The Tragedy of New Orleans and Bahamian Politics and Ideology

First Published: 2005-09-15

“And every time we think about the bacon and the beans, we’ll think about the fun we had way down in New Orleans.” Jimmy Driftwood

Why did Katrina trash New Orleans?

Well, it actually had nothing to do with either divine retribution or George Dubya, and everything to do with geography.

In fact, this was the most anticipated disaster in history. Officials have spent years planning for just such an event. And computer models developed at Louisiana State University and other institutions made detailed (and accurate) projections of what would happen in a major storm.

Ultimately, the havoc was caused by human impact on the area’s natural ecosystems. New Orleans lies an average eight feet below sea level, spread over miles of flood plain in the Mississippi River delta. As a result, more than 80 per cent of this historic city was flooded by Hurricane Katrina.

The eye of Katrina came ashore between New Orleans and Biloxi, pushing a wall of water eight to 30 feet above sea level. The storm surge drove into Lake Pontchartrain, overwhelming levees and canals, and flowed into the city.

But it was not at all unexpected. Four years ago, for example, Scientific American ran an article called ‘Drowning New Orleans’, which said a major hurricane strike would swamp the city under 20 feet of water and kill thousands.

Ole Man River

The Mississippi delta is the largest expanse of coastal wetland in North America – built by the sediment-rich waters that drain to the river from 31 US states and three Canadian provinces. This fertile ecosystem produces 30 per cent of America’s total fish catch.

Native American hunter-gatherers inhabited the delta for thousands of years, but there was no significant settlement until the French founded New Orleans on a bit of high ground in 1718 . Louisiana was a French colony until Napoleon sold it to the United States in 1803 for $15 million.

The Mississippi drainage basin is home to more than a million people and critical to the vitality of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. The basin supports a variety of industries, but has always posed a flood threat. This is part of nature – the annual spring floods spread fresh silt across the delta, supporting the marshes and building up the land.

People have been trying to tame the river since the 19th century. But after Hurricane Betsy in 1965, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to upgrade the flood control system that now includes miles of levees, floodgates, pumping stations and drainage canals. While this reduced the risk to people and property , it also encouraged new development in flood-prone areas.

Today, the city of New Orleans lies in a shallow depression surrounded by levees 15 to 25 feet high. This system is one of the most extensive in the world – over 100 miles of earthen banks hemming in the mighty Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain.

The dikes were designed to withstand a moderate (Category 3) hurricane surge. According to some estimates, their failure would cost the city and surrounding areas $25 billion in property losses and tens of thousands of deaths by drowning. But after Katrina, insurance losses are put at $60 billion, dwarfing Hurricane Andrew which caused nearly $21 billion in claims. The death toll has yet to be calculated.

New Orleans became an important city because the system of rivers that flowed through the American Midwest all ran into the Mississippi, which flowed to the ports in and around the delta. These ports shipped America’s rich agricultural surplus to the rest of the world.

More recently, oil and natural gas have helped fuel the area’s prosperity, which still accounts for about a third of domestic US production. The local refineries are critical to American infrastructure, and the offshore port receives about 15 per cent of US oil imports. In fact, Louisiana’s port system is America’s biggest shipping facility.

Causes of Catastrophe

This strategic position spurred massive growth and development, which produced the environmental disaster precipitated by Katrina that we just witnessed. Experts point to four main causes:

First, dams and levees along the river reduced water flow and funnelled marsh-building sediments away from shore. Controlling the flooding lowered the water table in the delta, allowing the surface to dry out and subside. The city is sinking three feet per century.

Second, the removal of millions of barrels of oil, trillions of cubic feet of natural gas, and tens of millions of barrels of water lying with the petroleum deposits caused a drop in subsurface pressure. That led nearby underground faults to slip and the land above them to slump.

Third, more than 8,000 miles of canals were cut through the coastal marshes for oil exploration and ship traffic. This increased erosion and allowed salt water to infiltrate and kill freshwater marshes, leading to more erosion. The shoreline is receding at 30 feet a year.

Fourth, the delta’s low-lying barrier islands are disappearing. According to Scientific American, “A century ago these mangrove-covered islands were part of the region’s shoreline. They broke up ocean waves, cut down storm surges and held back saltwater so the marsh behind it could thrive. Now the ocean rushes right by.”

So in 1998, State and Federal officials devised a plan called Coast 2050 to restore healthy natural processes. Over a decade, this massive, multi-billion-dollar effort aimed to recreate the marshes and reconnect the barrier islands to reduce the impact of surges. But unlike the Florida Everglades restoration, it was never funded.

The plan’s main strategies are watershed management such as river diversions into swamps, and restoration of barrier islands combined with strengthening of the levee/canal system. Had it been implemented, parts of the city might have been saved, experts say. However, the Coast 2050 plan may now be funded by Congress in the wake of the disaster.

According to Louisiana State University geography professor Craig Colten, “it would be foolish to try to rebuild New Orleans as it was. We need to find ways to put some of those lowest-lying areas into a wetlands type of land use.”

