Monday, August 25, 2008

Notes on Rising Tide III

Of course John M. Barry was the highlight of the conference. Perhaps the most learned and easily the most accomplished of speakers and panelists gathered for Rising Tide III, Barry was also as charming and friendly as anyone could have hoped for. He autographed a stack of his books prior to speaking, scribbling "John Barry" in all except for Sophmom who asked for and received a personalized imprint.

I think Barry’s presentation was exactly what the conference was hoping for: historical background, scientific facts and a passionate belief that New Orleans not only can be protected but must be.

And none of this namby-pamby "New Orleans has great food" and "New Orleans has great music." Barry went right to the jugular in pointing out that without the deep-draft ports that stretch some 70 miles in and around New Orleans, ports throughout the interior of the United States would be reduced to hauling corn and manure amongst themselves. If New Orleans is lost, Barry said there will be no more international trade on the waterways in the heart of America.

Will it be expensive to protect New Orleans? Barry did not flinch or attempt to hide the cost, which he said would be at least $100 billion. But how could it not be worth it?

Barry also talked about the challenge of protecting the port city, which by necessity is both close to the sea and close to sea level. He noted that sediment which used to be carried to Louisiana by the Mississippi River has decreased sharply with development upstream, particularly with the installation of locks and hydroelectric dams. (Where have we heard that before?) And because of levees to prevent river flooding, almost all the remaining sediment ends up dumped off the continental shelf into the Gulf of Mexico.

Still, Barry was optimistic. He’s no engineer, but he does seem to have an informed view of the complexities involved in preserving coastal Louisiana. Barry was clear in his conviction that solutions are possible if only the will exists to make it happen.

Overall, it was an excellent presentation and I cannot recall a single statement made by Barry to which I would take exception. Rising Tide participants gave Barry a standing ovation at the conclusion of his talk and Q&A. This was surely a sign of the respect and appreciation we have for all he’s done for New Orleans, including serving on the levee board and writing magazine articles and newspaper op-eds defending and promoting our city.

Still, I’m worried for him. At no point did Barry place full and square blame for the flooding of New Orleans on the Corps of Engineers. When talking of projects that tended to make the coast more vulnerable to storm surge and saltwater intrusion, Barry said, "People built the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. People built the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet."

Recall how Sandy attacked the American Society of Civil Engineers for making presentations to engineering groups and students about Katrina. ASCE spoke of engineering failures and system failures, which Sandy interpreted as a whitewash of the federal government’s culpability and a cover-up for the Corps. If Sandy is consistent in her reasoning and conviction, Barry should expect a harsh press release in the next few days. After all he's done he does not deserve such treatment, so I hope he is spared the assault.

John Barry was an excellent choice for keynote speaker. The organizers of Rising Tide III deserve heaps of praise for their excellent work on this year’s event. And John Barry, too--thanks!

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