The Human Engineering of Catastrophe: Coastal Maldevelopment and Katrina's Wrath

By Davis, Mark | Multinational Monitor, September-October 2005 | Go to article overview

The Human Engineering of Catastrophe: Coastal Maldevelopment and Katrina's Wrath


Davis, Mark, Multinational Monitor


Mark Davis is the executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. After Hurricane Katrina hit, the Coalition released a statement noting that it "has long worked to sound the alarm that this catastrophe was looming and that it could be avoided or at least better prepared for. Now that it has occurred we are working harder than ever to make sure it never happens again."

Multinational Monitor: To what extent was the damage inflicted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita due to nature, and to what extent was it due to human interventions?

Mark Davis: I think the overwhelming balance of damage was largely due to the human engineering, or mis-engineering, of this entire coastal system.

MM: How did that human engineering result in the damage?

Davis: In a range of ways. The collapse of the Delta Plain, which has reduced in size by over a million and a half acres over the last hundred years, sapped the natural resiliency of the system. New Orleans flooded because of the way the levees were engineered or mis-engineered. St. Bernard Parish would have flooded regardless given the storm, but the ferocity of the flooding was in part due to the way the levees were built so that they channeled water and magnified the velocity of the water once it broke through those levees.

On the western side of the Louisiana coast, which is where Hurricane Rita made landfall, most of the marshes were impounded and managed. As a result, the salt water that got into them is still there. We have no idea at this point what the extent of the damage is going to be on that side of the state.

By and large, the human impacts and the long-term ecological impacts are largely the result of things that we've done. One would hope that we now learn the appropriate lessons.

MM: Long before this hurricane season, you and others were calling for a $14 billion restoration program for the Louisiana coast. What would that entail?

Davis: Largely, it's a re-plumbing of the coastal system down here. It's not putting an acre here and an acre there. It's really designed to accept the fact that we have engineered this coast to collapse, and that if we want it to survive--and us along with it--we have to re-engineer it, so that the natural functions that once held sway here have a chance to reassert themselves. In many ways it is reconnecting the Mississippi River to its flood plain and coastal plain.

MM: For people who don't know the region, what does that mean?

Davis: Largely through the practice of levee building and carving up the coastal marshes in the name of oil and gas exploration and production, navigation and agricultural practices, we have essentially starved the coast of the very thing it needs to survives: fresh water influence. That would be the sediment, the nutrients and the fresh water that come directly or indirectly from the Mississippi River and its tributaries like the Atchafalaya. Just as we don't live long healthy lives if we're not properly nourished, coastal systems like this don't survive either if they're not properly nourished.

MM: So the re-engineering would open up the Mississippi to flow the way it would absent human intervention?

Davis: Yes, but it will still be managed. You are not going to be able to move out all of the people or all of the other infrastructure that's here. But right now, we have levees that are protecting marshes from river influence.

For a swamp or a marsh, a flood is part of its natural life cycle, it's not a disaster. It only becomes a disaster when we have a home or a farm or a factory in the way. What we really need to do is make sure that we protect those areas that people have made decisions to live in. But we ought not be preventing the river from influencing that landscape that so desperately needs it.

That could be achieved fairly simply and without major displacement, if we just made the decision to do it. …

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