Into the Gulf, Day 11: Atlantis, the Basin, and the Sinking of Cities

Daily reports on the BP disaster on the Gulf

"War is over," sang John Lennon in different times.

"Oil is over," sang The New York Times a week ago Wednesday, heralding those two terrifically reliable sources, NOAA and BP, and letting us know that all was hunky dory down in the Gulf.  "It was too late to get the reactions of environmentalists," the paper added nonchalantly, which meant they basically passed along the government report as fact, propagating the new myth of the not-so-bad oil spill.  Only 25 % of the oil remains!  Um, but isn't that 25% ten times more oil than spilled during the Valdez?  Yes, but this is different, this is oil you can't see!  This oil only seems to be clinging to crab larvae and other out-of-sight stuff at the bottom of the ocean.  And anyway why are you still writing about this: don't you realize that the news cycle is officially over.

In fact everyone outside of the Gulf states is so upbeat that even hurricane season no longer seems the oily nightmare it was once envisioned to be.  Bring it on, we say, since we don't live here.  If there's really no oil out there then it won't be any worse than a normal hurricane season.

Oh yeah, we remember now.  Those normal hurricane seasons can be kind of bad....

Ryan Lambert has a plaque for being the first person to return to Buras after Katrina.  He also has a waterline in his lodge up above the stuffed animal heads that shows where the water finally settled, over twenty feet up.  He is one of the people who is not quite ready to buy into the new rosy Gulf narrative.  Recently he refused to organize and participate in the sports fishing tournament (with a free boat as a prize) that BP tried to sponsor as part of its all-is-well campaign.

By the way, here is what Ryan did on the day that Katrina hit.  He had been out fishing a day or two before, back when it looked like just another storm.  That was before it hit Florida and started speeding across the gulf on a beeline, as if it were seeking hasty reservations at Ryan's lodge.  "I've had a bullseye on my back for while now," he said of the oil and Katrina, but never was that bullseye quite as prominent as the day the storm hit, when his home would essentially be the touch-down point.  When this started to become apparent he loaded up his truck with what was most important, his guns and rods.  But as he was about to leave he got a call from a Mr. Bayle, a Vietnamese man who had worked for him for 14 years, who said, "My truck's broken."  When Ryan said that this was the real thing and Bayle had to get himself and his wife out of there, Bayle replied: "We old."  So Ryan drove by and scooped up the Bayles, who only carried a rosary and a picture of Jesus.  "We live now," said Bayle's wife.  They would survive but their house would not.  When they returned, weeks later, it was upside down in the middle of the road.

"People would come back with trucks and trailers to look for their stuff," said Ryan.  "And they would leave with a baggie."

This was the start of a very long day.  When Ryan finally made his way back to Lafayette, he got a phone call from his sister who said "Uncle Rich is trapped in the city.  He's got a broken ankle."  All the cell phones were out because the towers were knocked down but the land lines were working even as the water started to rise.  "I'm coming to get you," Ryan said to his uncle.  "I have no idea when I'm going to be there.  It might be midnight or it might be two in the morning.  But just know I'm coming.  Just go upstairs because if you get in that water and drown you're done."

His wife said you can't do this.  And he said what do you mean?  This is what I do for a living.  I hunt and I guide.  Now I got a license to do it.  So Ryan grabbed four or five guns and hitched up his boat and threw his bicycle in the back of the truck.  He drove down through St. John the Baptist Parish to St. Charles and somehow talked the policemen into escorting him across the 310 bridge into the city.  There was no light once he crossed the bridge and to stay above the water he rode downtown on top of the levee.  He had four wheel drive of course and every time he hit some obstacle on the levee he'd drive down the hill to the river road, driving over and under downed power lines.  It was pitch dark with no lights except those on his truck.  Finally he cut up Causeway Boulevard and started heading into Metairie.  When he got to the water it was really not enough to launch his boat but was too much for his truck.  So he grabbed his flashlight and a couple of guns and waded in.  On the way to his house, he saw nobody except for some National Guard people here and there on some high ground.  When he got to the house he beat on its side until a little flashlight came on and an upstairs window opened.  "Bogale, that you?" his uncle asked.  The old man then threw down the keys to his truck, that was on high ground and Ryan backed it up to the window, where his uncle could climb down along a pipe into the truckbed.  They drove slowly out through the submerged and deserted streets, the truck kicking up a substantial wake, and ditched the old truck for Ryab's once they reached it.  Then it was back up on the Levee.  They made it home about four in the morning.

