Monday, June 29, 2009

That sinking feeling

You know the exotic dancer in Independence Day -- the best friend of Will Smith's girlfriend?

Remember how she's convinced the aliens and their gigantic spaceships pose no threat, and how she and a hundred or so other like-minded folk in Los Angeles go up on a high-rise's roof to throw a big party, pass a good time and welcome the little green men?

Remember what happened to them?

Dat's Loosiana for you!

Because that, my friends, is the perfect metaphor for my home state. Anybody with half a brain can see that it's not benevolent forces bearing down on Planet Louisiana, and that somebody better do something quick or everybody's gonna die.

SO WHAT DO Louisiana's leaders do when the state's revenue model has blown up, the exodus of its best and brightest continues with no letup and, now, scientists say the Gulf of Mexico is going to swallow a Connecticut-sized chunk of the state and no one can stop it?


HURRICANE CHRIS -- the rapper, not some future south Louisiana apocalypse -- wants to do unspeakable things with Halle Berry when he's not serenading the Louisiana House. Meanwhile, the death ray is charging up.

Dollars to doughnuts, the Gret Stet has about as much chance against the economy, demographics and rising sea levels as Independence Day's rooftop hoochie mama had against the space aliens.

Let's look at the burgeoning Gulf of Mexico, shall we? From the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

Even under best-case scenarios for building massive engineering projects to restore Louisiana's dying coastline, the Mississippi River can't possibly feed enough sediment into the marshes to prevent ongoing catastrophic land loss, two Louisiana State University geologists conclude in a scientific paper being published today.

The result: The state will lose another 4,054 to 5,212 square miles of coastline by 2100 -- an area roughly the size of Connecticut.

The reason: The Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers today carry only half the sediment they did a century ago -- between 400 million and 500 million tons a year then, compared with just 205 million tons today. The rest is now captured by more than 40,000 dams and reservoirs that have been built on rivers and streams that flow into the main channels.

Yet even if those dams were to be torn down and the river's full sediment load employed in restoration efforts -- a politically impossible scenario -- it would not be enough to turn back the tide of coastal erosion, write authors Michael Blum, a former LSU geologist now working for ExxonMobil Upstream Research Co. in Houston, and LSU geology professor Harry Roberts.

GET THAT? A huge chunk of the state, a chunk where hundreds of thousands of people now live, will be in the drink by the end of the century, if not sooner. And that's according to rising-ocean estimates not nearly as drastic as some.

None of this is any surprise. Scientists have been saying variations of this for years, and the Times-Picayune has been reporting on it all. For a while.

I wonder what wisdom Hurricane Chris -- or Halle Berry, for that matter -- might have for the masses as that economy-sized can of Whoop-Ass looms on the horizon?

Increased rates of sea-level rise spurred by human-induced global warming, when combined with the state's rapid rate of subsidence, or the sinking of soft soils, will inundate vast swaths of wetlands over the next century, according to the study.

The paper predicts water levels will rise between 2.6 feet and 3.9 feet along the coast by 2100.

If the researchers are right, such land loss can't be stopped, or even substantially slowed. That means the cause of "restoration," as efforts to build new wetlands and barrier islands are termed -- creating the impression that wetlands lost over the last 70 years can be reclaimed -- is a lost one.

Roberts said he recognized the paper's conclusions would be controversial.

"Louisiana is facing some really tough decisions here," he said in an interview. "You can't do this restoration all over the coast because the whole coast is not sustainable and it never has been."

AND LOUISIANA'S future "tough decisions" inevitably impact tough budgetary decisions the state faces in the here and now.

How much infrastructure money do you think the state ought to be wasting on places like Morgan City, projected to be in the deep blue sea in a few decades? Do you think Louisiana ought to be supporting a state university -- Nicholls State -- in as precarious a place as Thibodaux is going to be?

And what about New Orleans? Can it be saved? At what cost to the rest of the state?

Will the federal government pay to do it? Or will it cut bait?

Some small communities along the coast already are being abandoned. Many more towns -- and probably a few cities as well -- will be abandoned long before 2100. Where will those people go?

Who will pay for them to go?

DOES HURRICANE CHRIS have any suggestions for what hundreds of thousands of Louisianians might do for a living after the seafood and oil-and-gas industries have been devastated? Any clues about how to find those answers when the state's universities are being hammered by budget cuts that only promise to get worse?

So far, the only answer the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal had for the New Orleans newspaper was that things probably aren't as dire as the geologists' report says.

Garret Graves, an adviser to Gov. Bobby Jindal on coastal issues, said that while the study's conclusions seem to him overly pessimistic, the state recognizes it will not be able to restore the state's historic coastline.

"If we can extract 80 percent or greater amounts of sediment from the river and put it in strategic places, we can be more effective in replacing land," he said.

"But we are going to have to prioritize," Graves said. "Will Louisiana look like it did in 1930? No, probably not.

"But is it possible for us to sustain a significant part of the coastal area in light of protected sea level rise and the erosion we're experiencing today?" he said, "Yes."
BECAUSE THE only thing the Gret Stet has to fear . . . is thinking negative thoughts. Surely the worst won't happen, so why think about how to deal with it?

Why try to help yourself, after all, when you can throw a crawfish boil instead? Or maybe stick your fingers in your ears and whistle a few bars of "Dixie."

And that's where we now find the Gret Stet. Atop a metaphorical L.A. (or LA) skyscraper, gazing expectantly at the spacecraft hovering above its head.

Isn't it pretty? Surely the spacemen didn't come all this way to hurt us. They've come in peace! Yeah, that's the ticket! Let's party!

Hey, what the. . . .

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