Katrina's Warning to the Empire of Oil
Richard Register
September 17, 2005

"I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." -- George W. Bush, September 2005
"I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon; that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile." -- Condoleezza Rice, May 2002.
Do you detect a pattern here?
Hurricane Katrina's warning is not that we have a Commander-in-Chief who is intentionally ignorant of human impacts of global warming and resulting killer storms (true though that may be) but that our Empire is one of cities designed for cars, sprawl and the cheap energy.

We are approaching a time in history when oil production -- and natural gas too -- will peak due to massive increases in demand and draw-down of a finite resource that, once burned up, is gone, gone, gone. It's hard to overestimate the economic and social damage that can occur with the rapid decline of a resource at the base of not only transportation but also heating and cooling, agriculture and the production of chemicals and plastic products. All of our cities are critically vulnerable. It's just that New Orleans was uniquely positioned as a tripwire of oil and economic problems -- situated right in the middle of the hurricane gateway to America and built below sea-level.

We have all been lured into the dream of endless mobility in cars powered by low-cost, high-energy fuel. This "non-negotiable lifestyle" has become the very definition of freedom under the Bush administration. Sadly, most of the country bought into this lifestyle a long time ago -- even some environmentalists who drive cars adorned with "Save the Earth" bumper stickers.

Now the big worry is that China is joining us in our absurd celebration of over-mobility just as the Pentagon is trying to round up the last of the world's oil through conquest under the banner of freedom. (Will the Iraqis be free to run around in their cars, too?) Where will the dwellers on the Empire's frontiers find the money to buy the cars and gasoline to express this car-obsessed American definition of freedom?

Building Suburbia
New Orleans stands as a warning about something most Americans have not considered: building cities in the wrong place and in the wrong form. Will this be a concern when the rebuilding jobs in New Orleans are going to Halliburton and Bechtel? The form of our cities is as flat and scattered as our cars make them. Even the tall downtown skyscrapers include enormous parking lots and whole buildings designed to shelter cars. The wide streets of suburbia feed the freeways and traffic jams of the central city -- it's all are part and parcel of the car-dependent sprawl at the other end of the commute.

Back when it all started, we developed this not-altogether-unreasonable notion that we could recover a little of nature’s quiet (with picket fences, trees and robins extracting worms from our lawns) by building suburban homes linked by cars and highways to jobs in distant city. Cheap oil fueled the spread between homes, central business districts, business "parks," big-box shopping malls, fast-food franchises, and multimedia Cineplexes. Cheap oil also meant we could pack-up the kids and travel a few days to experience real nature in a crowded national park somewhere. This was all made possible by the Empire of Cars, Asphalt and Cheap Oil -- backed by the foreign wars made it possible.

That construction project - building suburbia - became the largest human enterprise in all of history. It marked society's largest expenditure of energy and resources, transforming villages to cities and cities to sprawling messes in America and elsewhere.

Where building the city of cars hasn't transformed the human habitat thoroughly, it has transformed it partially and transformed attitudes to create world ravenous for cars. Car companies scrambled to design and advertise their dangerous product by stimulating wild desires and massive flows of cash and credit. Releasing, in the process, massive flows of global-warming CO2 into the atmosphere. Hurricane Katrina rolled into the Gulf of Mexico and swelled to cover almost the entire gulf in a torrent of swirling clouds and 200-mph top winds. Katrina's fury was fed by the surface heat of the Gulf's waters -- an amazing 90 degrees Fahrenheit. (81 degrees is sufficient to breed hurricanes. This one was overqualified.)

Bush's critics had a field day with Photoshop.
Rebuilding New Orleans
Rebuilding New Orleans is not just about shoring up dikes and levees for the inevitable rise in sea-level and increased of intensity of storms that will fill out futures in a global warming world. More critically, we need to understand how to reshape all cities to eliminate the kind of sprawl development that the Bush administration promoted. In the Louisiana, Washington promoted a preventable catastrophe by lowering environmental protections along the coast and allowing the spread of housing developments. Instead of preserving the storm-buffering bayous around New Orleans, the area was opened up to commercial development and the construction of McHousing.

Rebuilding a sane city means rebuilding with much more diversity and density concentrated in a much smaller area than today's scattered and gas-price-vulnerable structure. We can build for pedestrians, radical energy conservation, renewable energy sources like solar and wind, and for transit, bicycles and restoration of natural and agricultural land. The sooner we get started, the sooner we deal with the immense problems facing us with the collapse of energy resources and climate stability.

Rebuilding Cities Where They Don’t Belong
First, after Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans unleashing a tide of destruction, misery and death, came the rescue effort, an operation that was disastrously botched. Now the restoration plannning process teeters on the brink of failure. But there is nothing unusual in that: We always build where we shouldn't.

"Bush-deep in the Big Muddy." Another faked image of George W. Bush that was circulated on the Internet.
I should know. I live in Oakland, California -- halfway between our local Hayward Fault and San Francisco's famous and only slightly more dangerous San Andreas Fault.

We have all known forever that San Francisco is on shaky ground and that New Orleans is under sea level and dead center in America's Hurricane Alley. But few notice that American suburbia, in general, is in danger of imminent destruction as well - and poised to take the rest of us with it. Our sprawling suburbs are located on the shaky ground of gasoline prices and positioned to be swamped by something called "peak oil production" beyond which an economic collapse could well be imminent.

