Should New Orleans be Rebuilt?

I have been to New Orleans twice. Both times provided some great memories for me and my family. The place was a blast.

That said, I find myself bumping up against popular opinion in thinking that I cannot support “rebuilding” the Big Easy. Recent events show clearly that New Orleans should never have been built where it was, especially under sea level which meant this week that it was under water.

For several years, now, a number of people in a variety of organizations have been seeking to “restore” the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. By restore, we have even dared to mention restoring those Grand Rivers to their original “dam(less)” condition.

At the Sierra Club’s Big Rivers Event in July, 2004, I was amazed to learn that the average depth of the Ohio River at “low flow” prior to the construction of the numerous dams that exist solely to support and subsidize commercial transportation, was a mere fourteen inches. That was hard to believe since the dams maintain a channel in the river now that must be at least nine feet so barges can negotiate the meandering river from Pittsburgh to Cairo.

I have flown over most of the Ohio River and much of the Mississippi and have observed the result of billions of dollars of investment in dams, dikes and weirs so the rivers can support year round transportation. It is almost endless in its scope.

19th and 20th Century American leaders have looked upon these marvels of nature as nothing more than commercial transportation rights of way and even worse, as nothing but open sewers for which industry and municipalities can freely dump their considerable waste. At one time, shortly after I had become involved in the environmental community in the 1970s, there were over 400 different chemicals that were measured in the Ohio River, a chemical soup of toxic chemicals that many communities use for their drinking water.

In the past quarter century, efforts driven by environmentalists and sympathetic politicians resulted in the Grand Rivers becoming much cleaner but they remain seriously degraded in many ways. Chemical pollution from point and areas sources continue and industry still uses them to dump waste while chemical run-off from farming causes nitrogen loading which, in turn, causes depletion of oxygen which continues through the river’s ecosystem.

Policies of the past, both distant and recent, have resulted in ecological destruction of both the Grand Rivers and their tributaries. But maybe even more important, recent years have seen the morbid development of the “Dead Zone,” extending hundreds of miles into the Gulf of Mexico from its source, the delta area of the Mississippi River, just south of New Orleans.

As its name implies, the Dead Zone is dead. It no longer supports anything but the most hardy of life forms and it is growing. Oxygen depletion forces sea creatures to leave the area or die. The Dead Zone may be one of the largest ecological problems we American face. That is due to the enormous area that is drained by the entire Mississippi watershed and all the chemicals that find their way into the Gulf.

But the problem is not merely with the Dead Zone. Much of the problem lies squarely with the US Army Corps of Engineers which has done everything Congress would fund to develop the Rivers for commerce, dismissing the needs of the natural world all along its path. Wetlands have been destroyed, rivers have been raised, channels have been altered and dams have been built. Together, these represent a complete assault on the natural systems that might have helped mitigate the disaster we experienced as a nation on the Gulf Coast.

That is why I come now to say, “do not rebuild New Orleans!” At least not where it sits today.

We should look at the disaster caused by Katrina as an opportunity, an opportunity to start correcting the arrogant policies of the past that made New Orleans so vulnerable in the first place.

An effort by America to restore the Grand Rivers to their more natural state could help mitigate future natural disasters which many scientists believe will only increase the longer we ignore the dramatic problem of global climate change.

Obviously, such a restoration will not take place in any short term since we currently rely on the unnatural infrastructure to move our goods out of middle America as well as to provide us easier access to goods coming from all over the world.

In my view, the Grand Rivers are like an arteries and veins in the organ, Earth. They provide us sustenance and take away our waste, but, just like veins in our own bodies, if they receive too much poison, they will collapse, resulting in death, possibly to the entire body.

We should not allow the opportunity that we have today to change the way we coexist with the natural world. Rebuilding a city under sea level is not only unnatural, it is also unwise.

In the 18th Century, when New Orleans was settled, no one knew of the dangers they were making for man and nature. We cannot blame their ignorance for the problems we see today there or in any of the places that get ravaged each year by development that is not sustainable. However, only fools continue to make the same mistakes, over and over again.

Now is the time to change that paradigm and start living in a manner that is sustainable, healthy and wise. Whether we meet the challenge and opportunity we have today depends on whether we are capable of looking forward or are forced to look backwards in a myopic reverence of the past.

Nature is not broken, but we may be.

JOHN BLAIR is president of the environment health advocacy group, Valley Watch and earned a Pulitzer Prize for news Photography in 1978. He can be reached at:




We published an article entitled “A Saudiless Arabia” by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the “Article”), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, (the “Website”).

Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.

As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.

We are pleased to clarify the position.

August 17, 2005


JOHN BLAIR is president of the environment health advocacy group, Valley Watch and earned a Pulitzer Prize for news Photography in 1978. He can be reached at: