by Whit Gibbons

September 11, 2005

Katrina will be long remembered, and the finger-pointing is unlikely to stop any time soon. Blame will continue to be as abundant and nasty as the polluted storm waters that were sitting second-story level for days in much of the Crescent City. The list of culprits responsible for the current devastation is longer than a New Orleans summer day with no drinking water. But the question is not just a simple “who’s to blame?” First you must identify what part of the disaster you are seeking to blame someone for. The possibilities are endless.

Everyone has probably heard by now how the destruction of natural wetlands and swamp forests removed the buffer that could have diminished the winds and absorbed a surge tide. Most people now believe (or at least are wondering if) global climate change is real and caused in part by the use of fossil fuels and carbon dioxide emissions. That a consequence of that change is highly energized hurricanes in the overly warm Atlantic and Gulf is being forcibly brought home to us. Environmentalists are not happy that New Orleans was devastated. But they are human, and “I told you so” cannot be far from their thoughts.

But doomsday predictions are never welcome. Remember the mythological character Cassandra? She was the prophetess to whom Apollo gave extraordinary powers of foretelling the future. But the sun god’s ego was bruised in his dealings with the young maiden and he placed a curse on Cassandra: she would always be right in her predictions, but no one would believe her. Did research ecologists and environmentalists somehow offend Apollo? Are those who predict dire environmental consequences today’s Cassandra?

One email I received last week asked, “Do you think it might be time for politicians and business leaders to start listening to the scientists for a change?” Another said, “Remember last year's National Geographic article with the eerie prediction of a worst-case scenario for New Orleans. Maybe all those ranting environmentalists aren't that crazy after all.” Of course, Cassandra wasn’t crazy either.

Ken Dodd, an ecologist colleague from Florida made a well-stated observation about the issue. “Although everyone is now focusing on search, rescue, and recovery along the Gulf Coast, I hope someone, eventually, will look at one of the serious contributing causes of the recent disaster--the loss of the barrier island and marsh buffers that sheltered the area until humans intervened to ‘tame nature.’” Ken goes on to say that in seeming contrast to politicians, “ecologists, coastal geologists, hydrologists and others associated with the study of coastal ecosystem dynamics recognized the scale of the potential disaster.” But like those Cassandra tried to warn, “few listened, or they dismissed the warnings as from ‘environmentalists’ or (ironically) as being too costly to solve. One wonders will they change their thinking as planning and rebuilding are revisited.”

The final cost of Katrina’s wrath in human life and property will be terrible. What will the environmental impact be on wildlife along the Gulf Coast? Simple answer: native species will do fine, and some will do much better for awhile than they were doing in urban and suburban areas. Among native species, raccoons and crows will probably find a lot of abandoned human food to scavenge over the next few weeks, as will many other species of mammals and birds. Some snakes will also have more to eat as rat and mouse populations increase. Mosquitoes will find plenty of places to lay eggs as waters recede, leaving fish-free pools. In other words, animals will abound along the Gulf Coast, although some of them will be unwelcome from a human perspective. Nonetheless, no native species will be lost or ultimately even negatively affected. As far as animals in the Audubon Zoo, what happened to them? Remarkably only a handful of zoo animals died, apparently being cared for better than some of the people.

Over the coming months and years, officials will be looking at what went wrong, trying to figure out how to prevent something like this from happening again. Let's hope that ecologists will be an integral part of the discussion, and that this time people will listen. It’s time to repudiate Apollo’s curse and pay attention to Cassandra.

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