I followed the same general route when I first drove into New Orleans, driving below the Levee on River Road and stopping a few times to walk up over the hump of grass to see the river, which sloshed against the hill with a brown, algal soup of microbial humus and Big Gulp cups.  The next morning I went birdwatching in the lower 9th Ward and saw two yellow crowned night herons on top of the wall that had cracked and flooded the famous, or infamous, neighborhood.  Many places still hadn't been re-built and there was an overgrown green jungle feel to the roads closest to the water, lots lush with tall grass and ferns.  Roofs and doors were still off some of the plywood houses where the water had come rushing through in a great wave.  A black snake with silvery marking crossed the road and marsh grasses grew so high it was hard to see around the corner.  I must have looked funny walking through the neighborhood with my binoculars around my neck.   On the drive out I stopped to talk to two women who appeared to be moving into a new house.  One of the women, Glennis, who had had her house completely destroyed by Katrina, was finally moving back from Texas.  She pointed at a green house that looked like an amphibious boat, which, it turned out, had been paid for by Brad Pitt as part of his project to restore the lower 9th. The Wall that Broke Open (with one yellow-crowned night heron on top).

"I don't like the way it looks," she said.  "But I like having a roof over my head."

She also pointed at the wall that still held back the water and speculated on why it had broken during Katrina.

"They say a boat hit it and cracked it open," she said.  "But I think they blew it up on purpose to flood us out."

I nodded and let that one sit.  When I asked about the oil she did not seem overly concerned.  She had other worries.

A storm was coming but the people at French 75 seemed no more worried than Glennis had been about the oil.  I sipped my Daisy on my last night in New Orleans as the customers scoffed at the notion that anything as puny as tropical storm Bonnie could scare people as tough and storm-scarred as themselves.  They turned out to be right, but as the nervousness under their bravado revealed, you never know with storms out in the Gulf.  Especially when you have just come off, as Bill McKibben recently pointed out, the warmest decade, warmest six months, and warmest April, May, and June on record.  (And I can testify that July has been no slouch.)  We all know that this will not be the season's last storm.   And as for a big one it's only a matter of time.

Over the last few years, before I came down here, I've made a study of sinking cities, including towns on the Outer Banks where the trophy houses seem to be migrating out to sea and the streets of lower Manhattan, that in some areas are only five feet above sea level.  A couple of years ago I drove out to Topsail Island, just twenty miles north of where I live, with the coastal geologist Orrin Pilkey.  Orrin pointed out the multi-story hotels and condos that perched over the eroding beach, dipping their toes over the scarp line, as if ready to dive into the Atlantic.

"These buildings don't have a chance," he said.  "One big storm from the right direction and they're done."

We passed Hot-Diggedy Dogz and a dozen other tacky beach stores-with signs that employed the subtle substitution of "K"s for "C"s, like "Krazy Krabs"-but the sign that really caught my eye was a small hand-painted one that said, with no explanation, "Atlantis."  A mile farther another appeared: "Atlantis" in simple blue letters.  I made a mental note of the signs though their real significance didn't hit until Orrin and I parked at the northernmost public access point and walked down to the beach.   And there it was.  Atlantis.  Or at least the beginnings of Atlantis.

