Louisiana 1927, Again

I grew up less than a mile from the Mississippi River in New Orleans.  You could walk to the levee, which we often did, and ride horses on the flat gravel road at its peak.  On one side of the levee – the side that runs along the river – is a steep slide of concrete.  The other side that faces the west bank area of New Orleans, called Algiers, is made of  a long grassy slope.  It would be a great place for sledding should it ever snow, but that is a once-in-decades occurrence.

The Crescent City of New Orleans is protected from the whims of Mother Nature by this huge boundary between the river and the city.  It is not one of the levees that broke after Hurricane Katrina.   Those levees protected neighborhoods from canals.  If the Mississippi River levee were ever breached here, it would almost certainly eclipse the damage and, possibly, the loss of life attributed to Katrina.  That’s why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has, for the first time, opened three Mississippi floodways – one in Missouri and two in Louisiana.

Not just New Orleans, but the Louisiana capital city of Baton Rouge is being threatened by rising water.  The  hope is that opening the spillways will prevent flooding in heavily populated areas.   But there are numerous smaller communities that many fear the rising waters will – like the Randy Newman song says – “wash us away.”

On April 15th (Good Friday) of 1927, after months of heavy rainfall and snow across the Midwest and Mississippi Valley of the United States, 38 centimeters of rain fell on New Orleans within 18 hours.  A day later, the levee broke upstream in Missouri.  More levees were breached in the following days and weeks.

On April 29, 1927, fearing New Orleans would be soon be under water, the levee downstream from the city was dynamited.  The flooding inundated the mostly poor areas of St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes.   Those same parishes, more recently, were also among the hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill.

In 1927, engineers thought the levee system could prevent one of the largest rivers in the world from cresting over its banks.  Failing that, engineers now hope the complex floodways and spillways built along its path in response to the 1927 flood will prevent another disaster.  But the Mississippi River, the fourth longest in the world – flowing from the northern state of Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico – has a lot of strength behind it.  As Mark Twain observed more than a 150 years ago, “the Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise.”

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Journey to Planet Earth

It’s been nearly 20 years since the first International Earth Summit and 20 years since Marilyn and Hal Weiner were called upon to produce the summit’s opening film.  They’ve been documenting environmental issues  ever since through their production company Screenscope.   Relaxing together on a sofa in their den, the Weiners describe how they were approached by the then-secretariat for the Earth Summit to produce the opening film.   The five minute non-narrated piece, seen by more than 100 heads of state,  was such a success that the secretariat suggested they do a whole series on sustainability.  Because, Marilyn Weiner says, quoting Maurice Strong, “that’s what people need to hear.”

While the Wieners have produced feature films, as well as dozens of documentaries and other television series, Hal Weiner says Journey to Planet Earth gives them a sense of personal satisfaction that can not be measured in terms of dollars and cents.

“Making money is nice, but saving the environment we came to understand is a little bit more important.  So this has been our focus.  And what we see are genuine programs by grassroots people all over the world, all over Africa, things are happening in South Africa, things are happening in Kenya, things are happening throughout Asia, throughout Europe, where people understand that there are problems and problems can be solved by communities and community involvement.”

Marilyn Weiner speaks animatedly about one program in particular that was begun by a farmer, who saw his once-arable land turning dry and unproductive.

“One of the things we focus on,” she says, “is in Kenya where we saw a couple that started a small NGO (non-governmental organization) that was planting grass to stop erosion – drought resistant strains of grass that could then be harvested and help the local community.  And it was incredibly effective.”

The Weiner’s home is decorated with a varied collection of art and artifacts, seemingly from all over the world.  They’ve traveled to some 22 countries on five continents  to film segments of their series and have seen some of the earth’s most spectacular landscapes.  But they’ve also witnessed some of the world’s worst environmental disasters.

“We did a segment at the Aral Sea,” says Hal, “which may be the greatest environmental disaster ever.  The Aral Sea drying up.  What’s worse is the air quality because of what’s happening in the Aral Sea has made that part of Uzbekistan probably have the highest rates of tuberculosis and lung disease in the world.  That was a moment we recognized that this is a serious problem.”

