The Bring Back Bayou Bienvenue project is on my front-burner again. The University of Wisconsin Department of Geology and Geophysics, of which I am a graduate, asked me to write an article for the alumni magazine (due soon). Additionally, Rob Zaleski of Madison’s Capital Times emailed me a few days ago asking for my response to Madisonians and those at the University of Wisconsin who question whether the university should involve itself in advocating for the rebuilding of neighborhoods that are under sea level.
There are several things that irked me about this question. First of all, it’s too general; the Bayou Bienvenue project deals with a specific neighborhood and its bayou. Secondly, the project is a bayou-recovery feasibility study, not a neighborhood rebuilding effort or a social policy push. No one associated with this project is in the business of false hopes. Instead, the project exists to find out if a bayou can come back in a neighborhood that is surrounded by shipping channels and attendant seawater incursion, and whether the products of sewage treatment can help remediate the damage.
Lastly, the line of questioning makes the neighborhoods of New Orleans appear helpless and removed from their own rebuilding. The residents of the Lower Ninth Ward are the decisionmakers and instigators here. They have re-established themselves, want to rebuild in an environmentally-friendly and sustainable manner and have canvassed help. Environmental scientists from around the nation and world would be daft not to help them given the resources at hand.
Most of America, why, most of New Orleans thinks that the Lower Ninth Ward was absolutely devastated and that nothing has really happened there in the last 2.5 years. This is true to some extent given the ferocity of the localized flooding, ensuing devastation and overall snail’s pace of recovery in New Orleans. What most of us don’t know is that the neighborhood associations there banded together to create the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement & Development and actively direct how they want to come back. What other New Orleanian neighborhood has thought about rebuilding in terms of sustainable development and environmental restoration?
Speaking of other neighborhoods, most of Lakeview is farther below sea level than the entire Lower Ninth Ward. Has anyone questioned the rebuilding of Lakeview to the same extent they do that of poorer and blacker neighborhoods to the east? Granted, no one wants to see anyone suffer again, whatever their race or income may be, but America has to understand that there is a strong racial and economic bias at play in this city and its recovery. Lopsided questioning like this is precisely why it is our immediate social obligation to constantly shed light on New Orleans and to get assumptions right before passing judgment.
It’s not for us to decide whether it is right or wrong on the part of former residents to move back into their rebuilt and raised homes, especially when they bear the brunt of the insurance and re-flooding risk. It is, however, a social responsibility to help our fellow Americans after they have taken the situation into their own hands and have requested aid. Come what may, New Orleans and every coastal city on this planet has lessons to learn. I, for one, see no reason for the University of Wisconsin, or any other research institution, not to get involved in these lessons and a problem of such scope and urgency.
Our fate is your fate. Help us and learn from us. We must work hard to ensure that nothing like this happens here or anywhere again.