Wednesday, August 31, 2005

When the Levee Breaks

Billmon' at the Whiskey Bar on the real environmental meaning of Katrina:
Crying won't help you, praying won't do you no good
Now, crying won't help you, praying won't do you no good
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move

Memphis Minnie McCoy
When the Levee Breaks

There's something peculiarly horrible about the way the worst-case scenario unfolded in New Orleans, as the most unique city in America gradually filled with water -- like a child's toy in a bathtub -- after the worst of the danger had appeared to pass. It seems Katrina was only toying with her prey when she wobbled a bit to the east just before landfall. She left the death blow to the waters of Lake Pontchartrain.

There have been storms far worse than this -- like the 1971 cyclone and tidal wave that killed an estimated 300,000 people in what is now Bangladesh. Even in this country, the Galveston hurricane of 1900 killed at least 6,000 people and dealt the city a blow from which it never really recovered. (In the end, this may also be the Big Easy's fate.)

Likewise, the Great Mississippi flood of 1927 -- which inspired Memphis Minnie to write one of Led Zeppelin's best songs -- broke levees from St. Louis to New Orleans and turned most of the Delta country of eastern Mississippi (the state, not the river) into an inland sea. Thousands died, many of them African-American sharecroppers rounded up at gunpoint and set to work shoring up the levees. When the rainsoaked barriers finally gave way, hundreds of them, many chainganged together like convicts, were swept to their deaths.

God willing, the death toll from Katrina won't be as high as those earlier disasters. But property losses obviously will be vastly greater, even in inflation-adjusted terms. If the '27 flood turned the Delta into an inland sea, Katrina has turned most of New Orleans into a toxic cesspool: (more)

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