Preventing the disastrous flood in New Orleans would have required a massive construction project necessitating many years to complete. Recent cuts in the Corps of Engineers budget had nothing to do with the disaster. Even if funded by the Bush administration, the work could not have been completed in time, nor would the planned levee measures have been adequate. However, the enormous damage and loss of life that occurred could have been prevented but for environmentalists who successfully blocked other flood protection measures for over two decades. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Barrier Project proposed to build fortifications at two strategic locations to keep massive storms on the Gulf of Mexico from causing Lake Pontchartrain to flood the city. The New Orleans Times-Picayune May 28, 2005 stated, “Under the original plan, floodgate-type structures would have been built at the Rigolets and Chef Menteur passes to block storm surges from moving from the Gulf into Lake Pontchartrain.” At a minimum, the plan would have greatly reduced the scale of the disaster.
But, “Those plans were abandoned after environmental advocates successfully sued to stop the projects as too damaging to the wetlands and the lake's eco-system,” said the Times-Picayune. An environmental group, Save Our Wetlands (SOWL) sued to have the court block the project. On December 30, 1977, U.S. District Judge Charles Schwartz Jr. issued an injunction, saying that because of the environmental impacts “all persons in this area, will be irreparably harmed if the barrier project based upon the August, 1974 FEIS [federal environmental impact statement] is allowed to continue.” So the project was aborted in favor of building up existing levees. The levee program as contemplated would have been effective only against a level three hurricane, not a level five storm such as Katrina.
There can be no question that the environment that Judge Schwartz was so concerned about protecting is much worse for his judicial action—to say nothing of the loss of life, personal hardship, and damage to property from the flood. Katrina pushed Lake Pontchartrain over the flood walls, and the water undermined and toppled them. The flood water then mixed with sewage and other pollutants and left a layer of sludge over the whole area—the precious wetlands as well as everything else. Even without the hurricane, the levee program was bad for the wetlands. Ivor van Heerden, Deputy Director of the Lousiana State University Hurricane Center and Director of the Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts by Hurricanes said, “The levees have literally starved our wetlands to death by directing all of that precious silt out into the Gulf of Mexico.”
The lesson: valuing the environment ahead of people is bad for both in the long run. People must come first. The human rights of some people must not be sacrificed to the special interests of advocacy groups, whether for the environment or any other high-sounding cause.
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