Mike Tidwell has lived with the possibility of Katrina since 1999. The freelance journalist stumbled on the story when he was writing an article for the Washington Post describing his adventures hitchhiking on shrimp boats through the wetlands of south Louisiana to the Gulf of Mexico. The Cajun shrimpers he boated with showed him the disappearing landscape, and Tidwell realized that without wetlands and barrier islands Louisiana was virtually unprotected from hurricanes.
Unlike many, Tidwell didn't view the threat with fatalistic insouciance -- we dodged one this time, but it'll hit us sooner or later. Tidwell knew Katrina could happen, but it wasn't inevitable, changes could have been made. He tried to warn Louisiana and the country with his 2003 critically acclaimed book, Bayou Farewell, which served as a bellwether for the coming disaster.
Tidwell hasn't turned his attention away from our state, but he has widened his scope to include the rest of the country if not the world. His newest book, The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America's Coastal Cities, forecasts a dire future with Katrina only the opening chapter of cataclysmic developments brought on by global warming and the failure of our government to act.
In the following interview, Tidwell stresses that while the outlook is bleak, it is alterable. New Orleans can be saved and other coastal cities can be spared the misery of Katrina.
GAMBIT: In Bayou Farewell, you predicted a Katrina-like storm destroying New Orleans and leaving thousands dead or homeless. In your view, the main culprit wasn't the failing levee system as much as it was locking the Mississippi River. Explain this.
TIDWELL: The river was locked into its course as found by Europeans three hundred years ago, and this prevented the river from flooding. Katrina ultimately was a catastrophe not because the hurricane levees failed. It was a catastrophe because the river levees had held for so long. They held back the annual natural flooding of the river for so many years that a geological chain reaction has followed, and that has been expressed by catastrophic land loss. It's the catastrophic land loss that created a watery flight path for Katrina to slam into New Orleans like a plane into the World Trade Center, with virtually nothing to slow her down. If Katrina had come in 1718 when the French first settled in Nouvelle Orleans, she would have met enormous physical resistance from fortress-like wide and tall barrier islands, followed by an intact and vast network of saltwater marshes, followed by a band of brackish and freshwater swamps, followed by forests that no longer exist. When it came in August 2005, there was nothing really to slow her down.
GAMBIT: Can you flood the river regularly and still have coastal cities?
TIDWELL: Yes, that's what the Coast 2050 Plan is all about. It acknowledges that south Louisiana is a working resource -- we can't turn it into a national park. People live here. We can mimic many of the key natural characteristics of the river that created this coastal landform to begin with. You could do this by using canals, and there is recent talk about using slurry pipelines that would literally carry this sediment-rich water directly where you want to build the barrier islands, directly to shallow basins where you want to create wetlands. There are folks at LSU and elsewhere saying if they had enough resources and public policy commitment, they could build entire barrier islands in twelve months or less.
GAMBIT: The price tag often referenced for the Coast 2050 Plan is $14 billion. Why is it economically feasible for the U.S. to make such an investment?
TIDWELL: Is $14 billion expensive? Compared to another Katrina? Katrina has cost this country between one hundred billion and two hundred billion dollars, 1,800 dead, two million displaced. Fourteen billion dollars is really cheap compared to that. My friends in southeast Louisiana often say that if the Big Dig in Boston didn't happen, the people wouldn't suddenly abandon the city. Somehow, they would figure out a way to go on without their $14 billion tunnel project. But New Orleans cannot exist without this restoration program.
GAMBIT: Your new book casts a dark future for all of America's coastal cities, affecting 150 million people. What is the science behind this prediction?
TIDWELL: We have to be clear on what wiped out much of South Louisiana last year. One is that coastal Louisiana got three feet of relative sea level rise over the last 100 years. There are three different ways water can damage a coastal area -- water itself can rise, the land can sink, or the two can happen at the same time. In South Louisiana, the two happened at the same time, which is called relative sea level rise. You had about two feet of subsidence because the river doesn't flood anymore, and you have about a foot of sea level rise because of global warming. If you bring the two of those together, you get three feet of relative sea level rise. That's factor number one.
Factor number two is three feet of relative sea level followed by a massive storm. I have no patience with people who say that Katrina was a dud; it really was all about the levees, the incompetence of the Corps, we really would have dodged the bullet. That was a huge storm. She was a Cat-5 the day before, and she brought a Cat-5 surge onto land -- the surge at Buras was nearly 30 feet. Those exact same conditions are being replicated right now by global warming along the entire U.S. coastline, especially the U.S. Gulf and Atlantic coastlines. Three feet of absolute sea level rise worldwide over the next 100 years, according to the Bush Administration. The cat's totally out of the bag when Bush is saying up to three feet of sea level rise. You're going to get the same amount of adjustment of the water climbing three feet closer to our coastal cities over the next 100 years just as was the case in New Orleans over the last 100 years. And hurricanes are becoming more ferocious because of global warming. There have been six major scientific, peer-reviewed, published studies just in the last 12 months alone that all confirm that hurricanes in the Atlantic basin are becoming stronger and lasting longer. There's all kind of data about that in the book.
GAMBIT: When you talk about damage and destruction, are you talking about something similar to Katrina?
