Cover Story

Coastal Call

Mike Tidwell's acclaimed 2003 book Bayou Farewell predicted Louisiana's 2005 devastation. His new book shows how coastal issues affect all of America, not just Louisiana.

Mike Tidwell has lived with the possibility of a Katrina or Rita since 1999. The renowned journalist stumbled on the story when he was writing an article for The Washington Post describing his adventures hitchhiking on shrimp boats through the wetlands of south Louisiana to the Gulf of Mexico. Cajun shrimpers showed him the disappearing landscape, and Tidwell realized that without wetlands and barrier islands, Louisiana was virtually unprotected from hurricanes.

He tried to warn Louisiana and the country with his critically acclaimed 2003 book, Bayou Farewell, which served as a bellwether for the coming disaster. Post-Katrina and Rita, Tidwell hasn't turned his attention away from our state but has widened his scope to include the rest of the country and the world. His new book, The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America's Coastal Cities, forecasts a dire future with Katrina only the opening chapter of cataclysmic developments brought on by global warming and the failure of our government to act.

Tidwell spoke to The Independent Weekly via phone from Washington, D.C.

In Bayou Farewell, you predicted a hurricane destroying New Orleans and leaving thousands dead or homeless. In your view, the main culprit wasn't the failing levee system as much as it was locking the Mississippi River. Can you explain this?

The river was locked into its course as found by Europeans 300 years ago, and this prevented the river from flooding. Katrina ultimately was a catastrophe not because the hurricane levees failed. It was a catastrophe because the river levees had held for so long. They held back the annual natural flooding of the river for so many years that a geological chain reaction has followed, and that has been expressed by catastrophic land loss. It's the catastrophic land loss that created a watery flight path for Katrina to slam into New Orleans like a plane into the World Trade Center, with virtually nothing to slow her down with. If Katrina had come in 1718 when the French first settled in Nouvelle Orleans, she would have met enormous physical resistance from fortress-like wide and tall barrier islands, followed by a vast network of intact saltwater marshes, followed by a band of brackish and freshwater swamps, followed by forests that no longer exist. When it came in August 2005, there was nothing really to slow her down.

Can you flood the river and still have coastal cities?

Yes, that's what the Coast 2050 Plan is all about. It acknowledges that south Louisiana is a working resource ' we can't turn it into a national park. People live here. We can mimic many of the key natural characteristics of the river that created this coastal landform to begin with. You could do this by using canals, and there is recent talk about using slurry pipelines that would literally carry this sediment-rich water directly where you want to build the barrier islands, and directly to shallow basins where you want to create wetlands. There are folks at LSU and elsewhere saying if they had enough resources and public policy commitment, they could build entire barrier islands in 12 months or less, in places like Barataria Bay and Terrebone Bay. In areas where the state of Louisiana needs barrier islands right now and is desperate for them, they can be built very quickly.

The price tag often referenced for the Coast 2050 Plan is $14 billion. Why is it economically feasible for the U.S. to make such an investment?

Is $14 billion expensive? Compared to another Katrina? Katrina has cost this country between $100-$200 billion dollars, 1,800 dead, 1 million displaced. Fourteen billion is really cheap compared to that. My friends in southeast Louisiana often say that if the Big Dig in Boston didn't happen, the people wouldn't suddenly abandon the city. Somehow, they would figure out a way to go on without their $14 billion tunnel project. But New Orleans cannot exist without this restoration program.

Your new book casts a dark future for all of America's coastal cities, affecting 150 million people. What is the science behind this prediction?

We have to be clear on what wiped out much of south Louisiana last year. One is that coastal Louisiana got three feet of relative sea level rise over the last 100 years. There are three different ways water can damage a coastal area ' water itself can rise, the land can sink or the two can happen at the same time. In south Louisiana, the two happened at the same time, which is called relative sea level rise. You had about 2 feet of subsidence because the river doesn't flood anymore, and you have about a foot of sea level rise because of global warming. If you bring the two of those together, you get 3 feet of relative sea level rise. That's factor No. 1.

Factor No. 2 is 3 feet of relative sea level followed by a massive storm. I have no patience with people who say that Katrina was a dud, that it really was all about the levees and the incompetence of the Corps and that we really would have dodged the bullet. That was a huge storm. She was a Cat. 5 the day before, and she brought a Cat. 5 surge on to land ' the surge at Buras was nearly 30 feet. Those exact same conditions are being replicated right now by global warming along the entire U.S. coastline, especially the U.S. Gulf and Atlantic coastlines. Three feet of absolute sea level rise worldwide over the next 100 years, according to the Bush Administration. The cat's totally out of the bag when Bush is saying up to 3 feet of sea level rise. You're going to get the same amount of adjustment of the water climbing 3 feet closer to our coastal cities over the next 100 years just as was the case in New Orleans over the last 100 years. And hurricanes are becoming more ferocious because of global warming. There have been six major scientific, peer-reviewed, published studies just in the last 12 months alone that all confirm that hurricanes in the Atlantic basin are becoming stronger and lasting longer. There's all kind of data about that in the book.

