This guest post was originally delivered as a sermon on November 14, 2010, by the Reverend Dennis McCarty at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbus, Indiana. We publish it here with his permission. The reading for the sermon is from an Associated Press article published on March 3, 2010, by Remy de la Mauviniere and Elaine Ganley.
To anyone who doesn’t actually live there, I suppose it does look like a recipe for disaster, to live in a city that’s below sea level. But it’s not that simple. For one thing—below sea level or not—this city is a major seaport. It has a population of a half-million people. Because it sits just a few miles upstream from the mouth of the largest river on the continent, it guards a very important waterway.
Even long ago, when people first began to live here, the land was barely above sea level. Centuries of human habitation, land development, and land reclamation have caused it to settle even more. Now, the lowest points of this city are twenty feet or more below sea level. In the past, storms blowing in off the sea, have caused major damage and loss of life. If the sea walls, water gates, and levees were to fail again, the death toll could be enormous. For that reason, I suppose it is natural that someone from an inland state would suggest that the citizens just leave this place to the elements and build somewhere else, on higher ground.
But again, it’s not all that simple. For one thing, there is no ground that’s much higher, not till you get many miles away. For another, more than a million people earn their livelihoods from the commerce, tourism, and manufacturing located in and around the city right where it is. And that’s not even counting the music, museums, educational centers, and festivals. So the people stay. They do the best they can. Oddly enough, they don’t seem worried by a situation we inlanders might see as nerve-wracking.
I’m not talking about New Orleans, though. Welcome to the Dutch city of Rotterdam, which for centuries has been the busiest, most successful seaport in the world. Nor is Rotterdam the only city besides New Orleans that lies below sea level. Twenty percent of the whole Netherlands—and twenty-one percent of the country’s population—live below sea level. Another thirty percent lie three feet or less above sea level. Any mildly healthy North Sea wave, looks down on more than half the country.
Yet, the people of the Netherlands are prosperous, peaceful, and perfectly happy to be where they are. They have no desire to tear down any of their cities—and no one seems to consider them crazy. They live at or below sea level—and have engineered some of the most impressive public works in the world to keep their feet dry while doing it.
Around the world, important seaports tend to be located near the mouths of great rivers—because navigable rivers are still the world’s greatest highways for commercial and industrial traffic. Where those rivers meet the sea, cargo ships from remote lands can shelter, unload their cargoes, then take on domestic goods to be shipped all around the world. The catch is—any place where a river flows into the sea is—by definition—going to be at sea level. What’s more, great rivers carry huge loads of sand and silt, drained from whole continents. Where they flow into the sea, they drop that sediment, forming deltas that may stretch for hundreds of miles. Rotterdam stands in the heart of the Rhine River Delta, New Orleans in the Mississippi Delta. On the Nile Delta, Alexandria is easily the most important seaport in Egypt. On the Yangtze River Delta in China, Shanghai has now become the busiest port—and the largest city—in the world. All these places are at or below sea level, vulnerable to storms and erosion. It’s a price we humans pay for being a commercial species. ...
No matter what any religious sentimentalist may tell you, there’s no sign this world was made just for us. The mammoth forces that shape this world, do not follow the beck and call of humanity. Here in Indiana, we worry about tornadoes. In Utah and western Colorado, where I grew up, they worry about earthquakes. In New Orleans, it’s Mississippi River floods and hurricanes. We frail and vulnerable humans—no matter how clever we are—are still subject to forces that are much bigger than we are. ...
People in the Netherlands have used technology and ingenuity for centuries, to deal with the onslaughts of the North Sea. Back in 1953, for example, an unprecedented combination of high tides and strong winds brought flooding that killed almost two thousand people—twice the death toll of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In the United Kingdom, that same storm breached sea walls and sent a fifteen-foot surge of water up the Thames River Estuary toward London—another low-lying port city--that killed three hundred more people. The storm also brought heavy loss of life to Northern Ireland and also Belgium.
Once the storm blew over, all those nations set about strengthening their sea defenses. The Netherlands, particularly, responded with a huge public works program called the Deltawerken, the Delta Works. This project took a generation to complete and consists of a huge, interlocked series of dams, dikes, sea gates, and other barriers. It’s such a dramatically conceived project that just this year, the American Society of Civil Engineers declared it one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.
