Jan 222006
Authors: Jake Blumberg

If someone was to give me a choice between running over a squirrel with my car or running into a bus, possibly harming the passengers or myself, my choice is an obvious one — I am taking out the squirrel.

It is not that I have anything against the squirrel; it is just that I value human life more then I value animal life. If faced with the same dilemma, common sense tells me most people would make the same choice — sacrificing animal life for human life.

Yet, there are some who defy such logic, choosing to instead risk human life and welfare for the sake of the environment.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans' and the surrounding Gulf Coast, it was an apocalyptic event that was feared for years; a storm so powerful it could destroy everything in its path. New Orleans — a metropolitan center located below sea level– was especially susceptible to the wrath of the storm, a veritable fish bowl just waiting to be filled with water. Its best defenses were levees — small dams built to prevent water from rushing into the city. When the levees broke under the pressure of the rushing water from Katrina, New Orleans was destroyed.

The levee failures are well-publicized by the media, mainly attributed to a feud between New Orleans' levee board and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the two groups responsible for making levee upgrades.

A story published Dec. 25 on the Los Angeles Times Web site described the relationship between the organizations over the past two decades as "a dysfunctional partnership … of chronic government mismanagement."

There is another factor that contributed to the catastrophe in New Orleans beyond the political upheaval. In the past 30 years, multiple efforts were made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to improve the infrastructure in New Orleans and the surrounding areas, and multiples times the efforts were halted by environmentalist groups.

The Corps worked under the correct assumption that a hurricane would eventually hit New Orleans, and the infrastructure needed to be prepared for it. In the 1970s, the engineers tried to build a system of floodgates to prevent New Orleans from being saturated by flood waters from the Gulf of Mexico during a storm like Katrina.

The production was stopped when an environmentalist group called "Save the Wetlands" successfully sued to prevent the construction of the floodgates in 1977, arguing that the floodgates would damage native wetlands and marshes in the area.

Let's stop for a moment and clarify what these all-important wetlands are that the environmentalists fought so valiantly for. Covered in brush, trees and water, the areas are habitats for everything from algae to black bears. A perfect setting for a nature photo shoot, but not justification to risk the lives of thousands of people, the tragic cost charged to the citizens of New Orleans last year to save some algae.

Some argue the wetlands also serve as natural flood protection, a point of some contention among experts. Dan Canfield, a professor of aquatic sciences at the University of Florida said in a Jan. 16 article in The Weekly Standard that wetlands are vastly overrated as flood protection. "If they're already wet and filled with water, they provide no extra protection," Canfield said.

Canfield also contends in the same article that floodgates from the 70s would have made a difference when Katrina hit. "It probably would have given (the people of New Orleans) a better shot," Canfield said.

When you are dealing with a tragedy that left unfathomable numbers of people homeless and in danger, a "better shot" is quite a lot.

The Engineers tried once again to strengthen flood defenses in the 1990s and environmentalists once again shot down a project that would have served as a last line of defense for Gulf Coast citizens, choosing to defend the lives of Louisiana black bears instead.

In 1996, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers made a move to upgrade a section of levees about 303 miles along the Mississippi River. According to The Weekly Standard, the Engineers told the Baton Rouge Advocate in 1996 that a "levee failure could wreak catastrophic consequences on Louisiana and Mississippi."

Once again, environmental groups — led by the Sierra Club — successfully sued to prevent the work to protect native wetlands. Looking back, the Corps was certainly correct in their prediction that a levee failure would cause catastrophic results; one must only look at pictures of New Orleans to see the proof.

I don't know if the wetlands will prove to be worth the sacrifice many made this past year. What I do know is this: more then 1,000 people died in the flooding of the region, and many, many more are still reported missing.

Add to those numbers the survivors forced from their homes, currently trying to pick up the pieces of their broken lives, and I am certain none of them appreciate the pristine native wetlands or the cuddly black bears they sacrificed their homes and lives for.

Our environment is obviously an important concern. As the world's population rapidly grows, air quality, water quality and global warming will only become more relevant issues. Yet, there must be a balance, a set of priorities that ranks human life and welfare ahead of any type of land or animal.

Overrunning native areas to build a new strip mall is a topic that should be examined-because it is a luxury, not a necessity– but when it comes to the safety of people, as the projects in New Orleans certainly did, we must selfishly rank our own safety ahead of that of animals and habitats. Common sense and logic cannot be discarded for the sake of a postcard-quality landscape or a cute animal that belongs in a Disney movie, not when the decisions being made are matters of life and death.

Jake Blumberg is a technical journalism and political science double major. His column runs every Monday in the Collegian.

 Posted by at 5:00 pm

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