When you talk about damage and destruction, are you talking about something similar to Katrina?

Yes. Look at Miami, which has very few sections 3 feet above sea level; look at Charleston, very similar; look at New York City, all of lower Manhattan is already at sea level; look at parts of Baltimore, Washington D.C., Annapolis, Norfolk. These are all areas that have a lot of land that is going to be at or well below sea level 100 years from now. That means we've got to adopt the New Orleans model ' we have to start building levees. Either we retreat, or we adapt. You'll have to build levees around Miami, which will become a bowl like New Orleans. You're going to have the same catastrophic risk of levee collapse, and you've got more massive hurricanes. So the two factors ' New Orleans is below sea level creating a bowl, and in the way of major hurricanes ' equals Katrina. Same thing for Charleston, same thing for Savannah, all of these cities will have to become saucers like New Orleans.

How soon could this occur?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is the gold standard of scientific inquiry into global warming, forecast 1 to 3 feet of sea level rise by 2100. That was their forecast in 2001. They're coming out with another in 2007 and it looks like they're going to significantly ramp up the amount of sea level rise expected by 2100. A big part of that is the atmosphere is warming much faster then anyone thought five years ago. I'm 44 years old; I'm going to live to see a lot of this. My son is 9 and he's going to live through multiple New Orleans's along the East Coast. Katrina is the curtain raiser.

You write that not only is the Bush administration aware of global warming, but that they've tried to cover it up. How?

The premier scientific agency in this country whose mission is to understand weather and climate, educate, and warn Americans as necessary is the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The National Weather Association is under the rubric of NOAA; the Hurricane Center is under NOAA. This is the agency whose stated mission is to educate Americans about threats of extreme weather and to provide information to policy makers, so we can protect ourselves. If that's their mission, then why can you go on NOAA's Web site right now and you will find almost nothing about the six major scientific studies that have come out in the last year linking more intense hurricanes to global warming? Why is it NOAA continues to run an essay that they put on their Web site in November after the official end of the last hurricane season in which they suggest there's consensus among NOAA scientists that the uptick in hurricanes is natural?

When Max Mayfield, head of the National Hurricane Center, and Conrad Lautenbacher, head of NOAA, go to Capitol Hill and they are asked explicitly if there is a link between global warming and hurricanes, they say the jury is still out, or it's a natural variability. They are ignoring and suppressing the facts that increasingly show us that hurricanes are getting more intense. Not forecasted to become more intense, not on some fancy computer-modeling showing they might become more intense, but we now have observed measurable data that it's already happening. Why is NOAA suppressing this data? Additionally, NOAA has put a media policy in effect for its climate scientists that if they talk to journalists they have to clear it with NOAA's media office, and they have to have a media representative present. This has put a serious chill on NOAA's climate scientists ability to talk to the media. If you go to my Web site,, you can read all about this step-by-step of how they're trying to cover up the data.

The Bush Administration's chief of staff of White House Council on Environmental Quality, Phil Cooney, resigned a year ago because he was caught doctoring and editing scientific papers to minimize the appearance of climate change danger. He came from the American Petroleum Institute to the White House. After he resigned, he went to work for Exxon Mobil.

This may be slightly off-topic, but the Colorado Hurricane Center has already twice revised its predicted number of named storms downward in 2006. It's hard to have a lot of confidence in whatever science they're using.

The proper perspective is to look at the planet as a whole. We have a single climate global system. What we're seeing globally is tropical cyclones continue to become more ferocious, they last longer, and the biggest storms are becoming more frequent. An indication that this is a global phenomenon is the fact that while the hurricane season has been unexpectedly quiet in the Atlantic Basin this year ' the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico ' there's been still a raging uptick in tropical cyclones in the Pacific. China's cyclone season started two months early: it usually starts in July, and it started in May this year, and they've lost I think close to 1,000 people to severe megastorms. So while you see a pause or lull in the Atlantic Basin, globally you continue to see a cumulative increase in these kind of storms.

What should the federal government be doing?

As it relates to New Orleans, it's important to state the following:

New Orleans needs a completely upgraded hurricane levee protection system and the federal government has been criminally slow in responding to this immediate need. We need Category Five protection.

The barrier islands and wetlands need to be rebuilt.

New Orleans needs a rapid end to global warming. Even if you get the levees, even if you get the wetlands and barrier islands, if we get 3 or more additional feet of absolute sea level rise worldwide, forget it. Those levees will be overwhelmed.