Pointing this out is not to trivialize the catastrophe in New Orleans but to suggest that what's going on in suburbia right now might well be building for the worst disaster of all. We need to rebuild not just New Orleans, but suburbia too. But thinking about New Orleans first, it is instructive to look to some of the oldest cities on Earth, such as Ur (in today's Iraq) a Sumerian city dating back almost 5,000 years and to the not-much-more recent city of Mohenjo-daro of the Harappan Civilization of India. Both were built in river floodplains, but on platforms of earth -- Mohenjo-daro's measuring more than 20-feet high.

The bankers and business people of early New Orleans were far too busy making money to think that one through, and so, 80% of the city is below sea level. Ur and Mohenjo-daro were pedestrian cities and though their buildings were not very tall, the density of residents was fairly high. They had narrow streets with no front, side and back yards. No freeways with sweeping landscaping there, no sidewalks or driveways, no parking lots or gas stations.

Their populations were modest with up to 50,000 for Ur and 40,000 for Mohenjo-daro, though the highest anywhere in those times. Modest population by today's standards and relatively compact development meant these cities had relatively small footprints. When the rivers went up, they displaced a minimum amount of water and the cities became islands in the flood with harm rolling on by, like Ole Mississippi is supposed to do. Typical for contemporary cities of the automobile era, New Orleans has spread out considerably beyond its dense center to establish a very large footprint displacing the local natural buffering landscape/waterscape known as the bayou.

The perimeter wall of Ur was six miles long. The levies of New Orleans covered 350 miles -- six times more levees-per-person given New Orleans' 500,000 population. Of course, at Ur, the city behind those protective walls was elevated instead of sunken. The lessons here then would seem to be:

1. Raise the level of the city wherever possible simply by adding fill and building on top of that. If it could be done by hand 5,000 years ago, it could certainly be done by machine today. Calculate sea level rise caused by global warming over a few more decades while politicians begin to really catch on and add another ten feet of fill. Now-days we subsidize cars and oil companies by spending billions on freeways. Instead, we should spend on those areas we just can’t culturally resist, like San Francisco and New Orleans, to simply let them build stronger and better defended: more steel to San Francisco, more fill to New Orleans and higher levees to the French Quarter.

2. Make the city much more compact than it is today. First to reduce the area of the land that should be elevated in flood-prone areas (making it an easier project) and reduce the perimeter of whatever dikes would be necessary where the level simply could not be raised, say in historic districts of small area worthy of preservation and existing higher density areas where many people are served per acre. Another reason for compact development is to displace less volume of water, thus helping keep the water level just a little lower in times of flood.

3. Put in place incentives to reduce population voluntarily, such as grants to people who want to move but can't afford it. In the Oakland/Berkeley Firestorm of 1991, 3,375 homes were destroyed and a full 30% of the people wanted to sell out and move. But their insurance policies required they rebuild in the same fire-prone location. Laws could be passed to force the insurance companies to pay them off to rebuild or simply rent anywhere they want to move. A little flexibility please! The vacant lots would then be inexpensive enough to be purchased for open space, nature, agriculture - whatever is less in harm's way.

4. Move the city toward becoming far more pedestrian-friendly and less car-dominated. This conserves energy enormously.

5. Because cheap energy is on the way out, we need to be building new low-energy cities and this requires a crash program for renewable energy like solar and wind.

Global Suburbia
Now let’s consider suburbia and the likelihood that the link to New Orleans may be tighter than you think. Suburbia and all its cars and demand for asphalt, oil and energy to burn up and throw into the atmosphere -- a phenomenon very likely already causing more powerful hurricanes and raising the level of the sea.

Virtually everywhere, after 100 years of cars, people are scattered over such vast distances that it is very difficult to defend from the effects of global warming - we need to first find our most economically and socially vital centers, from downtowns to regional centers to neighborhood centers.

We need to make those centers more diverse (mixed use, as planners say) and dense and pedestrian-oriented. These steps reduce the spread of the city and make transit access - and all the energy conservation that that makes possible - far easier to attain.

We all noticed the regional damage to the oil infrastructure and the fears swirling through the economy as a result of Katrina. We ain't seen nothing yet. With the peak and decline oil production in a rapidly developing world -- and especially with China's thirst for petroleum catching up to America's binge -- demand is growing rapidly and supply is soon to shrink. We are in a very tight and dangerous spot.

Metropolitan areas and cities with suburbs and automobile scattered towns all need to find their centers and reinforce them. They need to withdraw development away from their low-density fringes and toward pedestrian, bicycle and transit centers.

Some Americans can no longer afford to drive from suburb to job and transportation prices will keep climbing -- forever. This will drive up prices for virtually everything else. Agriculture will find itself starved for the massive subsidy in energy and chemicals that were so plentifully provided in that magic century of cheap oil. Add it up with global warming and growing extinctions of our fellow-traveler plants and animals on Earth and we have a recipe for a disaster to make the Great Depression look like a mere rehearsal for the real thing.

Richard Regester is author of EcoCities: Building Cities in Balance with Nature and is the head of Ecocity Builders, PO Box 697, Oakland, CA 94604, USA. www.ecocitybuilders.org

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