New Orleans - The New Atlantis
In America, the profit motive, mythical thinking and political imperative unite to defeat many of our best plans. Realistic assessment of risks and costs associated with our critical programs rarely engender serious discussion in society. The bigger the issue, such as universal healthcare or financial industry reform, the more likely that politics and the profit motive will combine to obscure the underlying issues at stake. In our current political climate, many politicians continue to propose projects and policies that defy the laws of Nature. The liberal politician might make popular promises to fix everything that is wrong. Conservatives, as a group, might promise to obstruct legitimate change. Meanwhile, accumulation of power and attainment of elite status are the real goals of most politicians.
Likewise, the profit motive can blind unprincipled business people. Why else would we see a high-pressure natural gas transmission line snaking through the residential neighborhoods of San Bruno, California? In a cost saving measure, the pipeline’s owner skipped a previously funded retrofit of a nearby line. Is it too much to ask that retrofits of high-pressure gas lines running through residential neighborhoods include automatic or remote control shut-off valves? When it ruptured, the thirty-inch San Bruno pipeline ejected explosive natural gas into a peaceful residential neighborhood.
As with the Deepwater Horizon Rig, once the gas ignited, a massive explosion was only the start of the catastrophe. Built without automatic shutoff valves, the San Bruno line took almost two hours to close. By that time, the area adjacent to the rupture had burned so hot that four missing persons appear to have vaporized, without a trace. The heat generated was so intense that more than a day later, rescue workers could not enter several former residences.
As if struck by mass amnesia, operators, regulators and legislators responsible for the San Bruno gas transmission line ignored the safety needs of thousands of residents. Displaying mythical thinking in their “It cannot happen here” attitude, ignorance and the profit motive combined to allow another human-caused catastrophe. Owner and operator of the gas line, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) has only $1 billion in its insurance fund. If recent human-created disaster payouts are any indicator, PG&E’s losses in upcoming litigation could bankrupt the company. For lack of foresight, PG&E now faces downward price pressure on its stock value. Inevitably, the ratepayers whose community went up in flames will pay the price to fix the problem.
Only 180 of New Orleans’s 350 square miles consist of dry land. Originally built on a knoll surrounded by wetlands and the Mississippi River, decades of groundwater pumping left most of New Orleans below sea level. With a 10,000-mile long hodgepodge of channels, dikes, levees and pumping stations, it is amazing that New Orleans survived intact until Hurricane Katrina flooded it in 2005.
Over five years after Katrina, stakeholders ignore the imperative to create a smaller New Orleans, opting for a more costly “full city” approach. Government agencies have bought few, if any of the most vulnerable parcels as buffers to future flooding. Today, costly and incomplete levees only partially protect the city from category five hurricanes. Almost all of us wish to save New Orleans, yet few Americans are aware of its perilous geographic perch. No one knows how much money it might take to fully protect the larger city, let alone rebuild after another flood.
In August 2010, the country of Pakistan received unprecedented rainfall in its highlands. A month later, at the peak of flooding, over 62,000 square miles of low-lying countryside were impassible. That inundated area could hold 177 cities the size of New Orleans. Only extreme optimists see Pakistan returning to its pre-flood level of economic activity within five years. With huge losses of natural habitat and farmland, skeptics say that Pakistan may never fully recover. In both size and destructive power, the recent flood in Pakistan represented a quantum leap of destruction in an already troubled economy.
Likewise, until Katrina, New Orleans residents had never seen floodwater cover ninety percent of their city’s geographical boundaries. At the time of the city’s founding, vast wetlands defended New Orleans from hurricane-related storm surges. Potential flooding from the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain were then unknown. Of paramount importance to early settlers was the ability to defend the city against other humans. Using the river like a moat, early settlers built a town deemed defensible against marauders. To this day, the Mississippi River surrounds a portion of New Orleans on three sides. Now the most likely potential marauder is the river itself.
Since 1963, the U.S. Army Core of Engineers (COE) has used the Old River Control Structure to control the flow of the Mississippi River as it approaches the delta. Located 335 nautical miles upriver from the Mississippi River's Gulf outfall, the Old River Control Structure employs floodgates to fix the ratio of water flowing down the Mississippi River and to the Atchafalaya River at 70/30. After an unsuccessful nineteenth century attempt to straighten the flow of the Mississippi River, the Old River's steeper gradient to the sea favored stronger flow into the Atchafalaya River. Over time, siltation blocked more of the Mississippi River flow, resulting in a predicted permanent capture of the Mississippi River by the Atchafalaya River. The “old river” that the Old River Control Structure attempts to thwart is the cutoff to the Atchafalaya River.
Siltation, dredging and a lesser gradient to the sea combine to threaten ocean and river navigation in and around New Orleans. At the Old River Control Structure, the COE diverts seventy percent of available Mississippi River water down through New Orleans. Without the combined effects of higher water levels and increased flushing action, New Orleans would no longer remain viable as a deep water port. Without the constant scouring of the Mississippi River Channel at New Orleans, ships entering port might run aground on sandbars or snags, as did the steamboats of olden days.
If for any reason, or no reason, the Mississippi River were to retake its natural course, New Orleans would soon become a backwater. A permanent new channel would cut its way through the Atchafalaya Swamp. By permanent, I mean that eons might pass before siltation along Atchafalaya River would block its flow and thus send the main flow back again through New Orleans. Upon losing its unnatural share of river flow, New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana would lose their status as deep water ports.
What is there to prevent this natural change from happening? Only the Old River Control Structure, built on poles sunk deep into primordial river mud, stands against the flow. Having outlived its expected service life, some sections of the Old River Control Structure vibrate at ever-higher frequencies. If river-induced vibration were to rise, agitation of the support poles might liquefy the underlying mud. Once loosened from its moorings, gravity might not hold the structure firmly in place. Relentlessly, the river seeks its natural course. At a time unknown, the weakness of structure and the power of Nature shall combine to destroy both the floodgates and levees.