this, but the Klamath River basin is a drainage in southern Oregon. Central Washington, the region you mentioned, is irrigated by the much larger Columbia River Basin system, which didn't have nearly the troubles during the drought years here that the Klamath basin did.

They're not even the same watershed.

The Klamath River troubles were... interesting. The source of the exasperation is something David has noticed about the "loony Left"; no matter how much progress they make on their goals, it's simply never enough for them!

Why there wasn't more effort on both the parts of the farmers and the Interior to come up with a survivable solution (airlift enough fish to spawning grounds, or seed the spawning areas ourselves, *or* support the farms there with payouts through the drought) confuses me, but note that today, the salmon run in the Klamath, the Native Americans fish them out, and the farmers run their farms.

Rerouting the Mississipi is a multidimensionally complex proposal affecting the lives millions of people. Rerouting the Klamath River affected the lives of thousands of fish.

@anonymous -- What you witnessed was evidence that racism and economic class problems still persist in the United States. It's going to be a few more generations before there are no people who hold racist and classist opinions, but keep them silent.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Brin, do really think your proposal, at least at a macro level, is controversial? Setting all politics aside for a moment, why would we do anything except rebuild in such a way that we increase the probability that the next category 4 or 5 hurricane to hit won’t hurt so many people or destroy so much property?

If we rebuild neighborhoods in the same locations, and protect them with the same systems, aren’t we condemning those who live there to the same fate? That strikes me as cruel, even if the next disaster doesn’t come for 50 or a hundred years. Cruelty doesn’t diminish over time; the folks in a hundred years will still be as dead as if we shot them with a rifle.

The process should be simple. Identify the problem, solve it, move on. Building hurricane proof houses or neighborhoods too expensive? Find ways through engineering or political action or whatever to reduce the price. River wants a different course? Build to allow it. You wouldn’t build a city on the crater of an active volcano; why build it in the path of one of the most powerful rivers on the planet?

I’m sorry I can’t comment on the specifics of your plan. I don’t have the training or experience to do so intelligently. But I do know we’re foolish and perhaps criminally negligent if we toss folks back into the storm’s path without adequate preparation. They’re citizens, and they deserve the best the country has to offer.

Anonymous said...

Its an interesting idea but consider the policical situation in light of what I have read:

I read on the front page of Thursdays Wall Street Journal that the "old guard" who have run New Orlens owned the high ground and were not seriously flooded. They even hired a Israeli security company to helicopter in mercenaries to guard there mansions from looters. So while the rest of New Orleans was starving the remaining elite were sipping there highballs cooled by there diesel generators. The man they interviewed thought the solution to the problems in NO was to get rid of the poor people when they rebuild.

Meanwhile in yesterdays WSG I read that the mayor of N.O. had no communication for three days after the hurricane. They had backups but they all failed and they had to steal a computer server from home depo in order to get the one internet phone line that still worked up and running. While the police were trying to fight off hundreds of looting gang members who were trying to take over the hotel were there command center was.

The landowning elete stand to make more money by rebuilding the leviees where they are to ever let such a project see the light of day.

Silly Old Bear said...

Even a few years ago, HAM radio operators would have stepped in and handled communications.

All I've heard this time is "our cell phones went out."

Silly Old Bear said...

Ack, I meant to comment on the Katrina BLog you link. I "know" Grace Davis from blogging and she, pardon my french, totally rocks.

Super Team! said...

Just wanted to let you know that I have no trouble accessing your blog from Taiwan. So not all of Asia is blocked out.

Catfish 'n Cod said...

Silly old bear:
Many ham operators *did* come forward, especially in MS. But it was as difficult to reach a ham (or for a ham to reach you) in post-flood NoLA as anyone else...

Brother doug:
The light of transparency is about to shine on the massive corruption and horrendous class differences in Louisiana. The results will not be pretty but may lead to a better NoLA.

Dr. Brin:

1) It should be noted that the Mississippi River levees are not the ones that failed! Those levees held while the Pontchartrain levees broke. While your proposal to allow the re-routing of the Mississippi is desirable for many reasons, flood defense is among the least important.

2) Reorienting the Mississippi is not only a matter of re-routing shipping, but also a matter of the immense chemical industry -- those refineries that caused all our gas prices to spike seventy cents in the last two weeks. The owners of these refineries would be, ah, concerned if the river they depend on suddenly went dry.

3) Besides which, NoLA also would complain heavily about any attempt to remove its beloved river completely!

For these reasons, might it not make sense to maintain some flow down the Old Mississippi? We get the flood-control benefits of less flow -- a lower level for the Old Mississippi by New Orleans -- without killing the chemical and tourist industries. Best of all, New Orleans maintains a low level of river traffic (thus making it politically and socially palatable) while barges gain the advantages of the shorter Atchafalaya route.

Baton Rouge would also complain, since the Atchafalaya branches off above BR. On the other hand, could Baton Rouge grow west to become the Atchafalaya equivalent of New Orleans? Could there be *two* New Orleans, where once there was one?

Anonymous said...

1 - some complain that it’s hard to check my website from Asia. This problem must be solved, since I believe Asia is the future home of optimistic science fiction. But for now, all my host suggests is - “If you know the IP address range that someone is trying to reach us through - something in the subnet Class C level - I'd be happy to unblock specific areas.” So, send me this info and I’ll see what I can do.

I couldn't get to any blogspot sites in Beijing. I also couldn't reach the BBC news website. I was under the impression that the blocking was the Chinese firewall -- was it actually your hosting company?

Anonymous said...

Make no mistake about it. The Achafalaya basin WILL become the new mouth of the Mississippi River. I was told about this as a classic pro-grading delta example in my sedimentology class at O.U. 20 years ago. We were told that in out lifetimes the M. River would change its outlet. It doesn't matter what the criminally corrupt levee board of N.O. or the major oil companies have to say about it. The next time we get a 250 year flood on the Mississip the Achafalya Control Dam will be toast. I'm betting it will happen in the next 30 years. We would be wise to not let nature force our hand on this one and prepare letting it have its way on our terms and not as a result of a major natural event. Consider our wiser fellow humans in Denmark and Bangledesh. They seem to better understand man's abilitis and inabilities to stand in the face of mother nature when she's provoked. They also know how to take advantage of her while she sleeps.

Anonymous said...

I too was taught this in a water engineering class at UT Austin, even the levee systems weakness was discussed. this was 20 years ago for me too. For some reason I never forgot that and when the floods came I was shocked maybe a little more than most to realize that a lot of very educated people were predicting this in college class rooms and still nobody did anything about it. What has become of this country?