Marilyn describes their work as gratifying.  But, she says, she is somewhat disheartened by the lack of progress in terms of solving environmental problems.  That’s why the series is so important to them.

“Ultimately,” Hal says, “we want people to become better custodians of the environment and become better citizens of a world where you vote politicians in that  make these important decisions.”

The Weiners have, so far, produced 13 episodes of Journey to Planet Earth.  Here in the United States, it can be seen on public television.

Tilting at Windmills

The expression loses some of its impact when you consider just how much a windmill has changed the life of a young Malawi man, who had to drop out of school because his family couldn’t afford the tuition.  Even Don Quixote may reconsider just how dangerous windmills are in light of their benefits to William Kamkwamba’s entire village.

At age 14, Kamkwamba decided to build a windmill in order to bring a little electricity into his family home.  It took two months.  But without instructions or even a diagram of how a windmill works, the young teen built one from scratch – using parts from an old tractor and anything else  he could find.

Necessity is, indeed, the mother of invention. But Kamkwamba’s action sparked a new campaign to address the effects of poverty throughout one of the poorest countries in the world, Malawi, which is also Kamkwambe’s home country.  Moving Windmills works with local communities to provide food, clothing, shelter, sanitation, health, education and clean water.

Ukraine Marks Chernobyl Anniversary as Japan Still Grapples With Nuclear Accident

View of Daiichi Nuclear Plant from AP

Japan’s Tepco Electric Company has been working nonstop to cool the reactors at its Daiichi nuclear plant since a devastating earthquake and tsunami in March severely damaged the facility and released high levels of radiation throughout the plant and surrounding area.  An evacuation zone of at least 20 kilometers around the plant in Fukushima has displaced tens of thousands of residents.  Farmland has been contaminated by radiation and traces of radioactive material have been found as far away as the state of Maryland in the United States.

Radiation released in Fukushima are much lower, though, than that released 25 years ago, when reactors at Chernobyl exploded, sending clouds of contaminated debris over Ukraine and parts of what was then the Soviet Union.  But an emergency worker from what is still the worst nuclear accident of its kind to date, Natalia Manzurova, says she sees a parallel.

Natalia Manzurova at the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability

“Technologically, they have no means to stop this reactor from releasing, discharging radioactivity into the environment.  And again there are liquidators who are fighting this and they live in the same very hard conditions.”

Manzurova was one of the so-called “liquidators” sent to Chernobyl in the aftermath of the 1986 disaster.  She was part of a team of scientists that studied the effects of radiation in the region on plants and animals, and directed some of the cleanup operations including burying the contents of entire villages that had become contaminated by radioactive isotopes.

Despite such remediation efforts, radiation in and around Chernobyl will last several lifetimes (around 300 years).  The United Nations estimates between four and nine thousand cancer deaths in the region can be linked to Chernobyl.

Honor guard stands by the monument to Chernobyl victims during a ceremony to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Kiev, Ukraine, Thursday, April 26, 2007. Hundreds of mourners laid flowers and lit candles early Tuesday before the monument to mark the anniversary of the disaster, which spewed radiation over much of northern Europe and claimed thousands of lives. Photos of Chernobyl victims are seen around the monument. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Lake Barrett, a former nuclear engineer at the Three Mile Island nuclear facilities in Pennsylvania, which had a partial meltdown in 1979, says he doesn’t believe this latest incident in Japan will come close to that of Chernobyl.

“The risks involved in Japan or anywhere worldwide are much less than the risk we encounter everyday in our lives.  So I don’t believe this is going to be a health catastrophe or a health disaster. It’s a huge economic disaster for the folks.  I mean this is a 10 billion dollar plus electricity generating plant that produced clean, affordable energy. ”

Barrett says society has a choice to make about nuclear energy, which is clean and non-carbon emitting.  He says if you want to have things in modern society, you have to accept risks that go along with it.

Gulf Coast Oil Spill Update

A year after the massive BP oil spill off the coast of Louisiana, assessments of the Gulf Coast’s recovery are, for the most part, optimistic.    Lisa DiPinto is a  Southeast Region Branch Chief with the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration’s office of Response and Restoration.