The largest single piece of the Delta Works is the Oosterschelde barrier, a two-mile-long dam that guards the estuary of the River Scheldt, northwest of Antwerp, Belgium. It’s made up of sixty-two huge lift gates that are raised in good weather, to allow normal tidal flow. During storms, they’re lowered, to block damaging storm surges.
An even greater engineering marvel is the Maeslant barrier, across the channel leading to Rotterdam itself. At the mouth of the Rhine River, a dam like the Oosterschelde would block the heavy shipping traffic. So they designed two huge, hollow, curved gates that look like like gargantuan rocking chair rockers, laid over sideways. When a storm is coming, the gates float out from each side of the channel on long arms, take on water for weight, and settle into place to block storm surges. Once the storm passes, compressed air forces the water out—the same way a submarine works—and the gates re-float and swing back out of the way. The two gates of the Maeslant barrier are the largest human-made, moving objects in the world. ...
These engineering marvels have several things in common. They are all very large and complex. They were all expensive to build. But using the calculations of the nations that built them, they all save far more money by preventing damage and loss of life, than they cost. Finally—every one of these designs could be used, in various ways, to protect our Gulf Coast and the city of New Orleans.
But nothing like these designs has been built here. New Orleans is still protected by the same kind of sea walls and levees that have been in place for a hundred years: technology that’s a generation out of date. The very fact that modern technology hasn’t been put in place—when Europe has proven how doable, practical, and cost-effective it is—has to say something important about us as a nation and as a society.
First, we need to “get real” about the city of New Orleans. Considering all the various port facilities and authorities at the terminus of the Mississippi River—the Port of New Orleans, the Port of South Louisiana, the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port right at the river’s outlet—New Orleans is the hub of the largest shipping complex in the world. It’s easily larger than any other two ports in the United States, put together.
As Scientific American magazine noted in February, 2006: “Critics who say it is foolish to rebuild in such a vulnerable place are missing the big picture. In addition to being a cultural center, the Gulf Coast is the economic engine that drives the country. We can’t ... abandon it. The [Mississippi] Delta produces one fifth of the country’s oil, one quarter of its natural gas, and one third of its seafood. Trillions of dollars of goods and crops flow through the ports there. These activities require extensive infrastructure and tens of thousands of employees who cannot live ... in homes two hours away.”
It’s fascinating to me that while such European cities as Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Antwerp, and London, are protected by trillions of dollars worth of massive, high-tech machinery, our own Mississippi Delta gets rubble-and-earth technology hundreds of years old—along with trillions of dollars worth of excuses, delays, and bureaucratic wrangling. All while the people who move the commerce—not to mention the area’s other residents—are castigated for being so stupid as to live and work where they do. Yet New Orleans is no more vulnerable than any number of European and Asian port cities.
Any time I visit New Orleans, I find the same striking features. First—invariably—I find some of the best food, most unique local culture, and friendliest people I have ever met. Each time I go down there, I find myself humbled by the real kindness and hospitality of the people: their genuine desire to make me feel welcome and comfortable. That’s not to mention their passion for this city they call home and their real desire for me to understand why they love it as much as they do—even with the hardships and frustrations. I have literally seen New Orleanians get tears in their eyes, telling me how they feel about their city and how they refuse to give up on it, despite all the setbacks.
Before Hurricane Katrina hit five years ago, seventy per cent of the residents of New Orleans, had grown up there. In a culture that moves around as much as Americans do, that’s an amazing statistic. No other major city comes close. Even now, despite all the people forced to leave in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a remarkable number have returned. I’ve heard amazing stories about struggle, frustration, and sometimes, real success, rebuilding their longtime homes and businesses, rather than building anew someplace else. The stories range from the heartwarming to the heartbreaking.
I also feel I should add: if someone spends Mardi Gras in the French Quarter—or, for that matter, six months in the French Quarter—they will enjoy some of the best food and music in the world, along with an amazing, floating party. But if that’s all you see, please don’t go home and tell people you saw New Orleans. Because you didn’t. You won’t find the real New Orleans in the French Quarter. You’ll find it out in the neighborhoods, where the people live. I don’t go back to New Orleans for the food or the culture, though both are wonderful. I go back to New Orleans for the people.