If any place seemed a physical manifestation and confirmation of Orrin's warnings about the coast it was the northern end of Topsail Island.  Far out on the low tide sand, where you might expect to walk picking up shells or sea glass, stood large abandoned homes on stilts.  Below the buildings, hundreds of sandbags leaned against the stilts, though to call them "bags" is to not get the point across. They were enormous, ten feet long and terrifically ugly, great lumpish loaves that transformed the beach into a war zone.  Farther out water washed over the sandbags and waves sloshed in the spaces beneath the houses.  Useless electrical wires and pink insulation hung limp from the buildings' undersides.  The houses themselves, stranded out on the low tide beach, distanced from their usual surroundings of roads and neighboring homes and telephone poles, had the look of sci-fi space stations, floating far away from earth.  Stairs ran down off the houses and hung in the air, hovering above the water, and "Condemned: Do Not Enter" signs shone orange in the windows.  It was a truly wild sight, no less wild for the fact that the structures were manmade.

The sheer incongruity of seeing those water houses was startling, and maybe a little thrilling.  You got the sense of something massively out of place, and maybe knew a little how Charlton Heston's character felt coming upon the Stature of Liberty on the beach at the end of Planet of the Apes.

Water Houses.

"Holy shit," I muttered.

Orrin mentioned that if the more dire predictions for sea level rise came true, all of North Carolina's barrier islands would be underwater by the end of the century.  This was of some concern for me, as I happened to live on a barrier island.  A few months later we traveled together to another island, not a barrier island this time but a chunk of glaciated bedrock, home, not to a few thousand people, but to eight million.

New York City had never felt as primal as it did that day, touring it with Orrin.  We noted how the grided streets would act as sluiceways leading water from the rivers into and through the city and tried to imagine water cascading down into the subways.  Most primal of all was ground zero, a name that takes on different meaning when you realize how close it is to sea level.  All those years after the attack and the scene still seemed chaotic.  A car ramp led down into a chasm of gray cement walls and Porto-Pottys and erector set bridges and temporary worker trailers and staging and tattered American flags and piles of garbage.  This was just about the lowest elevation in the whole city, land that had once been in the water and might be again.  I imagined describing the particular configuration of land and water to a geographer, while stripping it of its specific over-populated locale.  What, I would ask, would you call a great chasm less than five feet above sea level that is also less than a quarter mile from a rising body of water?  Well, the geographer would answer, I know what I will soon call it: a lake.

In fact geographers and scientists already have a name for this lower tip of Manhattan, a name that graphically suggests how it might fare in the face of sea level rise and a powerful storm.  The Basin, it is officially called.  One of those scientists, Klaus Jacob, a Columbia geophysicist who is working on the city's Climate Change report, has gone even further.  He calls it The Bathtub.  Many New Yorkers used this name for the excavated Ground Zero site itself during the days before re-builidng, due to its tendency to fill up with water after rainstorms, but Jacob believes the name fits the whole of lower Manhattan.

What will happen if the seas rise as many predict they will?  Most obviously the Bathtub will fill to the brim.  Standing there that day I felt an odd conflation of disasters.  9-11 melded with Katrina.  Strange how our modes of apocalypse shift, like styles of clothes.  You rarely hear anxiety about nuclear winter any more, and the fears of terrorism have waned since the attack.  But other worries have filled the void.  Katrina signaled a shift in which nature itself began to play the role of the heavy.  Nature, and of course us, the great manipulators of nature.  And what is sea level rise if not the result of our use of oil and other fossil fuels?  It seems all strangely connected, both natural and un-.  I think of a trip I made to Belize, to a village called Monkey River Town, seven months after the towers fell.  Everywhere people talked about the great tragedy that had struck the fall before, but they weren't talking about September 11th.  The date they kept mentioning was October 9th, the day that Hurricane Iris, a category 4 storm, had slammed into the coast of southern Belize with winds in excess of 140 per hour, killing dozens and leaving 10,000 homeless.

