Monday, November 19, 2007

Frozen Wetlands

More than once during the past 11 years, my Darling Wife and I have looked at our Precious Daughter and said, "She's just so wonderful at this moment. I wish she would stop growing and remain like this forever."

A fleeting, silly thought, but a very human one that I guess we all have at one time or another.

But it cannot be so.

Poets and philosophers have explained it over and over: Time marches on. The only constant is change. Nothing gold remains. The times--they are a-changin'.

The nature of nature is change. Things grow, they die and something new grows in its place. Mountains rise and fall. Even the continents are moving, and tides, once thought to be constant, rise and fall over long periods we humans can only barely grasp.

And yet we crave consistency. I've talked to dozens of nature lovers who want nothing more than to "save" the wetlands as they are right now. Or, they want to restore Louisiana's coastal wetlands to the way they were 30, 40, or 50 years ago.

Static, unchanging, frozen wetlands.

Just one problem: ain't gonna happen.

Because even nature itself--if for some reason we meddlesome humans completely abandoned the area--even nature would not build those wetlands and keep them safe in her loving bosom for any appreciable length of time.

We know that as often as every few hundred years, nature's way has been to build the Mississippi River delta up by sedimentation and repetitive flooding, only to abandon what had been created by letting the river jump to another location altogether. In the brief history of south Louisiana (brief on the geologic time scale), the Mississippi River has dallied from one route to the next: from the Maringouin Delta to the Teche Delta, then from the St. Bernard Delta to the LaFourche Delta, and on to the Plaquemines Delta until arriving in its current location adjacent to New Orleans.

Nature is never static.

So anybody who wants to preserve the "natural" environment in exactly its present state is probably being a little naive. Anybody who wants to rebuild the "natural" environment to recreate what it looked like in the past is probably being a little idealistic.

There's just no such thing in nature.

There are some who will tell you that natural forces should be unleashed to build and rebuild natural land formations. They'll chastise anyone who thinks we mere humans can control the environment and engineer it to our personal likings.

And then they'll show you an old map and tell you this is what it must look like. They'll talk about regulating flows and controlling salinity and nutrient loads. They'll show you where the islands will be and where the lakes and ponds belong, because, you know, that's what nature intended so that's what we must forcibly reconstruct.

If you meet someone like this, tell them to set their alarm clock to "Now" so they can wake up. What they are describing is not nature--it's engineering. (And it's human engineering at that!) What they want is to engineer the environment to mimic what nature has done in the past or what they think nature would do in the future.

What they want is static, unchanging, frozen wetlands.

There is no doubt that humans have an impact on the environment. Through invasive population patterns and the ruthless efficiency of our industrialization and consumerism, we have left a huge footprint on the planet.

And there is no doubt that we have the capability to change that. If we want to, we can curb or reproduction, we can decrease our consumption and we can pay attention to the planet that gave birth to us.

I remember there was a speaker at a conference here back in November of 2005--probably the first in the string of rebuilding seminars that followed Hurricane Katrina--had something significant to say about this even then. I remember he said that rebuilding New Orleans was not a struggle of man against nature, because man has his place in the natural order. Viewed correctly, he said it is the struggle of man to live within nature.

I think that's a more realistic view. We are not going to conquer or triumph over nature, but we are not going to surrender to the whims of nature, either. We must find a way to live within nature, to acknowledge what we can and can't do, to pick our battles with the elements wisely, to make informed choices and to remain vigilant of future threats.

We have to learn not to merely live alongside nature; we have to learn to live within nature. I know this is not as easy to do as it is to say. We still have so much to learn--I certainly know I have a lot to learn.

Back at home, I know that my Precious Daughter is growing up, and that the sweet girl she is will not last long. She will continue to change and mature into womanhood no matter how hard we wish she would stop growing. I know I must learn and adapt because as wonderful as the past has been, the future can be even better.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Level of protection

This is not a new topic. We’ve been talking about this in New Orleans for two years, so you’d think folks would understand it by now.

Okay, so maybe it’s not possible for everyone to get this.

But The Times-Picayune? Why don’t they have this figured out yet?

It’s not that bad if you stick to the simple facts. The so-called 100-year flood is really the 1 percent flood. It’s the elevation of floodwater that has a 1 percent chance of being exceeded in a given year.

Simple but essential. Because that’s the elevation that FEMA will use to establish the Base Flood Elevation. That’s the elevation you must be at or above to be eligible for Road Home and SBA funding for new construction. That’s the elevation you must meet or exceed to be eligible for the National Flood Insurance Program preferred rates.

And as you may have heard, that’s the elevation that is the basis of the ongoing work to build and improve the levees that surround much of the New Orleans area.

So we see how important this is. That’s why it pains me every time I read The Times-Picayune struggling to grasp this basic but powerful concept.

The most recent infraction arrived in front of our FEMA Travel Trailer on Saturday morning. The subject story was just a recap of the WRDA bill and what it means to those of us who live in “that part of the world.”

About five paragraphs down, the paper reminds:

"A 100-year storm is a storm that has a 1 percent chance…"

So far so good.

"…of occurring, or being exceeded,…"

Yes! Important to remind folks of that point.

"…in any given year..."

Outstanding! It’s like watching an Olympic ice skater spinning gracefully through the air.

"…during a century."

CRASH!!!! But the skater hits the ice with a thud and a groan.

During a century?? Where did that come from?

Sorry guys, but basic statistics rely upon predictability that comes from long-term randomly dispersed events. No one can tell you when the next big hurricane is going to hit, but we can certainly know the probability over given periods of time.

If I may get all mathematical on ya'll, the probablility of seeing the 1 percent event in any given 100-year span (or century) is about 63%. Anybody who has my PowerPoint presentation from Rising Tide 2 can check the graph and come up with this answer. Just don't ask The Times-Picayune.

Oh well, perhaps they’ll figure it out in the next two years. Or more.