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Katrina Aftermath
09.02.05
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DAVID BRANCACCIO: NOW on PBS

How could Katrina have caused so much damage and destruction? New urgency over an old problem — a vanishing coastline leaves an entire region vulnerable to storm surges.

TED FALGOUT: We have 20,000 miles of pipeline in coastal Louisiana that was not designed to be in the Gulf of Mexico. This business could wash away overnight. And that's a threat. Not only to us, but to everyone in this country.

BRANCACCIO: Is there a fix? For years an unlikely coalition has been arguing for restoring Louisiana's coastal wetlands.

DENISE REED: No, it's not gonna be easy. We're gonna alter the way things are gonna look down here. They're not gonna be the same anymore. I mean, they're not gonna be the same if we don't do anything because it's all gonna go to hell in a hand basket.

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.

This stiff breeze is all that remains of the fury of Hurricane Katrina, as the storm's energy finally ebbs away, here on the beaches of Massachusetts.

We still don't know the full extent of the damage and loss of life, when the storm slammed into Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. But there is no debate that massive storm surges across unprotected shoreline played a big role in the devastation.

NOW has already taken a close look at the Gulf's disappearing barrier islands and marshes. What we found is that human decisions — our attempts to tame the natural world — ended up leaving Louisiana's coastline even more vulnerable.

Producer William Brangham and National Public Radio's Daniel Zwerdling have our updated report.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: We've been seeing the ruined city of New Orleans this week from the air...from helicopters.

Three years ago, three years before Katrina, we came to New Orleans and took a similar tour. Back then, I was traveling with officials from the Pentagon and the state capitol. They were here to inspect the city's first line of defense from a hurricane — miles and miles of wetlands between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.

For thousands of years, the wetlands of Louisiana have been a natural barrier. They protect the city, the whole state from the storms that blow across the Gulf. The wetlands are like a giant rug at the city's front door. They absorb and slow the storms thrown against it.

But as I learned, that shield is vanishing.

BILL GOOD: It's kinda hard to convince people there's a problem, you point out and they say well it looks like a perfectly good gulf to me, but what they don't realize is that 10 years ago It wasn't a gulf it was a marsh!

DANIEL ZWERDLING: The marshes of Louisiana are massive — they stretch for 300 miles along the coast. They go up to 50 miles inland. But this ground is disintegrating.

Studies showed that over the past 50 years, more than one thousand square miles of these marshes have crumbled and turned to open water. That's like losing a football field, every hour. Gone.

BILL GOOD: Just on an annual basis, 25-35 square miles of wetlands a year? That's a national catastrophe of the highest order… It's disappearing, in geologic time, overnight.

ZWERDLING: So why is a Delta that's been thriving for thousands of years suddenly disappearing?

Since Denise Reed moved here from England, she's been trying to solve this mystery

DENISE REED: Follow me and you'll be fine…

ZWERDLING: Reed is a "geomorphologist." She's a leading scientist who studies wetlands. She took me into the heart of a dying marsh.

ZWERDLING: Wait, you're going too fast… I keep losing my sandal.

DENISE REED: You all right?

ZWERDLING: I think so.

ZWERDLING: To an outsider, this wetland hardly looks like its dying. I'd always assumed a wetland was sloppy with water. But Reed says no. She says if this were a healthy marsh, we could stroll across it like a field.

DENISE REED: When you just look at it now, it looks nice and green. It's a pretty day, It looks nice and healthy. We're standing here with grass up to our waists. But as we walked through it, we can tell that this is, by no means, a continuous cover of vegetation. It's full of holes. And of course we're standing here right next to a pond. And that's land loss. This is what coastal land loss is in Louisiana. Something that's a marsh with grass on turning to open water.

ZWERDLING: Reed says if you want to understand why this area is falling apart, you need to look back in history, say, five thousand years.

DENISE REED: All of coastal Louisiana was built by the Mississippi River. This large area that we call the Delta — millions of acres — was all built by the Mississippi River.

