Monday, March 26, 2007

The Wetlands, and What Plagues New Orleans

Wetland restoration is getting a lot of press agitation, but is it really the right priority for post-Katrina Louisiana? Certainly, protecting and eventually rebuilding Louisiana’s wetlands is a worthy goal. Louisiana’s swamps and bayous are important to its cultural and commercial identity. (Years before Katrina, I enjoyed a bayou tour, watching the gators snap up the floating marshmallows.) However, much of the rhetoric surrounding the wetlands issue is incomplete or misleading.

In the aftermath of Katrina, coastal geographers Robert S. Young and David M. Bush writing in the New York Times (yes, really) dispelled some myths:

“First, many people – scientists and otherwise – have insinuated that if we had begun wetlands restoration in the Mississippi Delta years ago, it would have reduced the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and the coast. This is highly unlikely. Storm surge waters approached the coast from the east, pushed into Lake Pontchartrain by the counterclockwise flow of the hurricane’s winds; the natural wetlands that used to exist downriver from the city would have done little to mitigate the damage.

Second, some have suggested that rebuilding the Louisiana barrier islands would protect the delta region in future storms. But just look what happened elsewhere: Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge quickly inundated the barrier islands of the Gulf Islands National Seashore off Mississippi, which are far more robust and vegetated than the Louisiana islands ever were, on its way to devastating the state’s shoreline. Let’s face it, even if reconstructed, the Louisiana islands would be little more than a speed bump to a storm the size of Hurricane Katrina”

Regardless of the efficacy of wetlands as a Hurricane defense, there are other concerns to take into account—namely mosquitoes. As the University of Arizona News makes clear, if you rebuild wetlands, you will absolutely be increasing the mosquito population. Mosquitoes carry diseases, like malaria, West Nile, and encephalitis. Currently, New Orleans’ healthcare system is in sorry shape. The city’s network of charity hospitals remains severely damaged by Katrina and LSU has been unable to open six neighborhood clinics in FEMA supplied trailers because of paralyzing city regulation and bureaucracy. If all the efficient state bureaucrats work in the Louisiana’s environmental department and successfully rebuild wetland areas, while the healthcare distribution system remains mired in incompetence, the health implications for New Orleanians could be perverse.

To put the potential health costs in perspective, look at the effect of banning DDT cited by Alston Chase. In the 1960’s malaria deaths were down to 100,000 in India and 13 in Sri Lanka thanks to the pesticide. However, under the influence of blind faith in the unproved dangers of DDT, the countries were pressured to switch to less effective (and more environmentally damaging) pesticides. The result: “The incidence of malaria in India is now back up to more than a million and more than 500,000 in Sri Lanka.”

New Orleans heath systems are ill-equipped to handle an upsurge in malaria cases or an outbreak of West Nile. Yet, this is a foreseeable result of a massive effort to rebuild the wetlands without an aggressive regime of pesticides. Hurricane protection is certainly important. Levee fortifications and new floodgates would more effective than wetland restoration, and would not have negative public health repercussions.