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Panel says Katrina disaster has roots in 1700s

Hurricane Katrina’s effects are the consequences of natural forces combined with the way people have engineered the landscape as far back as the early 1700s, scientists said during a panel discussion of the hurricane at LSU.

Advocate staff writer

“It was not just a meteorological event, it was a social event as well,” said Craig Colten, professor of geography at LSU, one of the members of Thursday’s panel.

The disaster of Hurricane Katrina is rooted in the 1720s, he said, when the French settlers started building levees in an attempt to stop flooding from the Mississippi River.

By the time Louisiana became a state on April 30, 1812, there were levees running from New Orleans to Baton Rouge along the Mississippi River and all the way to the Red River on the west bank.

Eventually, the federal government took on the levee building responsibility with the formation of the Mississippi River Commission in 1878, and by 1926 declared that the levee system could handle anything the river could throw at it, Colten said. Then came the flood of 1927 to prove that statement wrong.

In the meantime, levees and drainage systems continued to be built in and around New Orleans. This construction helped transform former marshland into dry land suitable for urban development.

However, as the marshland dried out, oxidation of the heavily organic soil caused the low-lying areas to sink even farther below sea level. Yet the levees were there, so people continued to build.

“Levees have a tendency to cause a false sense of security,” Colten said.

Betsy hit in 1965, flooding parts of New Orleans. However, some of the low-lying areas hadn’t been heavily developed yet. That has changed in the past 40 years, he said.

Now, the task is deciding how the New Orleans rebuilding effort will proceed, panelists said.

“We shouldn’t talk about bulldozing the Lower 9th Ward. There are some homes that are still in pretty darn good shape,” Colten said.

Instead, it’s time to start talking about building these homes up to get them out of potential flooding in the future.

John Pine, interim chair of LSU’s department of geography and anthropology, said rebuilding will need to include recognizing how people have changed the landscape around New Orleans and how that could affect flooding and storm damage in the future.

In doing that, he said, it’s important to include the unique culture and heritage of neighborhoods instead of imposing outside ideas on people.

Jay Edwards, anthropology professor at LSU, agreed, saying new construction in the New Orleans area should take note of how people used to build houses in the city and how they are built in other tropical locations. Simply, build houses higher to get them out of flood water.

In addition, neighborhood residents should get a say about how their homes are rebuilt and in a style that fits that neighborhood, he said.

Helen Regis, associate professor of anthropology, agreed.

“The people who live in New Orleans are the main experts on how to rebuild,” Regis said.

Rebuilding New Orleans and other communities along the Gulf Coast is just one of the tasks that needs to be accomplished in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Large-scale coastal restoration work also needs to be pursued, said Gregory Stone, professor of coastal geology at LSU.

The coastline of Louisiana has been eroding for decades through a combination of man-made and natural processes. This coastal land loss has reduced the buffer the Louisiana coastal areas used to enjoy during storm season. The land loss essentially has brought the Gulf of Mexico and its hurricane storm surges closer to heavily populated areas.

Stone said the attempt to get federal money to help pay for large coastal restoration projects currently being planned has been frustrating.

Watching the more recent — and so far unsuccessful — attempts to get this funding, even after two major hurricane strikes, has added to that frustration.

“The harsh reality is that our delegation in Washington now is incredibly weak,” Stone said. “What we’ve lacked is federal funding.”

Source: http://www.2theadvocate.com/stories/101605/new_panel001.shtml

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