The Human Engineering of Catastrophe:
Coastal Maldevelopment and Katrinaís Wrath:
An Interview with Mark Davis

Mark Davis is the executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. After Hurricane Katrina hit, the Coalition released a statement noting that it ďhas long worked to sound the alarm that this catastrophe was looming and that it could be avoided or at least better prepared for. Now that it has occurred we are working harder than ever to make sure it never happens again.Ē

Multinational Monitor: To what extent was the damage inflicted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita due to nature, and to what extent was it due to human interventions?

Mark Davis: I think the overwhelming balance of damage was largely due to the human engineering, or mis-engineering, of this entire coastal system.

MM: How did that human engineering result in the damage?

Davis: In a range of ways. The collapse of the Delta Plain, which has reduced in size by over a million and a half acres over the last hundred years, sapped the natural resiliency of the system. New Orleans flooded because of the way the levees were engineered or mis-engineered. St. Bernard Parish would have flooded regardless given the storm, but the ferocity of the flooding was in part due to the way the levees were built so that they channeled water and magnified the velocity of the water once it broke through those levees.

On the western side of the Louisiana coast, which is where Hurricane Rita made landfall, most of the marshes were impounded and managed. As a result, the salt water that got into them is still there. We have no idea at this point what the extent of the damage is going to be on that side of the state.

By and large, the human impacts and the long-term ecological impacts are largely the result of things that weíve done. One would hope that we now learn the appropriate lessons.

MM: Long before this hurricane season, you and others were calling for a $14 billion restoration program for the Louisiana coast. What would that entail?

Davis: Largely, itís a re-plumbing of the coastal system down here. Itís not putting an acre here and an acre there. Itís really designed to accept the fact that we have engineered this coast to collapse, and that if we want it to survive ó and us along with it ó we have to re-engineer it, so that the natural functions that once held sway here have a chance to reassert themselves. In many ways it is reconnecting the Mississippi River to its flood plain and coastal plain.

MM: For people who donít know the region, what does that mean?

Davis: Largely through the practice of levee building and carving up the coastal marshes in the name of oil and gas exploration and production, navigation and agricultural practices, we have essentially starved the coast of the very thing it needs to survives: fresh water influence. That would be the sediment, the nutrients and the fresh water that come directly or indirectly from the Mississippi River and its tributaries like the Atchafalaya. Just as we donít live long healthy lives if weíre not properly nourished, coastal systems like this donít survive either if theyíre not properly nourished.

MM: So the re-engineering would open up the Mississippi to flow the way it would absent human intervention?

Davis: Yes, but it will still be managed. You are not going to be able to move out all of the people or all of the other infrastructure thatís here. But right now, we have levees that are protecting marshes from river influence.

For a swamp or a marsh, a flood is part of its natural life cycle, itís not a disaster. It only becomes a disaster when we have a home or a farm or a factory in the way. What we really need to do is make sure that we protect those areas that people have made decisions to live in. But we ought not be preventing the river from influencing that landscape that so desperately needs it.

That could be achieved fairly simply and without major displacement, if we just made the decision to do it. Weíre largely living with the decisions and policies and values that held sway 50 to 100 years ago, rather than basing decisions on what we now know and what our stewardship ethic would now tell us needs to be done.

MM: To what extent would people or farms or industrial operations be displaced under the plan?

Davis: There would certainly be some people that need to displaced, there is no question about it.

But the other side of the coin is that, in the absence of doing this, many more of them will be displaced. As we just saw, the areas in South Louisiana that flooded, some of which are still flooded, are experiencing something that they never experienced before. Weíve been through storms before, yet the farms, the fishing villages, the navigational facilities at Pilottown all found a way to survive ó this time they didnít. Weíve actually wiped out farms, orchards, fishing villages, navigational facilities ó all of those interests that people said if you restore the coast, youíll have to accommodate. In failing to restore the coast, weíre dooming all those other interests.

MM: Have those sets of interests opposed the restoration program?

