Cover Story

History Lessons

Renowned historian and Rising Tide author John Barry addresses coastal erosion, Louisiana's levee system, the political ramifications of Katrina and Rita and more.

From mid-2004 through August 2005, renowned author John Barry was a frequent guest on news outlets like National Public Radio. Barry's recent book, The Great Influenza, a chronicle of the influenza epidemic of 1918, is being touted as an invaluable source and history lesson for government leaders around the word grappling with the possible outbreak of bird flu pandemic.

But it's the book he wrote almost a decade ago ' Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America ' that has national media relying on Barry's expertise more than ever in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Barry's compelling and exhaustively researched account of the 1927 flood and the events that preceded and followed it is a brilliant mixture of history and narrative that shows how nature, politics and engineering decisions contributed to the factors that made New Orleans and southwest Louisiana more vulnerable to major hurricanes.

Barry will revisit Rising Tide and address the current challenges Louisiana faces in the post-Katrina and Rita landscape during his Lafayette visit this week as part of The Independent Weekly's lecture series (see p. 13). Barry spoke with The Independent from his French Quarter home last week for a wide-ranging interview that previews some of the major issues he'll be discussing in Lafayette.

What's your take on the current status or strength of the Mississippi River's Old River Control Structure? Is it something that we need to be concerned about?

There are a lot of people who feel eventually the river is going to do what it wants to do. If you get another really major flood or something comparable, the current flood control system will not handle the [equivalent] of the 1927 flood. I think everybody knows that. So Old River may be the least of your problems then.

If you get an enormous flood, you put a lot of stress on that system. They have improved it since 1973; 1997 was a very big flood ' I don't know if people realize how significant that flood was. That was certainly one of the five biggest floods of the 20th century and maybe higher than that. I don't recall any hints of problems in Old River.

The 1973 flood of course was a different story, but they weren't ready for '73. The '73 flood almost took the control structure out. Nonetheless, there are a lot of people, and engineers among them, who think the river eventually is going to do what it wants to do, and of course, it wants to go down that path, down that basin.

Is there any one particular spot there you think is particularly vulnerable, as far as what the river wants to do?

Water, or nature, any time you exert pressure on any system, the weakest link is going to go. Right now, and I'm not exactly up to date on this, but as of a couple of years ago, the weakest links were probably in the levee system as opposed to the control structures. If the levee system were to hold in a great flood, that would put great pressure on the control structures, but if the levee system breaks it releases pressure everywhere else. It's not exactly a cheerful alternative. It might well be a worse alternative.

I think the Corps will tell you where it sits right now. Four or five years ago, they had 150 miles of levee that were below grade. Some of it was a lot below grade ' not inches, but feet.

Where exactly in the system?

The lower Mississippi Delta, and I think on the Mississippi side, between Vicksburg and Greenville. I think there were some areas around Lake Providence. Right around Angola was a problem.

But I know that the Corps will tell you this stuff is below grade. They want money to fix it. They haven't gotten it.

If the river goes where it wants to go, would Atchafalaya Basin residents be facing a similar threat that New Orleans residents faced with Katrina if the Old River Control Structure failed?

Well, they'll also face that threat if the levee system goes. The flood control system in the entire United States is not where it should be. In Holland and Japan and other parts of the world, they're determined to protect their citizens against flooding. They protect against what they regard as a statistical 10,000-year event ' one in 10,000 years.

There's no place in the United States that has anything like that protection. Most of the flood protection in the United States, although it's a little higher on the lower Mississippi River, is based on a 100-year flood. Like Sacramento, [Calif.], for example. There are 3 million exposed to flooding in the central valley of California, and they're protected to a 100-year standard. If you think about it, what that means is if you live an average life, you have well over a 50 percent chance that you're going to experience a flood higher than that standard. For that matter, you've got like a 7 percent chance that you'll see a 1,000-year flood in your lifetime. So when you look at it that way, that's a pretty ludicrous standard.

And it's set because of insurance. It makes some sense for an insurance company to insure against a 100-year flood, but it does not make sense for a society to protect its citizens, billions and billions of dollars of property, not to mention thousands and thousands of lives, against a 1,000-year standard. And in Holland and Japan, they use a 10,000-year standard compared to a hundred years.

Now the lower Mississippi, as I say, there's a higher standard, but they never really sat down and really figured out what standard they're using. But it seems like it's 700 years or 750 years. But that's not what was in their heads when they designed the flood control system.

The Sacramento Bee newspaper has done some good work trying to alert people to the problem. Do you get any sense that the issue of flood control is picking up any traction?

