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It was a short phone call, lasting only a few minutes, but it formally launched the largest displacement of American citizens since the Civil War. On Saturday, August 27, 2005, Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, told New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin that Hurricane Katrina was the "worst case" storm everyone had feared for decades. It was headed right for New Orleans with the energy of a ten-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every twenty minutes.
Within hours, Nagin had ordered the first mandatory evacuation in the city's three-hundred-year history. Over the next two days a staggering 1.3 million people would abandon the city and much of south Louisiana. So many cars headed north, full of people and pets and valuables, that satellite cameras captured the bumper-to-bumper interstate crawl from outer space.
In New Orleans, every rental car, every U-Haul van and truck, was gone. People walked, hitchhiked, hot-wired postal vehicles. They took flatboats up the Mississippi River. Amtrak and Greyhound sent their last cars and buses rolling north, east, and west -- anywhere away from the storm. Prisoners were hustled off in chains. Hospital patients who could be moved were evacuated -- babies in incubators, psychiatric patients strapped to gurneys. Drivers out of gas on clogged highways drilled holes in the gas tanks of abandoned cars for fuel to keep moving.
The human tidal wave crashed first into Louisiana towns just to the north. Baton Rouge, the somewhat somnolent state capital, doubled in size almost overnight, taking on 200,000 newcomers and becoming the largest city in the state just as New Orleans shrank to nothing. Hotels everywhere were booked solid. Extended families of up to forty people crammed into three-bedroom homes, with sleeping bags spread across hallways and kitchens, and water running nonstop from showers, washing machines, and flushing toilets.
And still they came, hundreds of thousands more refugees, arriving just ahead or after Katrina's harrowing landfall. Makeshift shelters sprang up across Louisiana and neighboring states and as far away as Nevada and Washington, D.C. Within days, Baton Rouge's modest airport was the second busiest in America, with passengers accepting any flight anywhere away from the storm and its aftermath, scattering themselves across America. By Sunday, September 4, the last fleeing inhabitants of New Orleans -- the poorest and most desperate people, abandoned on overpasses and littered sidewalks -- were finally bused by the thousands to Houston's Astrodome and convention center.
A week after it started, the retreat was at last complete. It had occurred on a scale no one could have imagined. Over one million people displaced in Louisiana alone. A vast section of American real estate lay broken and eerily, impossibly, empty. The return date for evacuees was wholly uncertain. Many would never return.
Yet as difficult and chaotic and disruptive as the Katrina evacuation was -- broadcast nightly in horrifying detail to the world -- there's one crucial element I'm sure most Americans have failed to appreciate, and it is this: At least those 1.3 million people had somewhere to run to. At least there was a safe and secure mainland to receive them.
Imagine a different scenario. Imagine if all those men, women, and children had not been able to flee at all. Imagine if all the roads out of town had been blocked for some reason and all escape vehicles sabotaged to boot. What if, instead of the few thousand who couldn't or wouldn't flee Katrina, all the people of New Orleans and surrounding parishes were left behind. Picture every last schoolteacher and grandmother and checkout girl and auto mechanic and kindergartner and musician and corporate lawyer all huddled behind those faulty levees as a nuclear-scale storm rapidly approached.
Why imagine this? Because, like the long-ignored warnings about insufficient levees in New Orleans, there are extremely serious warnings out there that Katrina-like disasters could become commonplace along vast stretches of U.S. coastlines in the not-so-distant future. And evacuating inland might not be an option, no matter how bad the storm, because extreme weather events in the heartland (droughts, heat waves, forest fires) will remove the welcome mat. There simply won't be the infrastructure and surplus resources needed to absorb the overflowing humanity.
Ever since Katrina hit, Americans have been asking two fundamental questions: How in the world did this disaster happen? And, could a similar calamity happen where I live? This book will answer both questions in detail.
For starters, Katrina devastated New Orleans because, over the decades, we, as a nation, profoundly altered the basic hydrology of the Mississippi River. The river's massive flood levees directly triggered a geologic chain reaction that obliterated the vast wetlands and coastal barrier islands that once protected the city from hurricanes. By 2005, so much land had disappeared that we had essentially created a watery flight path for Katrina to slam into New Orleans like a plane into the World Trade Center. There was nothing "natural" about this natural disaster. We did this.