Davis: Not in broad strokes, but in the details. I think most people down here now recognize and have for some time that you really do need to restore some ecological balance to this system. But just as every preacher will tell you that everybody they talk to wants to go to heaven, almost none of them are willing to make the changes necessary to get there. So there is a tendency to say, ďYes, if weíre going to re-route the river, or if weíre going to move a community, or if weíre going to do this or do that, well, donít do it to me ó do it to that other fellow.Ē I think weíve learned that we are that other fellow. Itís really a question now to see whether we have the wisdom or courage to act on the lesson we were just taught.

MM: Is the opposition of some of these local interests, even if it is in the details, the main obstacle to adopting the restoration plan, or is it coming up with the money, or something else?

Davis: The biggest obstacle we have is that it is not people who make these decisions. For the most part, itís institutions, whether itís a governmental, business or even civic institution. If youíre in business to protect duck habitat, you protect duck habitat ó even though at the end of the day it might make more sense to allow some areas to become saltier, and move your duck habitat somewhere else. If you are an agency whose job it is to support agriculture, thatís what you do ó even though in the long term it may not be sustainable.

The decisions that are made are based on the authorities or directions those institutions have. That means that oil companies that own land here make decisions based upon the return on their investments to their shareholders in the near term rather than the long-term sustainability of the property.

Similarly, when we began doing this work, an agency like the Army Corps of Engineers didnít even view environmental enhancement and restoration as being within their field of authority. When we started, there wasnít one agency outside of local government that even had it in their mission to recognize that this was a problem, much less be able to do anything about it.

If itís nobodyís business, it doesnít get done.

MM: Has the 2005 hurricane season reconfigured thinking in the state and nationally about these matters?

Davis: We sure hope so. It certainly spurred awareness. But so far, it hasnít spurred action.

I think the state is certainly now making it clear that the protection of communities with levees cannot be viewed in isolation, but has to be viewed in the context of a restored coast. We think thatís good.

But when you look at what just came out of the White House in their supplemental appropriation, thereís $250 million for coastal restoration work, and no programmatic commitment, no vision of what a coast restored might be and what interests it might serve, and certainly no reflection of the very basic fact that they have responsibilities here. There are resources here that are the responsibility of the federal government to be the trustees of. There was no reflection of that, and that is incredibly disturbing to us.

MM: Whatís your explanation for that failure?

Davis: I donít have one, other than they either donít get it yet, or they just donít care. Given that the problem has been documented for years, that there are plans to deal with it, Iíd have to say that right now the evidence is that for one reason or another we just donít matter.

Being a steward of a resource like the coast is not yet viewed as a priority or a responsibility.

We view that as the focus of our job: to make it very clear that weíre not asking for charity or a bail out. Weíre asking for everyone to live up to their responsibilities, and they have them here.

MM: The Louisiana senators have proposed legislation for recovery. What does their package look like?

Davis: The one that they introduced was a $250 billion soup-to-nuts wish-list of things that any number of constituents have ever wanted. In our view, it was a mistake to do it that way. If it was intended to show that there are a broad array of things that are at stake here, it was perceived as a money grab. It included things that had nothing to do with responding to this crisis, or managing the coast. In fact, it put coastal restoration in the same pot of money with a whole suite of navigation projects, some of which are incredibly controversial if they have any established merit at all.

MM: Is there anyone in the federal arena who is proposing what you think is a reasonably appropriate plan?

Davis: Not right now. Our congressional delegation certainly does understand and is on message when it comes to restoring the coast. Itís just a question of how focused are they. The $14 billion coastal restoration plan got lost in the shuffle with their $250 billion proposal. To us, that was a tragedy.

I canít judge the merits of most of those other things. But I do know that if you donít provide a certain measure of honest protection to population centers, and if you donít provide some assurance that youíre committed to this landscape not dissolving from under our feet, then why on earth would anyone have confidence to move back here? Why would anyone have confidence in investing here?

It doesnít matter how generous you are in your subsidies and entitlements, and inducements for redevelopment, if you havenít gotten the fundamentals down. Right now, the fundamentals are creating confidence that this place will be safe and secure and the landscape will be functional and sustainable.

MM: You are calling for Category Five protection for big population areas. What does that mean?

Davis: Itís a good question, because Category Five is a wind measurement, not a water measurement. For the most part, what it means is protecting the major developed areas from winds and waters of the sort that you would normally associate with a Category Five hurricane.