I believe in miracles, but you have to believe it will almost take a miracle to protect New Orleans and make it habitable 100 years out. For all coastal areas around the world, we need a rapid switch to clean, efficient energy. We need to tell Detroit your days of building cars that get 10-15 miles per gallon are over. We're not going to solve global warming through individual and corporate volunteerism ' we're not going to get there with people saying, "Hey, I'm concerned. I'm going to change a few light bulbs, carpool once a week, and buy a Prius." It ain't going to happen that way. We don't ask Ford Motor Company to build levees for New Orleans. In the same way we would never do that, it's ridiculous to leave the solution to global warming to volunteerism. We have to have mandated, extremely high fuel efficiency standards for American cars. It must be illegal for Detroit to build a vehicle that gets less than 50 mph, including SUVs. We need a dramatic incentive program for more efficient appliances, lighting and producing electricity by non-greenhouse emitting sources. Those are the major things ' cars and electricity ' and joining the international efforts to stabilize the global climate.

What about ordinary citizens?

Get political. There's no substitute for political action. If you want to save New Orleans, coastal Louisiana, and the rest of our coastal cities, you have got to stand up and say something, for God's sake. You've got to tell your leaders because they're obviously not doing anything.

If you were a Louisiana politician, how would you sell the Coast 2050 plan? How do we get this message across to the rest of the country?

I would do what Gov. Blanco has been threatening to do, and that is to block all further federal lease auctions for new exploration in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. Absolutely block it. You cannot auction any more blocks for exploration off the coast of Louisiana until this nation finally addresses the fact that federal policies and national economic infrastructure have decimated and obliterated much of south Louisiana, and left the entire region horribly vulnerable to hurricanes and now to global warming. That would be the first thing I'd do: "Over my dead body is there going to be one more oil company looking for one more drop of oil off the coast of Louisiana until this state gets all the money it deserves, and it needs to protect itself in the form of coastal restoration ' right now. Right now, not five years from now, not 10 years from now. Right now." That would get the nation's attention.

You obviously got close to the shrimpers you wrote about in Bayou Farewell, and I'm sure you've been in touch with them post-Katrina and Rita. How are they doing?

Every person I write about in Bayou Farewell has been profoundly affected by Katrina and Rita, without exception, some worse than others. Tee Melancon in Leeville, he's gutted his house and has been living with relatives further up Bayou Lafourche and Golden Meadow. So he's been spending all his time rebuilding his house; thankfully his shrimp boat was not destroyed by the storms. I have friends in Terrebonne Parish whose homes were flooded by Rita. The Native American Houma people that I write about in Pointe-aux-Chene have been severely affected. Right after Katrina and Rita, the assistant chief of the United Houma Nation told me that about 10,000 out of the 15,000 members of the United Houma Nation in south Louisiana were affected in some way by the storms, including being completely dislocated. Now they're all rebuilding. Dean Blanchard, a Cajun who owns a shrimp shed on Grand Isle, his shrimp shed was virtually obliterated, except for the concrete pad where they count the shrimp and where the ice machine is. Everything else was obliterated ' the workhouse, the docks, the office, all the trucks ... all completely destroyed. That was in August and September that it was all destroyed, but I was there in December a week before Christmas, and damned if they weren't buying shrimp. They had rebuilt enough, got the ice machine working again, got a trailer for the office, rebuilt one dock, and they were buying shrimp. These people are all rebuilding. That's good news.

You live in Takoma Park, Maryland, and you're educated and passionate about this issue, but what's the general sense you get from your colleagues, neighbors and friends there about how important this is? Is coastal erosion and Katrina and Rita coverage on their radar, and if so, how much?

There's no question that Katrina was a national trauma almost on par with 9/11. It was a big, big deal in the history of this country. And people who live way away from coastal Louisiana still understand it as a horrific, historic national trauma ' one that seriously damaged George Bush politically. It's certainly a huge and famous incident in the history of this country and still one that resonates with Americans and brings up feelings of horror and shame and shock.

However, unlike 9/11, I think the country has for the most part moved on psychologically and emotionally. They feel like, despite the inept government response, that a lot has been done. And New Orleans is a city below sea level, and therefore it's going to have to take its lumps, and there's not a lot of understanding on coastal erosion. I think a lot of people feel like it's a tragic event that happened, and the consequences of a million people still displaced and New Orleans perhaps never being the same again is a permanent consequence and the feeling that maybe not much more can be done that hasn't been done. That's an incorrect interpretation of what's happened.

The reality is that region has been completely, completely abandoned by the federal government. The federal government has completely failed in its responsibilities to the region. It's done nothing to restore the coastal wetlands, it has no plan to restore coastal wetlands and barrier islands, and it's done almost nothing to rebuild the levees. Nothing has changed, and no lesson has been learned by this government or this nation, not one lesson, from 1,800 dead, 200 billion dollars in damage and a million people still displaced.