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Day 675: A Letter To A Geologist

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.

Maitri V-R

Varg, Ashley, Pistolette, Colleen and Bruce have more.

13 comments… add one
  • ashley July 5, 2007, 5:01 PM

    Well, we now know about the standards for tenure at the esteemed UConn.

  • Pistolette July 5, 2007, 6:01 PM

    That was very eloquent. Well put, thank you :-)

  • GentillyGirl July 5, 2007, 8:00 PM

    Freakin’ damn beautiful Darlin’!

  • Bill Lever July 5, 2007, 9:11 PM

    Dream on pal, New Orleans is a lost cause and in just a very short (geologic) time it will dissapear. Only by throwing vasts amounts of money into building levees and other flood control structures can the ultimate fate of New Orleans be delayed. Delayed, yes, but not avoided.

  • John July 5, 2007, 9:56 PM

    As a Connecticut native, I can’t miss the irony here. Connecticut is one of the wealthiest states in the US, and yet is home to some of the poorest cities in America. Over the course of my lifetime I’ve watched Bridgeport (my birthplace), New Haven, Stamford, and Hartford continue to decline.

    A big part of it is the state’s tax system, which concentrates money in wealthy suburbs and starves urban areas with high infrastructure costs, pushing them into a cycle of higher tax rates (to try to raise enough revenue) that end up shrinking the tax base. But this is just a reflection of a general attitude among people there – that cities are useless, and if they could just be bulldozed over, everyone would be happier. (Oh, the people in the cities? Whatever.)

    It’s actually an appropriate sentiment to see on the editorial page of a paper in the capital of a state that treats its own cities like garbage.

  • ashley July 5, 2007, 11:43 PM

    M, read his web page. He doesn’t “do” journal articles anymore. He is instead writing books and op-ed pieces, as he has tenure, and probably couldn’t make it past a peer-review anyway.

  • Varg July 6, 2007, 7:11 AM

    I think it’s funny that he supports the demolition of levees and flood walls that protect New Orleans, yet “promotes the appreciation, investigation, and conservation of stone walls in New England.” WTF?

  • celcus July 6, 2007, 8:17 AM

    “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”

    I like the extra twist you give the shiv.

  • D July 6, 2007, 11:15 AM
  • joejoejoe July 6, 2007, 11:19 AM

    Well said Maitri. Great response.

  • Maitri July 6, 2007, 11:59 AM

    Let me also add that with sea level rise, the country will have a lot more to worry about on every coast and not just New Orleans. What will they do in D.C., Manhattan, etc.? Why call this city a lost cause when all coastal cities are threatened?

  • Ray M July 6, 2007, 9:48 PM

    You can either a) ignore this guy, or b) point out where he gets the facts wrong. And he’s done plenty of the latter, or just presented facts in misleading way. It may feel good to print what some anonymous undergraduate thought about his teaching and personality, but that doesn’t say anything about his article and research.

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