Drowning New Orleans; was tragedy preventable?
"As the water recedes," said Walter Maestri of the New Orleans area, "we expect to find a lot of dead bodies."
Maestri, an emergency management official, spoke those words four years ago in a Scientific American article, which predicted the kind of disaster that hit the Gulf Coast last week.
The danger has been growing for decades with unheeded pleas for help from Congress.
The Mississippi River built the delta plain that forms Southeastern Louisiana over centuries by depositing sediment every year during spring floods. Although the drying silt sank, the next flood rebuilt the plain, according to the October 2001 article.
Since 1879 the Corps of Engineers, with approval from Congress, has been "solving" the flooding problem along the Mississippi by lining the river with levees to protect towns and industries.
The solution, however, cut off the sediment supply that adds to the area's elevation. As the wetlands vanished, so did New Orleans' protection from storms like Hurricane Katrina.
In a prophetic voice, author Mark Fischetti wrote in the article entitled "Drowning New Orleans" that the city's low-lying environment was a "disaster waiting to happen."
Four years ago, he said, one acre of marshland was disappearing every 24 minutes. "Each loss gives the storm a clearer path to wash over the delta and pour into the bowl," he wrote.
According to the Corps of Engineers, as the federal government built levees on the river, the city and industry drained large marshes, which hastened the city's drop below sea level. At the same time, the government began digging a maze of canals to collect rainwater. The city pumped this water uphill into Lake Pontchartrain.
Much of the flooding last week came when the levees broke and water poured downhill from Lake Pontchartrain.
Since the late 1980s, Louisiana officials have tried unsuccessfully to secure federal funds to rebuild the vast marshes to absorb high waters and reconnect the barrier islands to protect the city.
The cost, of course, would be staggering. With hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bodies still floating in the flooded Delta, however, the cost of doing nothing is evident.
Now, perhaps, New Orleans, has our attention.