It certainly is getting some. In California, [Gov. Arnold] Schwarzenegger has recently suspended, under emergency decrees, all sorts of environmental regulations to get to work on the levee system, at least bringing that up to the standard. I don't know exactly what they're doing in Sacramento, but they clearly can't raise that to a much higher standard overnight.

Back between the '80s and the mid-90s, three times in 10 years, the Sacramento River exceeded the 100-year standard. Each time, the Corps of Engineers raised their definition of 100-year flood. And the truth of the matter is the Corps does not have enough data to even define a 100-year flood on the Sacramento River.

Why don't they have that?

They just haven't had enough observations. There's more data on the Mississippi. We know more about the Mississippi.

Try this one on for size: In Charlotte, N.C., they recently remeasured and recalibrated their 100-year flood standard and discovered that much of the city was 10 feet lower than the 100-year standard for much of the region. I doubt that a single reader of your newspaper could name the river in Charlotte. So it's not simply major river systems. There has been a lack of attention to flooding everywhere in the country.

I can't name what river goes through Charlotte, either.

Can the Army Corps of Engineers be trusted with the rebuilding that's going on now? Obviously they've received a lot of criticism for past mistakes, and even now there's still questions about whether they're using the right materials, etc.

The colonel in charge of building and bringing the levees back up to the authorized level looked me straight in the eye and said that those levees meet American Society of Civil Engineers standards. He looked me straight in the eye.

When was this?

Three or four weeks ago. I am absolutely certain that he was telling me the truth as he saw it. By the same token, there may well be a contractor doing something that he doesn't know. However, the scrutiny which they are undergoing, it's like Ronald Reagan said ' and I thought I would never quote Reagan in my life ' "Trust, but verify."

You mentioned Holland and Japan. Our legislators have been over to the Netherlands looking at their flood control system â?¦

I went on that trip to Holland.

What did you think of the trip, and is that model they're using a remote possibility?

Well, they're not perfect. They've made mistakes, and they're trying to correct them now. They were so focused on flooding alone, they did a good job of protecting themselves against flooding, but it started creating a lot of other problems which they're now having to address.

Such as?

They have some environmental problems. They're having to rebuild some of their coast. The dunes are a huge part of their flood control system. We unfortunately don't have the kind of dunes in Louisiana that they have there. They've got really tall dunes. I'm talking about 50, 70 feet, maybe higher. Their dune line is a much better barrier than Louisiana's marsh. But they're having to rebuild that. They've got problems with the Rhine [River]. You hear people talk about rivers that drop so much sediment on the riverbed that it actually raises the bed. People say that about the Mississippi, and it's not really true about the Mississippi, in general. There are some regions where that happens, but it's not a major problem on the Mississippi. It is a problem in parts of the Rhine that Holland has to deal with.

They're also having salinity problems. They've destroyed their fisheries.

This all sounds very familiar.

What they do well, even though they didn't do it perfectly, and what they've done much better than we've done, they put everything together in a comprehensive way. We tend to build on part of a system and look at it isolation. I have a high regard for many people in the Corps, but what they're supposed to be doing right now is looking at a Category 5 plan in a comprehensive manner.

I know Don Riley, the head of Civil Works. I know he's got a good reputation in the National Academy of Engineering, and hopefully, that will be a good plan.

Of course, there are a lot of environmentalists who don't trust anything the Corps does.

You talk about looking at things in an isolated fashion and zeroing in on certain sections of the river or the levee system. Obviously, the levees are the No. 1 priority right now with hurricane season right around the corner, but is that discussion moot if coastal erosion isn't addressed in a serious way?

Well, yeah. You cannot simply build levees around New Orleans with nothing else and expect it to be protected. No way. If you do not address coastal restoration, you might as well write off not only the city, but the entire energy infrastructure, production structure and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. We've got tens of billions of dollars in investment. The most important and the most expensive part of Category 5 protection is coastal restoration.

I've heard an engineer tell me, and hopefully this is accurate since I'm repeating it, that every mile of every of marsh absorbs 4 inches of storm surge. Well, 10 miles is 40 inches. Twenty miles is 80 inches. That's a lot of storm surge. You're talking about 6 to 8 feet of storm surge being absorbed by the marsh.

Did you read my piece in Time magazine?

I did. Terrific editorial.

