New Orleans: A Testing Ground for Global Change
John McQuaid researched and wrote about how U.S. government agencies are ill-prepared to deal with rapid environmental changes in the 21st century. Below, McQuaid explains how his project examined New Orleans as a case study to reflect on the larger implications for this country:
New Orleans is in a unique geographical predicament, located on sinking marshlands exposed to hurricanes and storm surges. That makes protecting the city a major engineering and political challenge—one that America has already failed at once. Some skeptics question whether it's too late for New Orleans, whether it may simply not be worth the tens of billions of dollars and decades of effort needed to rebuild and fortify the city.
However, I think this view is exactly upside down. New Orleans is just a symptom, a warning bell, of broader problems we face in an era of rapid environmental changes. The physical surroundings of the Mississippi Delta change noticeably year-to-year, as the marshes erode and the land sinks. A hurricane can radically rework them in a day. This is unusual, to be sure, but actually a foreshadowing of the changes that the world will have to wrestle with in the coming decades as temperatures warm, sea levels rise, and ecosystems are dramatically altered.
New Orleans is thus an excellent laboratory for studying how our institutions handle such changes in the environment. So far, though, the experiment is not going very well, to say the least.
My articles and speeches have explored how government agencies, most notably Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers, are simply not set up to deal with New Orleans or the broader challenges of the 21st century.