TIDWELL: Yes. Look at Miami, which has very few sections three feet above sea level; look at Charleston, very similar; look at New York City, all of lower Manhattan is already at sea level; look at parts of Baltimore, Washington D.C., Annapolis, Norfolk. These are all areas that have a lot of land that is going to be at or well below sea level 100 years from now. That means we've got to adopt the New Orleans model -- we have to start building levees. Either we retreat, or we adapt. You'll have to build levees around Miami, which will become a bowl like New Orleans. You're going to have the same catastrophic risk of levee collapse, and you've got more massive hurricanes. So the two factors -- New Orleans is below sea level creating a bowl, and [it's] in the way of major hurricanes -- equals Katrina. Same thing for Charleston, same thing for Savannah, all of these cities will have to become saucers like New Orleans.
GAMBIT: How soon could this occur?
TIDWELL: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is the gold standard of scientific inquiry into global warming, forecast one-to-three feet of sea level rise by 2100. That was their forecast in 2001. They're coming out with another in 2007 and it looks like they're going to significantly ramp up the amount of sea level rise expected by 2100. A big part of that is that the atmosphere is warming much faster then anyone thought five years ago. I'm 44 years old; I'm going to live to see a lot of this. My son is nine and he's going to live through multiple New Orleans's along the East Coast. Katrina is the curtain raiser.
GAMBIT: You write that not only is the Bush Administration aware of global warming, but that they've tried to cover it up. How?
TIDWELL: The premier scientific agency in this country whose mission is to understand weather and climate, educate, and warn Americans as necessary is the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The National Weather Service is under the rubric of NOAA; the Hurricane Center is under NOAA. This is the agency whose stated mission is to educate Americans about threats of extreme weather and to provide information to policymakers so we can protect ourselves. If that's their mission, then why can you go on NOAA's Web site right now and you will find almost nothing about the six major scientific studies that have come out in the last year linking more intense hurricanes to global warming? Why is it NOAA continues to run an essay that they put on their Web site in November after the official end of the last hurricane season in which they suggest there's consensus among NOAA scientists that the up-tick in hurricanes is natural? When Max Mayfield, head of the National Hurricane Center, and Conrad Lautenbacher, head of NOAA, go to Capital Hill and they are asked explicitly if there is a link between global warming and hurricanes, they say the jury is still out, or it's a natural variability. They are ignoring and suppressing the facts that increasingly show us that hurricanes are getting more intense. Not forecasted to become more intense, not on some fancy computer-modeling showing they might become more intense, but we now have observed measurable data that it's already happening. Why is NOAA suppressing this data? Additionally, NOAA has put a media policy in effect for its climate scientists that if they talk to journalists they have to clear it with NOAA's media office, they have to have a media representative present. This has put a serious chill on NOAA's climate scientists' ability to talk to the media. If you go to my website, www.katrinanomore.com, you can read all about this step-by-step of how they're trying to cover up the data.
The Bush Administration's chief of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Phil Cooney, resigned a year ago because he was caught doctoring and editing scientific papers to minimize the appearance of climate change danger. He came from the American Petroleum Institute to the White House. After he resigned, he went to work for ExxonMobil.
GAMBIT: What should the federal government be doing?
TIDWELL: As it relates to New Orleans, it's important to state the following: New Orleans needs a completely upgraded hurricane levee protection system and the federal government has been criminally slow in responding to this immediate need. We need Category 5 protection. The barrier islands and wetlands need to be rebuilt. New Orleans needs a rapid end to global warming. Even if you get the levees, even if you get the wetlands and barrier islands, if we get three or more additional feet of absolute sea level rise worldwide, forget it. Those levees will be overwhelmed.
I believe in miracles, but you have to believe it will almost take a miracle to protect New Orleans and make it habitable 100 years out. For all coastal areas around the world, we need a rapid switch to clean, efficient energy. We need to tell Detroit your days of building cars that get 10-15 miles per gallon are over. We're not going to solve global warming through individual and corporate volunteerism. We're not going to get there with people saying, "Hey, I'm concerned. I'm going to change a few light bulbs, carpool once a week, and buy a Prius." It ain't going to happen that way. We don't ask Ford Motor Company to build levees for New Orleans. In the same way we would never do that, it's ridiculous to leave the solution to global warming to volunteerism. We have to have mandated, extremely high fuel-efficiency standards for American cars. It must be illegal for Detroit to build a vehicle that gets less than 50 miles per gallon, including SUVs. We need a dramatic incentive program for more efficient appliances, lighting and producing electricity by non-greenhouse emitting sources. Those are the major things -- cars and electricity -- and joining the international efforts to stabilize the global climate.
GAMBIT: What about ordinary citizens?
TIDWELL: Get political. There's no substitute for political action. If you want to save New Orleans, coastal Louisiana, and the rest of our coastal cities, you have got to stand up and say something for God's sake. You've got to tell your leaders because they're obviously not doing anything.
- "It's the catastrophic land loss that created a watery flight path for Katrina to slam into New Orleans like a plane into the World Trade Center, with virtually nothing to slow her down." -- Mike Tidwell
- Mike Tidwell's new book forecasts a dire future with Katrina only the opening chapter of cataclysmic developments.