ZWERDLING: The Mississippi River acts like a giant funnel. It gathers soil from fields and mountains across a huge swath of North America. And then it delivers that dirt to Louisiana's door.

OLIVER HOUCK: Every day the Mississippi River brings about a half million tons of silt.

ZWERDLING: Oliver Houck runs the environment program at Tulane University Law School.

OLIVER HOUCK: The Mississippi River built five million acres of south Louisiana. It built 20,000 square miles of south Louisiana. It built everything you see between Texas and Mississippi and inland about 50 miles. All of that's care of and thanks to the Mississippi River.

ZWERDLING: After the river built these wetlands, it sustained them for thousands of years. It stopped them from dropping into the sea.

This whole region is actually sinking a tiny bit, every day. All that rich, heavy soil keeps compacting under its own weight. But every few years, the river would flood and gush over its banks. And all that goo would spread across the landscape and build the wetlands back up. That is, until the Europeans showed up.

OLIVER HOUCK: The French came in about 1700. They find Louisiana in the fall, and they find it dry. And they find the site of New Orleans to be a good site to build and so they decide to build there.

ZWERDLING: Actually, the settlers couldn't have picked a worse spot for a city. As you've been hearing all this week, most of New Orleans is below sea level. And its shaped like a bowl. And the biggest river in the country snakes right through it.

OLIVER HOUCK: Of course the next spring it floods. So their answer to that is to build a little levy.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: A wall.

OLIVER HOUCK: A little wall. And they built a little wall between their houses and the river. And that works for about a year, but then the river jumps the wall upstream and comes around behind the wall and hits the houses. So, they have to extend the wall upstream. And we've been extending that wall upstream for the next 300 years.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: The US Army took over the job in the late 1800s, and every time they thought they'd conquered nature, the Mississippi River proved them wrong. So the Army's Corps of Engineers built more walls, and they built them higher. It's been one of the biggest engineering projects in American history.

OLIVER HOUCK: The project was, from an engineering point of view, brilliant, brilliant. From an environmental standpoint, it was a disaster. And it was a disaster because all of that bed load, all of that material that had built south Louisiana for thousands of years, now was thrown away like a waste product into the deep Gulf. And Louisiana was poised like a patient in a hospital. It was put on a starvation diet. It wasn't killed it was just made weak and susceptible to attack. And in about the 1930's the attack came.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: That 'attack' … was the oil and gas boom. All the big companies flocked here. They carved thousands and thousands of canals through the wetland so they could get to the energy underneath.

Back then, hardly anybody realized the consequences. And the whole country got the benefits — the companies sold us energy and the Army kept homes in Louisiana dry. But Denise Reed says now we know the price: the wetlands are sinking into the Gulf:

DENISE REED: This marsh cannot survive in this state much longer. It hasn't had any sustenance. It hasn't had any sediments from the Mississippi River. It has canals cut through it. It has all kinds of other things that people have done in it. And it's still there, as we see it on the other side, over here. But we don't think it's gonna be there for much longer.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: As we traveled across the region three years ago, everybody told us: "If you still don't understand the danger, just drive down State Highway One." You'll come to a spot that symbolizes why state leaders say the whole country should care what's happening to this coast.

TED FALGOUT: This little dot on the map, this small place in Cajun southeastern Louisiana on the Gulf of Mexico, plays a strategic role in furnishing this country with somewhere between 16 and 18 percent of its entire hydrocarbon supply. That's oil and gas.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: This is Port Fourchon. This is the command center that supports the huge oil and gas industry out in the Gulf of Mexico. Ted Falgout runs this complex for the state.

TED FALGOUT: There's no other place in this country that plays such a great role to this nation's oil and gas supply.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: But here's the problem: the industry pumps all that oil and gas through pipelines that are buried along this coast. The companies buried thousands of miles of pipelines, to keep them safe. But now that the land around them is disintegrating, the pipes are getting exposed in open water.

