Despite Human Errors That Threaten New Orleans and Coastal Louisiana, Residents Remain Unyieldingly Strong
Humans have a natural tendency to want to fix things. Whether it is repairing their home that has been destroyed by a hurricane, a beach that have been smeared with oil or islands sinking into the sea, people feel a need to control nature and shape it to their will.
But the Mississippi River, winding 2,348 miles from Minnesota to Louisiana, depositing over 640,000 cubic feet of muddy water per second into the Gulf of Mexico, might be beyond the scope of man’s power.
Throughout history humans have worked the Mississippi, settling in large cities on its banks, transporting goods and generating commerce. But the river has shown itself to be unpredictable and sometimes dangerous to those who live along it despite the numerous barriers, levees, dams and floodwalls, engineers have erected to tame it.
While the Mississippi has provided Louisiana with an abundance of seafood and New Orleans’ unique coastal environment that has brought in tourists for decades, building a city at the mouth of a river comes with a high cost. Humans were so good at engineering the environment toward their economic benefit that they have put the entire region in danger of disappearing underwater.
Already barrier islands have begun to disappear below the waterline. Louisiana is losing the equivalent of a football field of land mass every hour into the ocean, taking coastal communities that many call home into its depths. This was, in part, caused by restricting the flow of the Mississippi River and interrupting the transfer of sediment into the Gulf of Mexico.
It is also due to another man-made phenomenon - but one that is much larger than the loss of sediment: global warming. Louisiana’s economy is built on oil, it depends on oil. Yet it is the pumping of that oil on its coast, the transport of that oil on the Mississippi and its waterways, and the burning of that oil, that is partially threatening coastal Louisiana. It could mean much of what we call Louisiana will be underwater.
Louisiana has started to create man-made islands to serve as a buffer not only to residents but to the region’s teeming wildlife like shrimp, crawfish and catfish. But in 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill spewed 4.9 million barrels of oil into these waters poisoning the marine life surrounding the barrier islands and disrupting the livelihoods of fishermen and the region’s vibrant tourism industry.
The BP oil spill was a disaster caused purely by human negligence, but that kind of oversight also played a role during Hurricane Katrina, when New Orleans’ levees collapsed, flooding the city. Over 1,500 people died as a result of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failure. Some sections of the city, especially the Lower Ninth Ward, are still struggling to recover today despite over a decade of effort from nonprofits and thousands of volunteers.
The Corps dams and levees hold the waters in place and protect people, but upstream on the Mississippi they can have dire consequences for other ecosystems. The Atchafalaya River Basin, which some have called America’s Amazon, is now flooded by water and sediment that have begun to dramatically change the Atchafalaya, filling in acres of wetlands every year.
Despite their sinking region struggling to recover in the shadow of the possibility of another catastrophic storm or man-made disaster, the residents of New Orleans and coastal Louisiana are not commonly filled with dread. Instead, one finds a sense of determination, resilience and hope.