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Day 899: Quoted In Madison’s Capital Times

Before we were flattened by the roaring Carnival freight train, I spoke with Rob Zaleski of the Capital Times, one of Madison, Wisconsin’s two daily newspapers, regarding the University of Wisconsin’s concerns over its involvement in rebuilding neighborhoods below sea level. Most of my comments were published in the following Op-Ed piece.

Rob Zaleski: UW team aims to aid New Orleans bayou

Maitri Venkat-Ramani, who lives in New Orleans and is president of the New Orleans chapter of the UW Alumni Association, says people need to understand that New Orleans did not flood because it is below sea level.

Geographically, New Orleans is a “bowl,” parts of which are below sea level and parts of which are not, she notes.

When Katrina hit, “large portions of the city flooded because the federal levees broke,” says Venkat-Ramani, who is a geophysicist for Shell Oil Co. and has written about the UW project on her [blog]. “They stayed flooded because water remained in the bowl and our pumping stations failed at a crucial time.”

Had the levees and pumping stations done their jobs, she says, “Katrina would have blown by to the east and New Orleans would be just fine today.”

Humans must always keep in mind that many of our living areas are built, conditioned, not attuned to nature.  Also, why not ask the same of neighborhoods in lower-lying areas like Lakeview and parts of New Orleans East?  Herb Wang, professor of geology at the UW and leader of the Bring Back Bayou Bienvenue project, nails the environmental and socioeconomic fallacies associated with doubts over such rebuilding.

“There’s a rational side of me that says living in a place that’s 8 to 11 feet below sea level is not wise,” he says. “But you know what? I can point to lots of places in this country where it’s not wise to live. There are fires in San Diego. There is drought in Las Vegas. The fact is, a lot of our built environments require fairly large-scale protection.”

Could it be, he muses, that many people oppose rebuilding the Lower Ninth Ward because it’s economically depressed and predominantly African-American? Would they feel differently if it were a white, upscale neighborhood and/or a tourist magnet?

It appears that Herb and I did not successfully get across that the Lower Ninth Ward is higher in elevation than most other neighborhoods in New Orleans that suffered flooding, whether catastrophic or gradual.  A great deal of facts have been passed along, however, with the hope that this turns into an ongoing dialogue and the continuation of the UW-Lower Ninth Ward partnership.

4 comments… add one
  • mominem February 12, 2008, 12:37 PM

    It was a good try. People generally believe what they want to believe. All you can really do is keep telling the truth.

  • celcus February 13, 2008, 11:15 AM

    Lets not leave out the fact that if it makes “no sense” to rebuild the lower 9, it makes equal sense to abandon Chalmette, and the rest of St. Bernard Parish…this, of course, gets left out of most peoples so-called logic.

    And my understanding was the Orleans Parish pumps failed because they were finally inundated by flood s from the failed levees. There were several heroic stories of the pump operators staying until the generators died, and climbing in to the rafters of the pump stations to survive. Did I miss something?

  • Maitri February 13, 2008, 12:42 PM

    Celcus,

    There are also stories of pumping stations that failed outright and ones that were abandoned.

  • Dave February 15, 2008, 2:29 AM

    Finally! Could the message be getting through to the rest of America? (Wisconsin, at least.)

    The relationship between property elevation and likelihood of flooding– particularly inside the boundry of levee protection– is more complex than just a single variable (elevation.)

    Some of these issues will be addressed at the upcoming GeoCongress 2008 (part of the American Society of Civil Engineers) to be held March 10-15th in New Orleans (google Geocongress for more info.)

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