Politics Aside, New Orleans A Lost Cause greeted me before coffee intake this morning. According to Robert Thorson, the “Katrina tragedy [was] a natural disaster,” Democratic presidential hopefuls “exploited the tragedy’s compelling secondary issues such as race, financial greed and bureaucratic incompetence” and the “real reason New Orleans remains unfixed – without police and fire protection and with vacant hospitals – is because objective visionaries and smart money sees such rebuilding as a risky, if not wasteful war against nature.” I got a good laugh out of that last assertion – my city’s leaders are a lot of things, but “objective visionaries” isn’t one of them. To further explore New Orleanian reality, let’s go back to those “secondary” issues of race, financial greed and bureaucratic incompetence.
I almost roundfiled this editorial out of Hartford, CT as another piece of anti-New Orleans tripe, until I noticed that Thorson is a professor of geology at the University of Connecticut. Whoa. That I have to explain the whys and hows of post-Katrina New Orleans two years later is egregious enough, but to a geologist and a college professor? The man is an educator with a large student base. Think of the misinformed students of geology and science out there, and the impact of such wrong messages on public policy. A response is served.
Dear Professor Thorson,
As a concerned American citizen and educator, who also happens to be a New Orleans resident and geologist, I write in response to your recent editorial in the Hartford Courant. With all due respect, your gross lack of understanding of the issues surrounding New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina and the flood is nothing short of stunning. Your choice of New Orleans to underpin vociferousness on climate change and associated sea level rise is extremely poor form, given the evidence to the contrary. A good scientific point, but one not to be made using New Orleans and our special set of unnatural circumstances as an example.
That’s right – unnatural. The Hartford Courant itself has published several articles on the blame accepted by the Army Corps of Engineers with respect to the flooding in the days following August 29, 2005. Their failure to install and maintain the requisite levees and pumps almost caused the full destruction of this great American city. This information is widely available in media as well as scientific circles. The “brutal geological reality” is that many parts of this city are above sea level and survived quite nicely. If what we experienced were indeed a natural disaster, my home in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans would not be standing. To that end, please inform yourself and your students that New Orleans was not devastated by Hurricane Katrina, but through a flood caused very much by financial greed and bungling at all levels of American government that continues to this day.
Some have told me to be a scientist and not to meddle in the affairs of politics and policy. On the contrary, my ability to reason and to sniff out facts, and a general sense of civic responsibility, puts me in a good place to have such opinions within and outside of my immediate field of study, and to offer them to lawmakers. Your editorial, sir, shames me, as you have twisted and neglected the facts here to prove your theory. As a geologist, you will understand me when I say that you have essentially fashioned the data to fit your model. In the realm of science and its applications, this is unacceptable. For scientific research and science-fueled opinions to achieve social relevance requires responsibility on the part of the scientist and mountains of social data from the field. This may include, for instance, leaving your office or laboratory occasionally to read the papers or listen to the radio in your own part of the world, leave alone spending a fair amount of time in the city of your study.
Pardon the rough tone, but this is a matter of life and death for New Orleans, not an intellectual plaything or the next topic for a journal paper. That America and the rest of the world understand what went on here before, during and after Katrina and the Flood is crucial. Heaven forbid that something similar should occur in Bridgeport, New Haven or Niantic, or even Hartford for that matter. In such a circumstance, it is critical that local residents and onlookers appreciate the difference between natural and unnatural, unavoidable and unjust. It is vitally important that educators and students, especially of geology, learn from this horror and use the proper information and tools to make sure it never happens again. This would be the best tribute to the 1300 New Orleanians who lost their lives in a most unnatural way.