I was going to mention it because of [former Director of the U.S. Geological Survey] Chip Groat. In a sense the most important part of that piece is Chip Groat's comment since he does know what he's talking about. ["This land loss can be managed, and New Orleans can be protected, even with projected sea-level rise," says Groat.] He's particularly an expert on subsidence. So I think that it's important that the scientists are pretty confident that we can manage the problem. We're not going to get back everything we lost ' 1,900 square miles ' but further erosion we can prevent, or at least we can compensate for it and get enough back so that we can restore some of the safety that historically the region did have.

Let's say that coastal erosion is addressed. Do you see the need for a more statewide levee system on the coast? Some legislators from Vermilion and Cameron parishes have suggested it's necessary to protect not only residents, but the Henry Hub.

I know that's an issue, but unless I read a lot more widely than I've done about that, I really don't want to venture an opinion.

You split your time between New Orleans and Washington, D.C. Have you been spending time in Washington lately?

I was there last week, and I'll be there next week.

Politically, do you feel like Louisiana's hurricane recovery message is starting to sink in a little bit more?

It's beginning to, [because of] bringing all these members of Congress down to New Orleans. And I wish some of them, a lot of them, would go to the Gulf Coast as well. I don't know that they realize how hard hit Cameron Parish was by Rita. It would be nice if they got out there. I don't know how many, if any, have gone out there.

Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert has supposedly pledged that he's going to come and visit, but nothing's set in stone.

I think all the facts are on Louisiana's side. All of them. And when you have the facts, and you've got some attention, eventually, you've got a pretty decent chance of getting it. I think having Newt [Gingrich] sign onto that piece ' and he did more than just sign onto it, he did participate in the writing of it ' I think that's significant. Newt wants to continue to be involved in this issue and has taken an interest in it. I think that's very helpful.

How did your collaboration with Gingrich come about? Have you known him for a while?

I've actually known him since 1984, but I hadn't spoken to him since 1989. Ironically, I'm a friend of Jim Wright, who's the Speaker of the House he dethroned, and a friend of David Bonior, the Democratic whip who had Newt in his sights. I'm a liberal Democrat. Newt knows that. But I've always respected his political courage, which is more unusual than having intelligence. Newt has a lot of guts. They say that's much rarer in politics or in life in general than it is to be smart. Of course I do respect his intelligence as well.

After Katrina, someone added my name to an e-mail list with mostly conservatives. In fact, I think there was only one other Democrat on this list. They were throwing around ideas about rebuilding the area, and I was on it, and Newt was on it, and we started talking a little bit off the list. Plus he's also very interested in influenza, and I'm pretty involved in that, too. One thing led to another, and the co-authorship came about.

Outside of Louisiana, have you had any reactions to the piece that have surprised or pleased you?

Well, people tell me that it's resonating somewhat in Washington and also in the scientific community. I've been on the radio with some scientists ' including somebody from New York who basically said that New Orleans was about to become uninhabitable.

And you managed to retain your composure?

No, I didn't. We were on sequentially. Mitch Landrieu was on first, then Tom Tancredo, the Congressman from Colorado, then this guy from Columbia, then me. We were divided an hour and 15 minutes each on NPR, but we couldn't debate with each other because we were on in sequence. By the time they got to me, I had so many things written down I wanted to say. I don't think I did as good a job as I should have.

I wrote that [Time] piece because I was so tired of hearing people say, "Why should you rebuild something when you're below sea level?" Well if you understand why New Orleans is below sea level, you will recognize that if you're going to have a major port that services the central part of the United States, it has to be below sea level. You don't have any choice. And that is not unique to New Orleans. Every major port in the world is on a deltaic river below sea level.

Then you throw in the energy industry and what happened and its impact on the coast in relationship to sea level. It's just ludicrous that the parts of Louisiana that are below sea level are doing that for the benefit of the rest of the United States. Not for any benefit to us. And if it were not below sea level, if you abandon that area, oil prices are going to go up 50 cents to 75 cents a gallon. You're going to lose access to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and international competitiveness in the national economy.

That's why I said earlier all the facts are on Louisiana's side. If you understand the geology and the history, then you realize why it's necessary to invest the money to protect the New Orleans metropolitan area and rebuild the coastline.

You've said the facts are on our side, and you're one of the most respected authorities on those facts. Have you felt any kind of personal transformation from author to activist?

I've thought about that. I certainly feel a responsibility to speak the truth, but that's what I felt as an author. So, that's consistent. I am sort of more actively involved in trying to get out the message. That's why I've written op-ed pieces for Time and The New York Times. You know, it's funny. On influenza I've become more involved in terms of preparedness and becoming an outright advocate of something than I have on flood control. Louisiana doesn't pay much attention to [influenza], because they have other priorities and justifiably so.

