Milking the New Orleans Disaster for All It's Worth

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Following the waves of Katrina, we can expect a tidal wave of propaganda
from the environmental movement regarding the need to spend billions
of Federal dollars to restore a pristine, pre-hurricane wilderness
south of New Orleans. We will be told of the historic opportunity
to preserve wetlands.

is a wetland? It is a swamp. What is a rain forest? It is a jungle.
Re-naming things that voters would not otherwise pay to preserve
is the environmental lobby’s way to get into our wallets permanently.

entire city of New Orleans today resembles a wetland. If it were
up to the more anti-technology enviros, they would leave it that
way. In contrast, the pro-technology enviros see salvation in technology,
just so long as it is funded by Washington and is accompanied by
compulsory land-use planning. We will soon see a series of articles
calling for a new, improved New Orleans.

am I so confident that the high-tech enviros will do this? Because
they already have. In an August
31, 2001 article
in Scientific American, “Drowning New
Orleans,” the basic outline of this political sales pitch appeared.
It was a classic scare article. Its predictions turned out to be
— I cannot resist — overblown. The article was one more
example of the environmentalist movement’s endless calls for more
Federal regulation of private ownership and more taxpayers’ money
to be put into the caring hands of the kinds of formally educated
people who read Scientific American. This was special-interest
pleading at its most insufferable: using the public’s fear of a
disaster to get support for wetlands-preservation laws. It began
with this ominous description:

boxes are stacked eight feet high and line the walls of the large,
windowless room. Inside them are new body bags, 10,000 in all.
If a big, slow-moving hurricane crossed the Gulf of Mexico on
the right track, it would drive a sea surge that would drown New
Orleans under 20 feet of water. “As the water recedes,” says Walter
Maestri, a local emergency management director, “we expect to
find a lot of dead bodies.”
There is no
doubt that Katrina, had it not veered to the east, would have produced
far worse damage. But by the time it hit the city, New Orleans was
almost empty. At least a million people had left town. Only 100,000
remained. This evacuation was bigger than anything ever seen in
modern peacetime. People loaded up their cars and drove away. The
evacuation was remarkably orderly. People understood the threat,
and they left. The article continued.

New Orleans is a disaster waiting to happen. The city lies below
sea level, in a bowl bordered by levees that fend off Lake Pontchartrain
to the north and the Mississippi River to the south and west.
And because of a damning confluence of factors, the city is sinking
further, putting it at increasing flood risk after even minor
So far, so good.
This description is accurate. Then came the environmental pitch:

The low-lying Mississippi Delta, which buffers the city from the
gulf, is also rapidly disappearing. A year from now another 25
to 30 square miles of delta marsh — an area the size of Manhattan — will
have vanished. An acre disappears every 24 minutes. Each loss
gives a storm surge a clearer path to wash over the delta and
pour into the bowl, trapping one million people inside and another
million in surrounding communities.
This makes it
sound as though New Orleans has not been the nation’s most vulnerable
city since before this was a nation. Residents of New Orleans have
known this disaster was possible for over 250 years. Any coastal
city located on a gigantic river where you have to bury people above
ground because of the high water table is obviously vulnerable to
hurricanes. This vulnerability is only marginally related to wetlands.
Then came sheer nonsense:
evacuation would be impossible because the surging water would
cut off the few escape routes. Scientists at Louisiana State University
(L.S.U.), who have modeled hundreds of possible storm tracks on
advanced computers, predict that more than 100,000 people could
die. The body bags wouldn’t go very far.

This last was
academic hokum. The 100,000 figure makes sense only socially —
the result of post-hurricane urban snipers shooting at helicopters
and rescue workers, which has happened. If allowed to continue by
the authorities, this could keep 100,000 trapped residents from
being rescued. But the L.S.U. scholars did not mention this scenario.

Residents departed
in large numbers. There was time for all but the poorest to get
in their cars and leave, which they did. Unfortunately, the Regional
Transit Authority’s bus system
was not mobilized to take paying
customers out of the danger zone.

What was this
article all about? It was about seeing one’s political opportunities
and taking them. It was about motivating politicians to fund the
kinds of people who subscribe to Scientific American.

the needed science and engineering would also unearth better ways
to save the country’s vanishing wetlands and the world’s collapsing
deltas. It would improve humankind’s understanding of nature’s long-term
processes — and the stakes of interfering, even with good intentions.


is the nave belief among political liberals that Washington can
save the public from high-risk decisions that we citizens accept
voluntarily because the decisions are cheaper — for a while,

was New Orleans vulnerable? Because it was located on the Mississippi
River? Of course not. Because the city is six feet below sea level?
Perish the thought. It was vulnerable because of the spread of modern

fault are natural processes that have been artificially accelerated
by human tinkering — levying rivers, draining wetlands, dredging
channels and cutting canals through marshes.
Then what is
the solution? Less technology? Less interference by the Army Corps
of Engineers? Of course not. More!
scientists and engineers say the only hope is more manipulation,
although they don’t necessarily agree on which proposed projects
to pursue. Without intervention, experts at L.S.U. warn, the protective
delta will be gone by 2090. The sunken city would sit directly
on the sea — at best a troubled Venice, at worst a modern-day Atlantis.

I think the
key sentence is this: “scientists and engineers say the only hope
is more manipulation, although they don’t necessarily agree on which
proposed projects to pursue.” In other words, they do not agree
on how the tax money should be spent — only that lots and lots
of it must be spent. In short, they are like academics everywhere:
no agreement, except on one thing: the need for more government-funded

New Orleans
should become stage one in a worldwide government-organized reclamation
movement. Reclamation from what? Private ownership.

the delta would serve as a valuable test case for the country
and the world. Coastal marshes are disappearing along the eastern
seaboard, the other Gulf Coast states, San Francisco Bay and the
Columbia River estuary for many of the same reasons besetting
Louisiana. Parts of Houston are sinking faster than New Orleans.
Major deltas around the globe — from the Orinoco in Venezuela,
to the Nile in Egypt, to the Mekong in Vietnam — are in the same
delicate state today that the Mississippi Delta was in 100 to
200 years ago. Lessons from New Orleans could help establish guidelines
for safer development in these areas, and the state could export
restoration technology worldwide. . . .And if sea level rises
substantially because of global warming in the next 100 years
or so, numerous low-lying coastal cities such as New York would
need to take protective measures similar to those proposed for

So, get ready
for the propaganda blitz. Forget about the erroneous forecasts of
100,000 dead. The important thing is that the Federal government
take active steps to prevent another New Orleans. It must roll back
the levees. It must restore the swamps. Environmental science marches

It is fitting
that the article identified the kind of science this really is:
alligator science. It’s mostly teeth and a pea-sized brain.
It keeps growing until it dies.

5, 2005

North [send him mail] is the
author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible

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