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JAMMIN' ON THE QUAD: The band Allred performs during a day of welcome for returning students. Click Arts&Life for a link to photos. / Photo by Heather Routh

Today's word on journalism

Monday, September 3, 2007

"I've always been all over the lot in my writing. Except for poetry -- even though they say all the old-time sportswriters use plenty of it. Maybe it's just part of what we do."

--Frank DeFord, 2006

Environmental historian pessimistic that New Orleans will ever recover

By Jen Beasley

April 9, 2007 | Lawrence Culver, an environmental historian and assistant history professor at USU, knows his is a pessimistic field.

"The stereotype of us is that our job is to go on the History Channel, lean into the camera, and say, 'We're doomed,'" said Lawrence Culver.

"But we pretty much are."

So Culver did just that Thursday, leaning into a room of about 20 others, mostly professors, to strip from them any delusion of silver lining that they may have believed accompanied the clouds of Hurricane Katrina to her destruction of New Orleans.

"They're a long way from recovery, to say the least," Culver said. "I'd love to be optimistic, but I don't think I am very optimistic about it ever recovering."

Culver gave his presentation in response to what he saw when he recently visited New Orleans while attending the annual conference of the American Society of Environmental History, held in Baton Rouge.

Culver said the devastation wrought by Katrina had a wide base of causes.

President Bush, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Lousiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and FEMA Director Michael Brown all made the response a "failure on every level," Culver said. But he acknowledged that many of the sources of failure in Katrina pre-dated any administration.

It began when the lower areas in New Orleans were pumped dry to make room for new housing developments in the 1920s and '50s, converting natural swamps into neighborhoods.

Additionally, the system of levees built by the Army Corps of Engineers to maintain the navigability of the Mississippi River resulted in the control of the Mississippi's annual flood cycle, which had once deposited silt to form the land of New Orleans, and the wetlands neighboring the Gulf of Mexico. The annual renewal of silt used to balance the erosion of the wetlands caused by the ocean, but when the canal system was built, the river moved faster and the silt was carried out to the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in the reduction of the wetlands.

The loss of those wetlands meant the loss of land that once would have borne the initial tidal surge and wind force of Katrina, Culver said.

And finally, because of the greater surge of water, the internal canal levees of New Orleans were inundated with water, and failed. They had been built to withstand hurricanes greater than the Category 3 that was Katrina at landfall, but in some places were not built on bedrock -- a violation of the Army Corps of Engineers' own specifications -- and were breached as water ran over, and in some cases under, the levees. The water that rushed into New Orleans then found its way downward to the neighborhoods that used to be swamplands, and in some neighborhoods, flooded houses all the way up to their rooftops.

"It was a natural disaster, it was a hurricane, but it was greatly exacerbated by human activities," Culver said.

The result of the hurricane, 18 months later, Culver said, is a "moonscape." Entire neighborhoods are still abandoned, and businesses are closed. He said the population of New Orleans has been cut in half, and the Road Home Program, which has been set up to issue grants for rebuilding, has been bogged down by bureaucratic rules which require applicants to supply things like home titles to receive grant money.

"If your house is gone, if your county courthouse is gone, you don't have those records," Culver said.

Out of 130,000 applicants to the Road Home Program, only 2,700 had been approved by the end of February, Culver said. And even those who get to move back aren't greeted by the Crescent City they once knew, Culver said.

"If you're moving back into New Orleans, you're moving back into a ghost town. Roads are gone, bank branches are gone, your neighbors are gone, all the infrastructure you need is gone," Culver said.

During his presentation, while describing the devastation of the 9th Ward, one of the poorer neighborhoods where houses were literally swept from their foundations during the hurricane, Culver became noticeably emotional and had to pause several times to gather himself.

"It's just -- what happened to these people?" he said. "You can see by walking around these houses everything that was in these people's lives, because it's all still there."

Culver said he is especially frustrated by the lack of attention the ongoing problem is getting. He said he was "furious" that President Bush did not mention Katrina in the State of the Union Address, and that the characterization of the disaster as something that was "the wrath of God for a sinful city" angers him.

"The stereotype that goes along with this, that they were all on government assistance, that they were all unemployed, are simply not true," Culver said.

He said that Bourbon Street, the French Quarter and the other tourist areas that have long associated New Orleans with the "sinful" lifestyle are almost fully recovered, and that the usual tourist ephemera has been replaced with books, bumper stickers, and T-Shirts about Katrina. There are even tours available that guide tourists through the destruction.

"I'm worried that what we're going to end up with is a sort of Disneyworld New Orleans," Culver said about the possibility that New Orleans' tourist economy, "which would provide only low-wage jobs" will be the only thing to fully recover.

Culver concluded his presentation with a reminder that natural disasters can and do happen everywhere, and that Utahns are particularly vulnerable, living in an area where a major earthquake could cause the same level of destruction as Katrina.

"A major rupture event on the Wasatch Front is as certain, as predictable, as a hurricane in New Orleans," Culver said. He said people should be empathetic for the Katrina victims now, because someday it could even be Cache Valley. He encouraged anyone who could to donate money to a relief foundation, read more about the disaster, or visit New Orleans to see it for themselves.


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