Milking the New Orleans Disaster for All It's Worth

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.

What 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.

The 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.

Why 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:

The 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 storms.

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:

Extensive 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.

Funding 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.


There is the naïve 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, anyway.

Why 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 technology.

At 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!

Ironically, 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 research.

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

Fixing 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 Louisiana.

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 on!

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.

September 5, 2005

Gary 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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