Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Hartford Courant Blows It Big Time

I had initially hoped to avoid giving this atrocious Hartford Courant op-ed further exposure and publicity, but given that the rest of the Katrina blogosphere is exploding over the subject, I’ll go ahead and give my take, too. It makes sense – the Courant is a large enough newspaper that this already-visible hit piece should be countered rather than ignored.

The op-ed in question, “Politics Aside, New Orleans A Lost Cause,” was written by Robert Thorson, a professor of Geology at the University of Connecticut and a regular Courant columnist. The basic premise of his argument is this: Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster and it will happen again, so let’s not rebuild New Orleans. (Photo: Dr. Robert Thorson, from his website.)

In his own words, “I agree that the tragedy has a racial dimension made worse by administrative bungling. I just wish that one of the Democratic contenders had been forthright, calling the Katrina tragedy a natural disaster, and recognizing that the displaced people are the most visible group of climate refugees since the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s… The brutal geological reality is that people of every color left New Orleans as climate-related refugees. I believe that the real reason New Orleans remains unfixed - without police and fire protection and with vacant hospitals - is because objective visionaries and smart money sees such rebuilding as a risky, if not wasteful war against nature.”

There is so much wrong with this. Where do I even begin? Pistollette’s response has gotten a lot of attention throughout the Katrina blogosphere, and I have quoted it below. Here first is my own response:

Hurricane Katrina was NOT, as Dr. Thorson claims, just a natural disaster. What happened in Biloxi and Gulfport – that was a natural disaster. What happened in New Orleans – that was a natural disaster exponentially exacerbated by a manmade disaster. It was the fault of the Army Corps of Engineers and the federal government. Had the levees been built to specification and maintained properly, had Congress and the President fully funded the Corps’ restoration project, the damage to the city would have been far less in scope. Yes, some levee failures allowed water to revert to its natural state, but others sent the floodwater on unnatural paths it would not have taken had the city never built in the first place. We can rebuild the city differently than it was built before – we can construct the levees in the same style as the Dutch, and hold the Corps accountable this time around. If we do this, Katrina will not repeat herself. We can go even further by fighting climate change, reducing our carbon emissions, and taking carbon back out of the environment, and thus ensure that even Rita will not repeat herself too often. This was NOT just a natural disaster, and the victims are not just “climate refugees.”

Thorson finishes by writing, “My plan has only one point. That we not spend another dime on U.S. properties below sea level - and use that money instead to help sea-level refugees find safer homes elsewhere.”

I wonder, just where does he envision these “safer homes elsewhere”? Remember, it’s not like New Orleans is our only coastal city. Everything from Corpus Christi to New York City could get hit by a hurricane – it’s even happened in New Hampshire before. This entire nation faces natural risks. The mountain west has summer fires and winter blizzards, the west coast has earthquakes (and a major San Francisco or LA earthquake IS the next Katrina), the Midwest gets tornadoes, the northeast has its own blizzards, the South sees hurricanes and heat waves, and the whole damn thing suffers through drought. What's Thorson’s solution, that we all move to Alamogordo? If he thinks we can find safer homes, he lives in a fantasy world. It should also be pointed out that not all of New Orleans is below sea-level. “A recent study by Tulane University notes that 51% of New Orleans is at or above sea level, with the more densely populated areas generally on higher ground.” (Photo: This is St. Andrew Episcopal Church's Chalstrom House, where I lived for three months. It is in New Orleans, and it is above sea level. Photo by my friend Bob Gustafson.)

Thorson is also making judgment calls. He is ultimately saying, "We shouldn't spend a dime on these areas because they're in danger." Yeah, but you know something? You get what you pay for. And preserving history, heritage, humanity, and culture in the face of risk is something I'm willing to pay for. In other words, there’s more at stake here than just science, so how dare he speak with scientific authority on non-scientific judgment matters like THAT. He's being quite shortsighted.

Another part of Thorson’s column compared New Orleans to Alaskan villages threatened by climate change. The Voice of New Orleans does a pretty good job of refuting that claim in a post called, “Excuse Me, but New Orleans is not Newtok, Alaska.” Other Katrina blogs tackling Thorson’s op-ed include another Voice of New Orleans post, Thanks Katrina, Your Right Hand Thief, Ashley Morris: The Blog (a professor takes on the professor!), Maitri's VatulBlog, The Chicory, and Gentilly Girl.

Pistollette’s post in particular has received a lot of blogosphere attention. She writes,

“If the Dutch felt the way you do about low-lying areas they'd have no country.

Funny, you guys never complained when federal engineers spent billions to force the Mississippi River route, and thereby bring goods to all you rich, condescending yankees. Plus, you think gas is expensive now? You couldn't afford it if we didn't keep sucking up the fumes in "cancer alley" for you overconsumptive ungrateful brats.

I live here - we have cops, firemen, and hospitals. True, they are understaffed and could use more help, but they are here! Get your facts straight.

I can't believe you compared this situation to some little Alaskan town with 200 people. MILLIONS live in the Mississippi Delta region. You are talking about asking millions of people/refugees to give up their homeland, people, and culture. America doesn't even ask the Palestinians to do that and we actively support the opposition! This is one of the most ignorant and insensitive things I've heard on this topic in a while. Would you ask Amsterdam, Venice, or even low-lying London to just abandon their cities because they are expensive to maintain?”


I would add to Pistollette’s reflections that Washington, DC was also built on fill, and is slowly sinking. I guess Thorson would have us abandon the Capitol, the White House, the Jefferson Monument, the Washington Monument, the Smithsonian, the Vietnam Wall, the FBI headquarters…

Many of these posts are blunter and ruder than they need to be, but their points are well taken. You may reach Dr. Thorson either by commenting on his article at the Courant’s website, or by e-mailing him at profthorson@hotmail.com. If you decide to contact him, please be polite, and perhaps focus on my final point – there is more to this sort of issue than science, and he should take a broader view when making judgment calls about national values.

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