TED FALGOUT: You know, we have 20,000 miles of pipeline in coastal Louisiana that was not designed to be in the Gulf of Mexico. This business could wash away overnight. And that's a threat. Not only to us, but to everybody in this country.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: As you might have seen on the news, Hurricane Katrina battered Pt. Fourchon. The complex is operating again, but barely.

Meanwhile, refineries that generate almost one third of oil and gas that America produces are totally shut down. The Coast Guard says at least 20 offshore oil rigs have sunk or been knocked off their moorings. And you already know some of the results: gasoline prices have surged to more than over $3 a gallon since Katrina hit.

Three years ago, some of the most powerful people in Louisiana gathered to make plans for what they knew could happen at any time. They knew that as the wetlands barrier disappear, it won't take a monster storm to devastate New Orleans, a smaller hurricane could do it too.

JACK CALDWELL, HEAD OF LA DEPT OF NATURAL RESOURCES: Welcome aboard, the train is pulling out of the station, and it's time for action…"

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Even back then they knew enough to argue that the nation, the federal government, needs to do something dramatic to try to rebuild this coastline. It's a remarkable coalition — bankers, scientists, Democrats, Republicans — and they're pushing an audacious plan. They said the government triggered the wetlands crisis when it tamed The Mississippi River, now they want to unleash the river to undo the damage.

You'll get a sense of what they wanted to do if you visit the project called Caernarvon. On the surface, it doesn't look like something that could help transform the region, but scientists say this steel and concrete structure is recreating the old Mississippi floods.

You push a few buttons and giant gates open under water. And huge amounts of river-water and sediment rush from the Mississippi onto the marsh on the other side.

Denise Reed took me out into that marsh three years ago to show how it was working: she says before the project began, this wetland was sick.

DENISE REED: You see how the vegetation out here, that green, that kind of creeping vegetation is gradually filling in this area. You look at those ponds over there in the distance. You see how the grass is gradually moving in from the edge and filling in.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: To prove her point, she suggested an experiment: which was partly inspired, partly sadistic. DENISE REED: Go on, Daniel, go out there.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Am I going to come back?

DENISE REED: Well, go on, let's see. I mean, John and I know what's going to happen…

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Uh… hello!

Before Caernarvon, I would have been sinking in water. Now the marsh was rebuilding, with good, honest mud.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: I love this marsh!

DENISE REED: See, if you look back where you were, you can see the hole. It's not like yogurt, it didn't fill in, its more like clay, you can mold it, the hole is still there.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: So this is good, healthy marsh.

DENISE REED: You got it! A lot of people think it's hopeless down here in coastal Louisiana. But just coming down here and looking at this, this gives us more than hope. This makes us believe that we can do this.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: But that will cost money. The Canaervon project cost 26 million dollars, and it covers only a tiny part of this whole Delta.

State officials say they'll need hundreds of projects like Canaervon. They say realistically, its gonna take decades to rebuild any significant chunk of the wetlands. And they'll need at least $14 billion dollars. But the Bush administration has cut the funding by 90%.

Back In New Orleans, three years ago, officials knew they had to take urgent action to protect the city before a big storm hit. Again, a lot of it depended on Washington.

For instance, The Army Corps of Engineers asked the administration for $27 million to beef up hurricane protection around Lake Ponchartrain. The Bush administration slashed that request by over 80%. Congress restored a bit of it.

The Corps asked for $78 million dollars partly to help drain floodwater out of the city. New Orleans has an elaborate system of giant pumps, but those pumps were only designed to handle rainwater, not hurricane flooding from the lake. The Bush administration cut that request by more than half, Congress added back a bit.

No ones arguing now that this money would have saved New Orleans from Katrina. But it symbolizes the fact that this administration, and others before it, didn't take the threat seriously enough.

WALTER MAESTRI: A couple of days ago we actually had an exercise where we brought a fictitious category five hurricane--

DANIEL ZWERDLING: The worst.