“For some areas like the shoreline, I would certainly say that for the degree of oiling that we have observed in the shoreline along the Gulf states, that I think we feel it could have been a lot worse.  And what we are seeing is a result of the fact that I think we applied dispersants.  So now what is happening in the water column and more offshore is an area that I think we are still investigating pretty hard.”

DiPinto is similarly upbeat about the fish and shrimp being caught in the Gulf of Mexico.

“The seafood safety testing that I have seen has indicated that everything is looking good.  You know I think it is a message that we want to put out there that the seafood testing program, which was extremely rigorous and parts of it were developed specifically for some of the constituents seen in this incident, that we have gotten good results and I think we are seeing a safe seafood system down there.”

Of course, research and testing throughout the U.S. Gulf Coast continues unabated, and DiPinto cautions that they don’t have the whole picture yet.  She says NOAA’s research will help determine where and what needs the most help in restoring the Gulf coast waters and marshland back to where it was before the oil spill.

To help aid recovery in the region, President Obama issued an executive order last October establishing the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force.  The White House says it will not only address the damage caused by the BP Oil Spill, but also the Gulf’s longstanding ecological decline, and begin moving toward a more resilient Gulf Coast ecosystem.

Gulf Oil Spill Cleaned…or Not

A year after one of the worst oil spills in U.S. history, the verdict is still out on how well the recovery is going for the Gulf Coast.  On the surface, the Gulf looks pretty much like it did the day before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 18, 2010.  But for weeks afterward, hundreds of liters of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico, leaving a sticky, molasses-colored coating on sensitive marshlands, wildlife and anything else that got caught in its path.

Courtesy US Coast Guard

Naturally occurring, oil-eating microbes helped clean up after the spill, along with chemical dispersants used by BP.   But some scientists say the long-term effects of the oil spill are only hidden from view.

John Hocevar, a marine biologist with the environmental group Greenpeace, says most of the oil is still in the Gulf today.

“It’s in the water.  It’s on the sediment.  It’s on the sea floor.  A lot of it is washed up into the wetlands.  It is still there.  It is still being eaten by marine life today.”

Courtesy US Coast Guard

A diagram from the U.S. government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows just how difficult assessing the actual damage from the oil spill can be.  In other words, they’re not just looking for tar balls on the beaches.  Tests are routinely performed on water columns throughout the Gulf.  Tissue samples are taken from dead animals (such as dolphins and turtles) to see if oil played a role in their deaths.  Scientists are also documenting the presence and diversity of vegetation, fish, plankton and shellfish, and looking for possible changes in the behavior of marine animals.

So far, the Gulf appears to be recovering better than expected.  In a recent survey on the health of the Gulf Coast, more than a dozen scientists gave it an average grade of 68 out of 100.  Before the spill, scientists rated the Gulf on average at 71.

The Gulf has suffered a myriad of environmental problems for decades from overfishing, marsh erosion and dead zones caused by agricultural runoff from the Mississippi River.  It’s fair to say the oil spill didn’t help.

Shrinking African Lake

Water may be the world’s most precious resource.  But in many parts of the world, it is a dwindling resource.  One of the most dramatic examples of this is in Africa, where Lake Chad is now a twentieth of what it once was.  NASA has a bird’s-eye view – make that a satellite’s eye view –  of the lake from 40 years ago, and a series of other photographs showing its not so gradual decline since then. The once thriving body of water touches the shores of five countries – Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central Africa Republic (CAR) and Niger.  It has always been somewhat shallow and would rise and fall with the seasons, going from a few meters to about eight during the rainy season.

However, rainfall in the region has fallen since the 1960’s  and an increase in agricultural production has siphoned off much of the water from the rivers that would normally fill the lake.  Local populations also blame climate change for the lake’s decline, saying its hotter and drier than it used to be.

Deforestation to make way for farming, though,  is one of the issues associated with climate change, and it is a problem throughout the developing world.  The loss of trees causes desertification, thus the need for more irrigation.

The countries closest to the lake formed the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) in 1964, and there are numerous organizations trying to help save the lake from completely disappearing.  There are no easy answers but a United Nations Environmental Program report says about 50 percent of the lake’s decline is from human water use, which includes major overgrazing in the region, as well as what it called “large and unsustainable irrigation projects.”