In those neighborhoods—if you listen carefully enough—beneath the warmth and hospitality and stories of human struggle and resiliency, you will also hear a more negative note. There’s a feeling of frustration in New Orleans that sometimes comes close to real anger. New Orleanians may not be able to recite the precise statistics and dollar amounts, but they know full well, how vital the mouth of the Mississippi River is to our whole nation’s economy. They know about the trillions of dollars worth of oil, gasoline, grain, seafood, and industrial products that flow through New Orleans—generating profit and prosperity in the rest of the United States. And they know just how little of that profit and prosperity stay in New Orleans.
In other words—if we define a just society as one where every person has reasonably equal access to the fruits of their own efforts and labors—then New Orleans is the perfect case study in what’s unjust about our society.
Let me elaborate: my experience is, the people of New Orleans deeply appreciate every bit of help they receive. My experience is, they would be kind hosts even if they had never suffered a catastrophe—because that’s the culture. But while the rest of us fill our cars with gas brought in through the Mississippi Delta, enrich our lives with goods and products brought in through the Mississippi Delta—and fatten our banks on money generated by the Mississippi Delta—New Orleanians have to live with the excuses, delays, and bureaucratic bumbling I mentioned before—that have destroyed so many lives and livelihoods there.
After the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, our leaders expressed amazement that such a thing could have happened. Yet, scientists and engineers had been predicting that exact disaster for years, due to faulty sea walls and levies, and the environmental degradation of the Mississippi Delta itself. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet canal is called ”Mister Go” for short. It’s a little-used shipping canal that bypasses the lowest hundred miles of the Mississippi River. A flow study of the Mister Go, showed that a major storm would generate a surge of water exactly like the Thames Estuary surge of 1953, with the same result. When Katrina hit, that’s just what happened.
The knowledge was there. The fixes were there, too. But they had been mired in bureaucratic wrangling for years—and still are. Even after that disaster, things haven’t changed much. Investigative findings on the Gulf Oil Spill just this week, show the same pattern. The Gulf Oil Spill didn’t happen because technology and procedures weren’t available to prevent it. It happened because those in control just couldn’t be bothered to put the technology and procedures in place.
I can’t resist comparing this to what’s called the Cape Wind Project, off the coast of Massachusetts. Because of the steady, strong breezes off Cape Cod, the Cape Wind Project is a proposal to build a large array of wind-driven generators to supply electrical power to the east coast. You’d think that was a no-brainer. Massachusetts needs the power. Such a “green” generating project would avoid the exhaust emissions and other liabilities of steam generating plants. And it would be a landmark step forward in “green” technology. Polls show that a large majority of Massachusetts citizens favor the project.
Yet the Cape Wind Project has been held in legal limbo for ten years, now, by a consortium led by prominent figures with summer homes on Cape Cod—including former Senator John Kerry, former governor Mitt Romney, and the Kennedy family—in part because they fear a large, offshore wind farm would spoil the view out to sea, lower property values, and interfere with their yachting.
One can only wish that the management of BP Oil Company last summer—or the the Army Corps of Engineers in the last half century--had been as worried about the Mississippi River Delta, as the wealthy residents of Cape Cod are, about the view from their summer homes. But that’s precisely the point. There’s a reason Rotterdam and London have adequate sea defenses and New Orleans doesn’t. The people who make the decisions about Rotterdam and London, live in Rotterdam and London. While the people who make the decisions about New Orleans are more likely to live in Washington or New York. We human beings always are more likely to invest energy and ingenuity when it’s our own livelihood or our own family that’s threatened.
There’s also a broader point—the real point of this whole discussion. We need to be humble when we advise—and judge—the unfortunate. Kahlil Gibran once noted rather icily, the wisdom of the fortunate sounds tinny in the ear of the miserable—especially when the misery comes from circumstances beyond their control.
So I do return to New Orleans every so often. I rejoice in people I’ve met there—from all around the country—who, I think, gain the same things I do, there. I go there for the human connections. I go there because I always learn something new. I go there as a reminder that people can be at their best in the midst of life’s worst difficulties. And I go there because it helps me stay humble. I always re-learn that the stream of human experience is long and deep and rich and various—and there are many things I don’t yet know—and an ounce of real listening and helping will gain me more than many pounds of what I think I already know. Amen. May it be so.