WALTER MAESTRI: The absolute worst, into the metropolitan area.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: When we first Met Walter Maestri three years ago, he'd just run a kind of hurricane war-game to help get ready for the real thing. Maestri is the Chief Emergency Manager for the biggest suburb in New Orleans. The simulation envisioned almost everything that's happened to New Orleans this week.

WALTER MAESTRI: Anybody who is here, anybody who has left under the scenario of this particular exercise is-- is, you know, gone. We have 22, 24, 26 feet of water in the metropolitan area.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Even back when we filmed this, Maestri was feeling frustrated with the way the city and the nation were preparing. He'd managed to get funding for some key projects, but then suddenly the nations leaders turned to a different priority.

WALTER MAESTRI: The money was in place. But now because of the issues of homeland security, that money has been diverted. The the project has been postponed. And we don't know when it will be completed, if ever. So that's very, very frustrating to have to deal with that.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Maestri said, of course, federal officials have to make tough decisions: what are the most pressing problems? He says he wants the government to protect us from terrorism as much as anybody. But Maestri says, you know what, sometimes natural threats can do as much damage.

WALTER MAESTRI: I think the terrorism threat is, is something that's new. It's something that's different. It's something that is on everybody's mind right now. As far as the threat from natural disasters, from hurricanes, we've sort of pushed that to the side and say, "Well, didn't happen last year." You know? "Didn't happen the year before, so maybe we'll slip by again."

BRANCACCIO: The next time somebody moans about the messed up state of our schools in America, I want you to think about this amazing guy.

Rafe Esquith, educator. He teaches at Hobart Elementary in a tough part of Los Angeles. He gets fifth graders, many new to English, doing Shakespeare that'll make you cry. And not just Shakespeare, watch what a piece of HUCKLEBERRY FINN can do in the right hands.

BEGIN CLIP:

RAFE ESQUITH: "It was a close place and I held it in my hand and I was a trembling. Because I got to decide forever betwix two things. And I noted, I studied a minute sort a hold in my breath and then says to myself, alright then I'll go to hell and tore it up."

ASIAN GIRL: And I started thinking over how to get it out and turned over considerable many ways in my mind …" [She begins to cry.]

RAFE ESQUITH: - It's OK.

END CLIP:

BRANCACCIO: Rafe Esquith, thanks for joining us.

RAFE ESQUITH: Thanks for having me.

BRANCACCIO: So you have these kids moved to tears by literature. What are you up to here, Rafe? I mean-- clearly not teaching for the test?

RAFE ESQUITH: No, I don't teach for the test. I teach because I want my children to know about the joy of reading. That's why I read. I want them to be passionate readers. So people are amazed that they read Twain but I think, why would they be amazed?

Twain's our greatest American treasure. He moved me to tears when I was a child. So I'm just passing on what I know.

BRANCACCIO: There's a lot of those kids in that classroom who nobody would have thought could get to that level of reading or not to that level of anything.

RAFE ESQUITH: And that's why they don't get there. It sounds like common sense. But my students can achieve great things because I believe that they can achieve great things. And I tell I know they can do it because I've done it for 24 years. I've been with other kids just like them. They're in great colleges now. I look in their eyes and tell them you're going to get there too.

BRANCACCIO: You're teaching the kids to be responsible and you're teaching the kids about the potential for their own excellence. But it's also interesting, you spend a lot of time talking about citizenship.

RAFE ESQUITH: I do.

BRANCACCIO: Why?

RAFE ESQUITH: Well, in 24 years of staff development at my school we have never once talked about citizenship. And to me it is the key issue of education. I would much rather live next door to a neighbor who was a B or C student who's a really good person and honest and decent fellow than an A student from Harvard who's a rotten human being.

So there are teachers who say, gee, my children don't behave well. They're bad citizens. Rather than complain about it, I use the same energy to say if they're not good citizens, I will teach them to be good citizens.

BRANCACCIO: Well you also play some baseball I think, too, right?

RAFE ESQUITH: Well baseball is my church. I don't think anybody growing up in this country who's an American-- they gotta go play baseball and they gotta know how to play baseball and score baseball, too.