But as we speak, I'm actually working on an article for a scientific journal ' and scientific journals don't pay anything ' because I feel that I go to a lot of meetings on preparing for a pandemic, and I don't think a lot of these people know much about what they're talking about. People refer to events in 1918, and they don't have it right. There are significant things we can learn from 1918.

I'm not really answering your question, but yeah, I've thought about it.

Regarding influenza, I find there are so many confusing messages coming out. One story comes out saying a major pandemic can break out and we're not prepared, then a week later [Director of Homeland Security] Chertoff will say we are prepared.

Chertoff has said we're prepared? When did he say that?

About a week ago.

If Chertoff said we are prepared, then that's an idiotic statement, and please quote that. Mike Leavitt, the secretary of Health and Human Services, would certainly disagree with that. I did not know that Chertoff said we are prepared for a pandemic. That's just absurd and an idiotic position to take. I've been on one TV show with Leavitt when we were both guests, and I was actually defending Leavitt and the Bush administration on influenza. Although I'm a liberal Democrat, I think they've done a good job on this, but for Chertoff to say something like that is just idiotic.

What do you think the current state is with this avian bird flu and its risk to the U.S.?

The risk is real, but no one can predict if or when it's going to happen with this virus. There will be another pandemic, period. But whether it started three weeks ago and we haven't heard about it yet or whether it doesn't come for another five years, nobody can accurately make that prediction. It's a random event. All influenza viruses come from birds. There's no such thing as a natural human influenza virus. It's a rapidly mutating virus, one of the most rapidly mutating viruses in existence and that allows it to jump species, and it will happen. It's happened as far back as we can look in history, pretty regularly.

Whether H5 is the next virus that jumps species is impossible to predict. If it does jump species, whether it will be a lethal virus like 1918 is also impossible to predict. It could be infinitely mild. Anyone who makes such a prediction, if they're right, it's just dumb luck. They will all say, rightly, that we need to prepare because we're not prepared.

What still needs to be done in your estimation to be prepared?

The only thing we've begun to do is to put some money into vaccine development. It's more money into other research for influenza that we should have been spending 30 years go, and we've also started to raise the consciousness.

But if a pandemic comes, even if the federal government did everything right, 99 percent of the burden is still going to fall on the private sector and onto individuals, not even state and local government. It's not just the health care system it can stress. We've become more vulnerable to influenza instead of less vulnerable. The last time we had a pandemic was 1968. Many people lived through that and didn't know they lived through a pandemic; that's how mild it was. In terms of deaths, it was not significantly worse than a bad flu year. But every year, 36,000 Americans die from influenza. That's without a pandemic.

It's a disease that can kill, and it does kill. Yet as recently as three years ago, we were spending more money on West Nile virus, which was never a threat to become a major killer ' ever. The total deaths in the U.S. since West Nile entered here seven years ago is less than about 1,000 total. And yet influenza is killing 36,000 a year. Since 1999, influenza has killed well over 200,000 Americans, and West Nile has killed less than 1,000. Yet we were spending more money on West Nile.

What lessons can be learned from the mass migration out of the Delta after the 1927 flood? Do you see some parallels with what's happening in New Orleans?

There are some obvious parallels, although the numbers are fewer, both on the absolute basis and in terms of the proportion of the population. In a country that wasn't much bigger than a third of today's population, you had perhaps around 900,000 outmigration from the Delta, and they went a long way. They went to Los Angeles, Detroit and Chicago. Now the metropolitan area [of New Orleans] is just around a million and had been 1.3 million. So we're missing about 300,000 people right now. Most of them of course are African-American, but not all. We still don't know how many of them are going to come back, but a lot of them have gone to Baton Rouge and Houston as opposed to Los Angeles and Chicago, and I'm sure there are plenty in Lafayette. So in terms of national impact of that migration, even if those people do not come back, you don't have the national impact.

In 1927, you had really significant political changes that came about because of that flood. It changed the way people thought about government. For the first time a majority of Americans began to think that the government actually had a responsibility for individual citizens. Whether Katrina is going to change the way people think about government in a significant way, other than to be appalled at its incompetence, that remains to be seen. And we'll have to wait for the results in the next couple of elections. It's quite possible that it moves the country to the left, but I don't know. The potential exists.

The White House recognizes that potential. That's why when Bush made the speech in Jackson Square he used language that Ted Kennedy could have easily used about the links between race and oppression and the legacy of racism and things like that. Those comments were astounding to hear a Republican president make. And he talked about bold action that we needed to take to address those disparities.

And of course, we haven't seen any such action, but those were nice words.