New Orleans as Atlantis?
As of Sunday night, CBS aired a segment on “60 Minutes,” in which reporter Scott Pelley told of New Orleans becoming an island within 80 years. However, this might not be entirely accurate, as The Times-Picayune reported this morning.
NOT SO FAST, '60 MINUTES'
Five experts say the report on the demise of New Orleans is way off the water mark
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
By Mark Schleifstein
"Rumors of New Orleans falling into the sea are greatly exaggerated."
That's Louisiana Recovery Authority Executive Director Andy Kopplin's response to a segment on Sunday's "60 Minutes" news show that quoted St. Louis University geologist Tim Kusky as saying that within 90 years the city would be an island surrounded by water, and that people and businesses should move away.
Kopplin has a lot of company, including several of the scientists whom Kusky, an earth sciences professor, said he relied on in reaching his controversial conclusion. Their collective response? Kusky went overboard.
But state officials are concerned that Kusky's comments on a national television show could help kill what they say is a comprehensive and effective plan for protecting New Orleans from major hurricanes and restoring the state's fractured coastline. Congress already is considering both levee-raising and wetlands restoration, two critical ingredients in protecting south Louisiana.
Kusky said his conclusions were based on a series of scientific reports concerning subsidence and erosion in coastal Louisiana, including preliminary estimates of damage resulting from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
"We should be thinking about a gradual pullout of New Orleans, and starting to rebuild people's homes, businesses and industry in places that can last more than 80 years," Kusky said on "60 Minutes." "Because New Orleans is going to be 15 to 18 feet below sea level, sitting off the coast of North America surrounded by a 50- to 100-foot-tall levee system to protect the city," he said.
Kusky came to similar conclusions in a Boston Globe op-ed piece in September. And in his 2003 book, "Geological Hazards," Kusky went even further, saying rainfall accompanying a major hurricane might change the course of the Mississippi River.
In an e-mail response to people who have written him since the "60 Minutes" segment ran, Kusky said he believes this is the "proper time to be asking questions about the rebuilding process."
"While I realize that this is a sensitive topic, I spoke out because of my concern for the residents of New Orleans," Kusky said. "It is my hope that the scientific communities' research and observations will help save lives in the future."
Kopplin was unsuccessful in a last-minute effort Saturday to get "60 Minutes" to hold the piece. He sent an e-mail to "60 Minutes" correspondent Scott Pelley urging that additional scientists familiar with the state's coastal restoration efforts be included to balance Kusky's remarks.
Also making the request was Don Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and a former director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.
In a letter to "60 Minutes," Boesch said the op-ed piece written by Kusky for the Boston Globe in September "reads like an undergraduate paper -- a little bit of truth but with a lot of important information missing and not much deep thinking. And, I wouldn't grade it highly.
"The disaster of Katrina is sad in so many respects," Boesch wrote. "One of those for me as a scientist is the proliferation of self-proclaimed experts who, either to seek attention or push their own agendas, have rushed to write op-eds or otherwise opine to the media on topics far from their expertise. They are affecting people's fears and lives and confusing rational decision-making on governmental policies and investments."
'An offhand comment'
On Monday, "60 Minutes" posted a response on its Public Eye Web page, in which Pelley defended the report to CBS's ombudsman.
Pelley told the ombudsman "that '60 Minutes' called the Geological Society of America to check out Kusky's claims. '60 Minutes' was put in touch with three scientists, Pelley says, all of whom backed Kusky's argument. One even said he was being too conservative in his estimate concerning how quickly the city would sink, he adds."
In an interview Monday, Kusky said his projection of the city becoming an island was "based on a statement made by the director of the U.S. Geological Survey" in 2000.
But University of Texas at Austin geology professor Charles Groat, who was then director of the U.S. Geological Survey, flatly disagreed with Kusky's conclusions.
Groat said Kusky relied on "an offhand comment that has often been repeated" that was included in a University of New Orleans magazine piece that compared New Orleans to Atlantis.
"No, no, no," Groat said of Kusky's island image. "You've got a lot of things between the city of New Orleans and the edge of the sea, and they're not going away."
He said that in an ultimate worst-case scenario -- if global warming were to raise sea level several dozen feet -- the city might be flooded, but such a scenario is not thought to be realistic by many scientists.
Roy Dokka, a Louisiana State University geologist who developed subsidence estimates as part of efforts of the National Geodesic Survey to set height benchmarks throughout south Louisiana, said that if Kusky relied on their past estimates of subsidence to predict the future, he missed the warning in his subsidence paper that past estimates cannot be used to predict the future.
If anything, Dokka said, in the past decade, the rate at which land is sinking in south Louisiana slowed considerably.
"If he's using NOAA's NGS data as his guide, I'm the co-author for that subsidence paper and it says explicitly in there that rates are not constant over time," Dokka said. "The measurements we've made of subsidence for the last 10 years show subsidence slowed by half.
"I agree that without coastal restoration, the long-term prognosis for New Orleans -- in 500 years -- does not look good," Dokka said. "However, if the powers that be come to grips with the problem as it really is, the subsidence that's occurring in the whole region, we can develop strategies that provide us with a safe place for New Orleanians to live."
Some scientists also were critical of the "60 Minutes" report's use of photos of damage to Louisiana's Chandeleur Islands in making Kusky's point because the damage to those islands has little to do with the future of New Orleans.
Asbury Sallenger, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who conducted an aerial survey of the Chandeleur Islands immediately after Katrina hit, said the use of photographs from that survey in the "60 Minutes" piece to buttress Kusky's argument simply was inaccurate.
The survey indicated that 15-foot dunes along the islands were knocked down to 4 feet, at most, and many of the individual islands were eroded dramatically, Sallenger said.
He said the damage to the islands reinforces the need for further studies to better understand the effects of barrier island systems in reducing surge, But the loss of those islands doesn't mean levees designed to withstand Category 5 hurricane surge would not protect the city.
"I don't follow that logic," he said.
Out of his league?
Some scientists have questioned Kusky's credentials for making his statements.
Kusky said Monday that he has conducted no basic research in Louisiana's coastal wetlands.
"I've worked down there a number of times, mostly field trips with my students, showing them what people are doing," he said.
His expertise actually is in hard rock geology, especially the study of ophiolites, hard rock that was once part of mid-ocean undersea plates, but was thrust up onto the edge of continental plates.
Sallenger said someone with "60 Minutes" called his office several weeks ago to check out a claim that Kusky had once been employed by the Geological Survey.
"We found a record that he had worked part-time for the Geological Survey, but for a non-coastal group," Sallenger said.
Joseph Suhayda, a retired LSU geologist cited by Kusky as another source for his comments, said he does believe large sections of New Orleans should be partitioned by levee walls to stave off the effects of hurricane storm surge.
He also believes state and federal officials should seriously consider filling some flooded areas of the city, similar to a Breaux Act coastal restoration project that turned open water in the LaBranche wetlands west of the city into productive wetlands several years ago.
And there certainly is a danger that the combination of hurricanes and continuing erosion can cut through the land bridge connecting Chef Menteur Pass and the Rigolets if no restoration program is adopted, Suhayda said.
But he said Kusky went too far in his contention that the city is in danger of being surrounded by water.
"He has mixed a variety of statements without critically looking at the possibilities of restoration," Suhayda said.