BRANCACCIO: Something about baseball, though, that helps with citizenship, do you think?

RAFE ESQUITH: I think so. I mean, look it has to do with the sacrifice, the team, everybody has to get up at bat one time. It's not like basketball where you can go to your best player. It's the most democratic game I know.

BRANCACCIO: What are you up against? I mean, you get these kids and-- they come from tough environments.

RAFE ESQUITH: We're up against a lot. We're up against a culture which is not conducive to learning. We're up against violence and broken homes and also the television that inundates them with role models that are just horrific for them to be seeing.

And film that they watch all the time, they shouldn't be. So it's an almost impossible job. I find that teaching reading and math or Shakespeare, that's easy. But creating a classroom culture where learning is valued, where excellence is valued, and where kindness and civility are valued, that's the tough part of teaching.

BRANCACCIO: And these kids-- many of them-- rise to the occasion. Take a look at young Brenda here.

CLIP FROM "THE HOBART SHAKESPEAREANS"

BRANCACCIO: Look at that. That's not even in performance. She's just-- she's reading in class. You have even other teachers at that school that wouldn't have thought that possible.

RAFE ESQUITH: No, first of all I was stunned that you can see in the film. I had never met Brenda before. It was her first day of class. And that's the joy of teaching that we have these unpolished jewels. But I think some teachers are so busy talking at the kids instead of listening to them that they don't realize that these treasures are right in front of them.

And that's my favorite moment of teaching when you think, oh my God, look at this kid. This kid's going to be at Stanford or Berkeley one day. And I might be able to open a few doors to help her get there.

BRANCACCIO: What you're doing cuts against the flow of education right now. There-- a lot of teachers who are frankly not as good as you at this and so the response in terms of policy-- no child left behind-- has been-- let's just come up with standards. Let's enforce the standards through testing. And at least they'll get sort of an education. Because-- not every teacher you're gonna bump into in your education career is gonna be as talented as you. Maybe those standards are useful.

RAFE ESQUITH: I think standards are useful. But they've become the be all and end all of existence. When a child reads, I don't want him reading because I have to fulfills standard 27. I want him reading because when he reads John Steinbeck, he says, "My God, OF MICE AND MEN was fantastic. Rafe, what other books has Steinbeck written. I'm going to the library to check him out." Now that might not be in the local standards but it is in his best interest to have that passion for reading.

BRANCACCIO: So standards, in your view, not the worst problem of American education. What would you identify is the worst problem?

RAFE ESQUITH: The worst problem in American education is number one, great teachers are crushed by a system that doesn't let them be great. There are so many good young teachers who have great ideas that they're using in their classroom, and they're being told no before they're even given a chance. And-- that's a huge problem. We've made teaching so unattractive that the best and the brightest people don't become teachers.

BRANCACCIO: How do you keep doing it, Rafe? I mean, you can't-- not everybody's going to turn out like that lovely Allan that you see there with the tear coming down his eye.

RAFE ESQUITH: That's right. I'm really glad you asked me that question. Because I fail all the time. And I'm tired of teachers coming on programs saying that they succeed all the time and that they're these wonderful teachers. I'm a very ordinary person.

BRANCACCIO: Well, Rafe Esquith, elementary school teacher and author of the book, THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS. Thank you very much.

RAFE ESQUITH: Thanks for having me on.

BRANCACCIO: You are the central character of a new movie called THE HOBART SHAKESPEAREANS. It's a POV WNET Channel 13 documentary that airs Tuesday on PBS. We're supposed to say check your local listings.

BRANCACCIO: Now that you're dying to see the film, the question is: where? We've put up info on our Web site at pbs.org.

Now here's a look at what we're working on for next week:

MARIA HINOJOSA: In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we'll continue our look at those caught in harm's way, and what the government is- or isn't- doing to help them.

And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

Connect to NOW, online at pbs.org

More on New Orleans' dangerous geography

Find out why the Delta is disappearing

Take a Shakespeare knowledge quiz

Connect to NOW at pbs.org


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