In March 2003, my book Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast was published. It predicted in great detail that a Katrina-like storm would soon destroy New Orleans, leaving thousands of people dead and the national economy bruised. When the hurricane did hit, precisely as foreseen, journalists from around the world began calling me, asking how it felt to be a prophet. How amazing, they said, that I was able to see this disaster coming when so many others didn't.
In truth, I deserve no credit whatsoever for my prediction. Katrina's arrival was as certain as tomorrow's sunrise. There were thousands of pages of reports before the storm, from advocacy groups and government agencies, spelling out the need for better levees and bigger barrier islands to prevent the looming catastrophe. Hindsight is 20/20, and Americans are now outraged by the lack of prior action. Yet the predisaster paper trail was so long, stretching to the moon and back, that a journalist like me was just stating the obvious prior to August 2005. Katrina was coming. The facts were as clear as day.
And now something else is coming, something just as obvious but much bigger and even more dangerous. Which leads us to the second question on every American's mind: Can Katrina happen where I live? The answer, unfortunately, is yes, yes, and again yes. If you are one of the 150 million Americans who live within a hundred miles of a coastline -- and even if you live much farther inland -- you could be inhabiting the next New Orleans. The bad news for you is that there are even more studies full of even more scientific data confirming this fact than there were predicting Katrina prior to 2005.
The issue this time is global warming. We are literally altering the sky above us. And be assured, this is not some "junk theory" peddled by Greenpeace extremists. No less a voice than the Bush administration has officially confirmed, on multiple occasions, that global warming is real and is driven by our use of fossil fuels -- oil, coal, and natural gas. Worldwide, thanks to climate change, sea level is expected to rise up to three feet during this century and extreme weather events are expected to increase -- according to the Bush administration.
These two factors -- more intense storms and rising ocean levels -- mean we are rapidly turning the majority of America's coastal cities into places greatly resembling New Orleans. Thanks to global warming, mountain glaciers worldwide are vanishing, sending meltwater into oceans that are themselves warming and growing in volume. The resulting sea-level rise -- again, up to three feet by 2100 -- means that vast areas of many U.S. coastal cities will soon fall below sea level just like New Orleans, and they will require levees to survive, just like New Orleans.
On top of this, along America's Atlantic and Gulf coasts, hurricanes are becoming much more ferocious. Three major scientific studies in the past year alone reveal that rising sea-surface temperatures linked to global warming are driving an observed trend toward much stronger hurricanes. One study by a noted scientist at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology shows that hurricane wind speeds have doubled in the last fifty years. This may account for the following astonishing fact: Among the six most powerful hurricanes to strike America in the last 150 years, three of them -- a full half -- happened in just fifty-two days in 2005: Katrina, Rita, and Wilma.
In 2003, I declared with complete confidence that Katrina was coming. I argued that below-sea-level New Orleans would soon fall prey to a major hurricane because of human actions. Now I beseech readers to trust me when I say Houston and Tampa and New York City and Baltimore and Miami are in equally deep trouble. If you want to know what disasters these cities will be frantically fighting against fifty to seventy-five years from now, just turn on your television. Look at New Orleans today. That's the future.
Yet a full year after Katrina hit, we are still ignoring that storm's biggest lesson. We continue to turn a blind eye to global warming the same way we once ignored the dire pleas for stronger levees in Louisiana. History is repeating itself on the largest scale imaginable. The pages that follow will make clear that all of America -- and indeed the whole planet -- is now like a low-lying land behind broken and insufficient levees, and the water is coming up fast.
But, thankfully, there is a plan to get us out of this mess just as there was once a viable plan to prevent Katrina's worst impacts. It involves the seemingly unlikely aid of hybrid cars and modern windmills and solarized homes. Clean energy is the solution to global warming, and clean energy is as widely available to us today as the dirt below our feet for filling sandbags. We just have to pitch in and pick up our shovels and get to work -- right now.
In the end, the metaphors only go so far. We have but one planet Earth, and it is not just another watery Louisiana parish we can vacate and return to when the danger's gone. Our days of running are simply running out.
Soon we won't have any place to go.
Copyright © 2006 by Mike Tidwell