Editorial: Things fall apart
As yet another seasonal drought parches the North Carolina Piedmont Triad, it’s difficult for us to imagine the plight of the Midwest river towns along the Mississippi. As the river rises and more levees give way each day, we sweat in the Carolina heat and ask ourselves: What the hell is going on with this country?
It’s been three long years since Hurricane Katrina battered the levee system in New Orleans, culminating in one of the worst man-made disasters in US history. It wasn’t the hurricane – that region has been smacked by hurricanes for eons. It wasn’t God’s wrath or geological phenomena or even lack of foresight that caused the Crescent City to become submerged in filthy floodwaters. A mix of corruption and ineptitude brought down New Orleans. And now it’s happening in the Midwest.
Rivers rise and fall with the seasons. That is not new information. But the US system of levees designed to contain the largest river system on the continent is an archaic piece of engineering, a catapult in the atomic age, and everything we’ve seen in the last three years tells us that our levee system is simply not adequate.
After the damage wrought by Katrina, many Americans became familiar with the systems in place in Europe to protect cities like Venice and London and the entire nation of the Netherlands, half of which lies below sea level. Where we have reinforced dirt mounds along the banks of the river, they have built huge pumping stations and overflow canals. The Netherlands, in particular, has invested $8 billion over 25 years in a coastal defense system built to withstand the kind of storm that statistically happens once every 10,000 years.
The US levee system along the Mississippi, designed and built by the Army Corps of Engineers, is based on a 100- to 500-year timeline. And we have no immediate plans to improve upon it.
This is not a problem specific to areas along the Mississippi – this is a national issue. For one, protecting its citizens from disasters like this is one of the things government is for. And in that, our leaders have failed us.
For another, disasters of this stripe have far-reaching consequences. The price of gasoline took a spectacular leap after Katrina, when the port of New Orleans was unable to accommodate the barges giving us our fix of light, sweet crude. The Midwest flooding has wiped out massive tracts of farmland in our agricultural heartland, hitting hard our production of corn, soybeans, wheat, oats and rice and jacking up food prices that are already at historical highs.
Our nation’s infrastructure is crumbling, and the only people who can do anything about it don’t seem to care. And this country, still one of the wealthiest in the world, continues to slide deeper into disrepair.
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