Itís critical to understand that, at least when we advocate for anything like that, weíre not talking about Category Five levees, per se. We think protection here is a function of structures, like levees and pumps, which at this point weíre wedded to, land use, planning, conservation and restoration, and things such as building codes. By putting those pieces together, you can get some reasonable assurance that this will be a safe place to live.

There is no conceivable way that you can provide Category Five levees all the way across South Louisiana. The cost and even the geologic limitation of what you can do down here will bring us back to reality fairly soon.

Again, at the end of the day, we should be investing in restoring the natural landscape so itís not only not disappearing, but thriving. In those places where we actually have large concentrations of people, like New Orleans, we should be honest about the level of protection weíre giving them and can give them. Category Five is an aspiration; weíre not there yet, we may never get there. People ó we, since Iím one of them ó have largely been promised Category Three, but we didnít get it. This was not the big storm.

MM: What does it mean to say that land use patterns or coastal restoration should be part of the protection system?

Davis: Many of the areas in South Louisiana were rural and had no land use planning or zoning, no local building codes. Over generations, people built in areas that became increasingly vulnerable as sea levels have risen and the coast has disappeared. Keep in mind that the coast is disappearing at a rate of nearly 25 square miles per year ó thatís the engineered collapse I was talking about. Of course, also as the climate is warming, you tend to get bigger and more violent storms. So a combination of things put people in harmís way.

We think that right now we should be concentrating human development in places where we can protect it, and not encourage it in places where we canít. And if anybody wants to develop in those areas, then they should be doing so at their own informed risk.

With respect to the conservation and restoration piece, to build any kind of levee you have to know how close you are to the Gulf of Mexico, and right now the Gulf of Mexico is getting closer every day. So a levee that is built at 20 feet today will still subside by some factor over the next 20 to 50 years, and it wonít be 20 feet then, and if the Gulf of Mexico is 50 to 100 miles closer, then youíve actually increased the risk that people are living with rather than managing that risk.

MM: What is the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, and why do you want it closed?

Davis: We want it closed because it was a mistake in the first place, itís been a mistake to maintain, and right now it not only helped contribute to the decimation of communities and the deaths of a number of individuals, but it still is not a viable part of the economic life of the area.

Itís been a mistake from A to Z. Now that it is closed to deep draft traffic, because itís silted in, we ought not ever re-open it again. To spend one nickel re-establishing that as a deep draft channel would be an insult to the people, to the communities, and the natural heritage here that have suffered in part as a consequence of that project.

Itís also important to us because in order to restore this coast, youíre going to have to make some hard decisions, including modifying or abandoning some of the projects and programs and practices that contributed to the collapse of this landscape. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet is an authorized federal project; until it is de-authorized, the Corps of Engineers uses its mandate to keep it there, so no planning or projects for the coast can go forward if they in any way impinge upon the existence of the MRGO. It is an absolutely insane way to do business, but thatís the way it is.

MM: What actually is it and what was its original purpose?

Davis: The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet is an artificial deep-draft channel between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. The idea when it was conceived in the 1950s was that by having a short, straight route to the Gulf, that you would attract more business to the Port of New Orleans, because it would be arguably shorter and more economical to get to New Orleans than to go the traditional route of the Mississippi River. Unfortunately for all concerned, the business never developed. For one reason or another, deep-draft navigation preferred to stay on the river. None of the economic benefits that were supposed to accrue from the project ever really developed, and almost all of the worst case projections for environmental and human risk projections came true.

MM: What are those?

Davis: It allowed salt water to move in to a fresh water swamp marsh system and transformed and killed it.

It turned vast areas into open water; a channel that was once 500 feet across, is now several thousand feet across.

Levees that were built along the side of the MRGO, in order to help prevent flooding, served as a funnel for Hurricane Katrina, which allowed water to build up within those levees. When the levees breached, it came forth with a velocity and force that wouldnít have otherwise been the case; there would have been high water no matter what, but it didnít have to happen the way it happened.

The MRGO is the classic example of an attitude that dominated public works thinking in this country until about the 1970s: that we can boss nature around with no consequences..

© Multinational Monitor September/October 2005