Without action, experts say the million people outside New Orleans would have to relocate: “The other million inside the bowl would live at the bottom of a sinking crater, surrounded by ever higher walls, trapped in a terminally ill city dependent on non-stop pumping to keep it alive.”

There are many lessons for Bahamians to learn from this tragedy.

Politics & Ideology – Setting a New National Agenda

Tribune columnist Andrew Allen recently lamented the fact that the opposition Free National Movement presents no intellectual alternative to the Progressive Liberal party, which he described as our default political setting.

“That bodes ill for the party’s chances of ever challenging the philosophical dominance of the PLP in Bahamian politics,” he said. “PLPism continues to set the tone of political debate with the FNM simply reacting.”

As in most of the Commonwealth Caribbean, the overwhelming success of the ethnically-based nationalist movement led by the PLP, actually retarded our political development. The hard-won credentials of those who helped end white colonial rule gave them virtually unchallenged authority.

Leaders like Lynden Pindling, Eric Williams and Forbes Burnham maintained a generational hold on their people, for both good and ill. Perhaps the most extreme remaining example is the liberation leader of Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), Robert Mugabe, who is busily exploiting his personal legacy to destroy the country.

Forbes Burnham did much the same to Guyana, another rich land with enormous wasted potential. So did Eric Gairy in Grenada. And had we been located further away from the United States and the glare of Western publicity, no doubt Lynden Pindling would have been able to extend his corrupt and incompetent regime even longer.

Of course, these men were all inspired by equally corrupt and unjust colonial regimes that were also based on race. The predictable result was that the ideology of the party which achieved majority rule and independence became the political norm for each country.

In the Bahamas (as well as other Caribbean countries) this default setting led to authoritarianism and corruption, squandering much goodwill and producing waves of emigration in the process. But eventually – as Mr Allen said – the emphasis shifted “away from political philosophy and toward issues of competence and trustworthiness.” In Grenada, it even produced a popular revolution.

This shift created conditions for the first Free National Movement victory of 1992 led by the ex-PLP Hubert Ingraham. In fact, the FNM was essentially a reformation movement of former PLPs, combined with remnants of the old regime, and supported by a growing middle class with less interest in the animosities of their parents.

The defeat of Mr Ingraham in 2002 – being closer in time – is harder to dissect. Some have put it down to political maturity – turfing out the incumbents after two terms in favour of a fresh wind. Others have assigned it to the arrogance of the prime minister himself, capped by an ill-advised multi-referendum held just before the election. But perhaps we simply switched to our default political setting.

This theory argues that the FNM’s failure to develop an ideology means that it has been unable to differentiate itself in any substantive way from the ideas that the PLP hypothetically espouses. In fact, for the last three years FNM politicians seem to have been on an extended vacation. Ironically, the only way forward for some is to call for the return of Mr Ingraham, whose break with the past in 1992 ushered in years of much-needed reform and liberalisation.

By all accounts, Perry Christie is of a similar mould to Mr Ingraham. But it is difficult to gauge his influence on the current PLP administration or its prospects, because he is rarely seen to act and has been almost invisible lately for health reasons. And there are unpleasant signs that the PLP is slipping back into the bad habits it once professed to have renounced.

With this in mind, there can be no doubt that the procedural break made by Ingraham’s FNM with the politics of the past must be followed by a conceptual break to move the political centre of gravity. The decrepit ‘mixed economy’ statism of the mid-20th century must be exchanged for a radical new vision that looks to the future – not the past – and deals with clear and present dangers.

That means a national strategic plan to balance economic development with environmental safeguards, an energy policy that takes account of conservation and alternative fuels, fundamental reform of both education and the public sector, genuine privatisation, real support for e-commerce, greater accountability and freedom of information, a radical overhaul of the justice system, and strong measures to improve productivity and create more flexible labour markets.

We desperately need some new thinking to determine where we want to be in 20 years time. Just going with the flow won’t cut it for much longer. We wonder which party, and which leaders, will have the drive, creativity and guts to break out of our self-imposed inertia.

The views expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Nassau Institute (which has no corporate view), or its Advisers or Directors.

This article was first published in The Tribune on Wednesday, September 14, 2005.

The column ‘Tough Call’ by Larry Smith is published in The Tribune every Wednesday and is reprinted here as a courtesy. Mr. Smith founded and successfully grew an advertising agency over 20 years. Under his direction Media Enterprises diversified into short-run commercial printing and publishing, and is now the largest non-fiction book wholesaler in the Bahamas. He has 30 years experience as a journalist and publicist and has contributed numerous articles and columns to the Bahamian press. A former reporter at the Nassau Guardian, local correspondent for Reuters and editor at the Bahamas News Bureau, he conceived and edited the Bahama Almanac (published 2000 by Media Enterprises), wrote the commentary for Mike Toogood’s Portrait of an Archipelago (published 2004 by Macmillan Caribbean), and edited the Bahamas Environmental Handbook (published 2002 by the government). In 2003 he took a year’s leave of absence from Media Enterprises to lead a transition management team at the Nassau Guardian after the paper was acquired by local investors. After leaving the Guardian he was contracted by the Tribune as online manager/editor and columnist. He has a degree in political science and journalism from the University of Miami.

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