Manhattan is safer than Belize, and safer than New Orleans, thanks to the cooler waters off its coasts, giving hurricanes less energy to feed off.  But New York has seen its share of storms.  In 1821 a category 4 hurricane hit New York City directly, raising a storm surge of 13 feet in an hour, cutting the island in half, and flooding the entire city.  In 1938 the famous storm known as the Long Island Express hit the coast with a storm surge 25 to 35 feet high.  Perhaps most relevant to today is Hurricane Donna which struck New York on September 12, 1960 with 90 mile an hour winds and five inches of rain.  The images of Donna help one imagine the storms to come: people in lower Manhattan trudging through waist-deep water, others floating along in rowboats. The U.S. States Landfalling Hurricane Project predicts that there is a 90% probability that the New York/Long Island area will be hit with a category 3 hurricane over the next fifty years.  But the truth is that as sea levels rise it won't even take a hurricane to flood lower Manhattan.  A strong enough Nor'easter will easily do the trick.  That is why hurricane experts see New York,  despite the relatively low odds of a major storm, as the country's second most dangerous major city, behind only the hurricane bulls-eye of Miami and just ahead of New Orleans.  Consider that all three major New York airports, as well as the rail, and most obviously the subway, are less than ten feet above sea level, and storm surge predictions for a category 3 hurricane top twenty feet in most locations.  That puts JFK ten feet under water.

There are all sorts of plans to prevent this, but they sound a lot like the usual plans to prevent weather and seas and winds.  Boys with Toys again.  One plan involves building three large barriers at the Verrazano Narrows, Arthur Kill, and Throgs Neck, barriers that will theoretically shield Manhattan in the manner of the Eastern Scheldt barrier that protects the Netherlands.  But beyond staggering costs is the question of their potential effectiveness.  One man who questions how much good barriers would do it Klaus Jacob, the same Columbia geophysicist who likes to call Lower Manhattan the Bathtub.  Jacob, playing the Orrin Pilkey role in New York, is deeply skeptical about dikes and barriers; he thinks that barriers or walls will just give people a false sense of security.  "The higher the defense, the deeper the floods," he has written.

Jacob is one of the few people who has really thought hard about what a major hurricane would do to New York.  Unlike most of us, he has little problem envisioning, and describing, the devastation.  He sees streets like rivers, flooded subways, and little chance for true evacuation, a Katrina but with millions more people.  His only practical solution sounds a lot like the solution that Orrin has suggested for the Outer Banks.  Get the hell out of low-lying areas.

In fact Jacob has already suggested the same to the residents of New Orleans.  Not long after Katrina, he caused a stir by writing one of the first papers that proposed that it was foolish to rebuild New Orleans.  The idea might have been politically controversial, but Jacob argued that it was also innately commonsensical given sea level rise and the fact that parts of New Orleans are actually ten feet under sea level.  Why spend a hundred billion dollars to re-build when the odds are it's going to happen again fairly soon?   He wrote: "Some of New Orleans could be transformed into a ‘floating city' using platforms not unlike the oil platforms off-shore, or, over the short term, a city of boathouses, to allow floods to fill in the ‘bowl' with fresh sediment."  New Orleans, he went on, would soon become an "American Venice."

Which sounds nice in theory.  But what if you happen to live here? 

On my last morning in the city I drive out to Chalmette, where the town was completely submerged and the bulb of the giant water tank blew off its great stem and bobbed around like a beach ball.  I stop to fill my tank and then take a break to talk to the guy who is sitting on the bench outside the service station.  His name is Joe and his house was completely destroyed in Katrina.  It wasn't the first time.  His home had been destroyed by a hurricane in 1965.

"That was hurricane Betsy and my little daughter was one month old.  I remember it was '65 because the next time my house got wiped out she was forty."

He shakes his head slowly.

"If it happens again I'm leaving and not coming back," he said.

We shake hands and say goodbye.  But then as I start to walk back to my car he adds one more thing.

"Of course that's what I said the last time," he admits.

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