Sep. 17, 2005
CHAPEL HILL – In the wake of Hurricane Katrina -- probably the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history -- a leading ecologist says that one of the best things that could happen to New Orleans and the rest of southern Louisiana and Mississippi would be more rain.
"People might think I’m kidding, but I’m not," said Dr. Seth R. Reice, associate professor of biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s College of Arts and Sciences.
"The floodwater still covering much of New Orleans and elsewhere is full of everything people store under their sinks in their kitchens and bathrooms. It’s also full of coliform bacteria from backed-up human waste, plus gasoline, oil and countless other pollutants. It is a really toxic stew."
An intense rain would dilute the water and could make it possible to varying degrees for organisms -- both large and small -- to cope with it better, Reice said.
Dilution is much needed, he said. Standing water in New Orleans streets was found late last week to carry 10 times the maximum safe level of fecal coliform bacteria to say nothing about the non-organic pollutants, the scientist said. He likened those streets to open sewers.
Reice is the author of The Silver Lining, subtitled "The Benefits of Natural Disasters." Published in 2001 by Princeton University Press, the book received much attention when it first appeared and later following the tsunamis in 2004 in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean.
It details how, usually, hurricanes and lesser storms, volcanoes, earthquakes, floods and other apparently catastrophic events renew life and boost diversity in ecosystems throughout the world.
But authorities in New Orleans are making a large mistake by pumping the floodwater into Lake Ponchartrain, Reice said.
"They have no business doing this," the biologist said. "It is going to cause tremendous pollution and probably big fish kills. Instead, they should have pumped it as far out to sea as they could or at least into the Mississippi where the current would dilute it. Or they could have treated it in wastewater treatment plants. They over-reacted to the need to drain the streets and gave no thought to the severe environmental damage to the lake and its fishes."
The second largest problem -- one that most Americans didn’t realize until the hurricane -- is that New Orleans has been sinking for decades, Reice said. That’s because it was built on Mississippi Delta silt, which built up over millions of years by the sediments carried by the Mississippi River and deposited during floods. By isolating New Orleans from flooding, engineers robbed the delta of its sedimentary deposits.
"This natural disaster was partially the result of engineering designed to prevent flooding," he said. "Natural flooding would have been less severe and would have allowed for a buildup of new sediments."
Instead, what happened was that as the skyline rose, buildings got heavier and heavier and pushed the city downward into the soft earth, Reice said. The same is true for the entire Mississippi Delta region of southern Louisiana.
"What we are looking at now is a catastrophe for the shellfish industry since Louisiana oysters have become contaminated," he said. "Would you want to eat fish from Lake Ponchartrain or shellfish from the Gulf anytime soon? I certainly wouldn’t.
"The scale of this thing is simply enormous and, of course, we had essentially no emergency preparedness for it," Reice said. "Perhaps one of the few positive things that will come out of the Hurricane Katrina disaster is that voters and politicians will start paying more attention to the environment."
The biologist said the American people share part of the blame for what happened in Louisiana and Mississippi since they keep buying gas-guzzling automobiles that waste gasoline and contribute heavily to global warming. He considers SUVs, for example, a "crime against nature."
"American automakers have the capacity to build fuel-efficient cars, but they just won’t do it because the federal government puts no pressure on them," Reice said. "In Europe, people have been paying $5 a gallon of gasoline for years. Do I resent $3 a gallon for gas here? Not a bit. I say put a tax on it to get the price up to $4 a gallon because we have got to stop wasting fuel."
Among the UNC scientist’s recommendations are to get researchers out to Lake Ponchartrain to assess insults to that vast body of water, which could take years to recover completely. He recommends developing an ecological remediation plan for it and for the coastal zone as well. He also said he believes FEMA should be taken out of Homeland Security and led by an expert with cabinet-level authority.
"We need an almost radical reconsideration of nature and a resolve not to muck things up as we have in the past," he said. "Just about every time we get in the way of nature, we create more problems for nature and for ourselves."
Among topics Reice tackles in his book are how paving over the landscape for malls, subdivisions and highways leads to more frequent and severe flooding of urban streams.
Niles Eldredge of the American Museum of Natural History called The Silver Lining highly accessible and said "the chapters on fire and floods are brilliant."
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