02 September 2005

Science, misuse of science, Katrina, and responsibility

Scientists are past the point where we can remain silent. We are past the point where we can be afraid of being labeled by our opponents as "playing politics". We are past the point where we can afford to let others define the terms of debate.

People are dead. People are dying. People are injured, hungry, and homeless. People have, again, died because things were not done differently. People are dead because scientific advice was not followed, and people are dead because they did not know enough science to recognize the danger that they were in. These things have happened. They are a reality. They will not change.

So why, people ask, should we start to point fingers and try to figure out who is to blame. What reason could there be other than to try to reap political gain, and what kind of despicable person would want to grab political points on the backs of the dead? Speaking for myself, I want to assess the blame so that we can figure out how to not let this happen again.

This situation is complicated, and the details may not be clear for some time. Nevertheless, I think we know enough to be able to begin to assess the blame, and to begin to work on future plans. I am certain I know enough to list some of the groups that are at least partly to blame for this.

The Democrats are to blame for this.

The Republicans are to blame for this.

Politicians are to blame.

Policymakers are to blame.

And, not least, scientists are to blame for this.

It is our fault, too. There is more that scientists could have done. Yes, politicians have played fast and loose with scientific data in blatant attempts to support their pet ideas. Yes, both parties have been guilty of this, and yes, the current administration has been more blatant in their attempts to manipulate scientific results than any before. But the difference between the current administration and past administrations is only a matter of degree.

We should have done more to fight the misuse of science. Things have certainly been done, but not enough and not in the right places. Individual scientists and individual groups have stood up and taken stands, but the efforts have not been coordinated. Scientists need to stand up against the misuse of scientific results, and present a united front. When the idiots at the FDA push back ruling on Plan B by another two months, we shouldn't just be seeing editorials in NEJM or JAMA. We should see Science and PNAS and other groups weigh in as well. Misuse of science hurts everyone.

Education is also a problem. I'm sure that there are people - lots of people - in this country who do not understand the difference between twenty foot waves and a twenty foot storm surge. There are probably more people who understand what a storm surge is than who understand how wetlands help to mitigate the effects of a storm surge. We live in a country and at a time where science plays more of a role in day-to-day life than ever before, and where people understand extremely little science. Here, too, there are others who have played a more active role in the deterioration of our educational system, but here, too, we have let it happen without putting up a massive, well-coordinated fight.

Reality is not just another worldview. That is a basic fact that we need to make known. Science is not the same as Christianity, or Islam, or new-age navel-gazing. Science is a method that people have devised to help us learn about how the world works. Science is about reality, and scientific conclusions cannot be ignored with impunity. Scientific results do not change with the next election, and they cannot be legislated out of existence.

It's time to stand up for reality.

01 September 2005

Plan B and politics

Welcome to the latest episode in this country's unchecked descent into blatant theocracy, where our new motto is: "Our narrow minded interpretation of Christianity: we might not be able to make you believe it, but by God we're going to do our damndest to make you live by it."

In an event largely overshadowed by recent events in along the Gulf Coast, FDA Assistant Commissioner Susan Wood resigned in protest of the FDA's decision to postpone, yet again, a decision on whether or not to allow "Plan B" birth control pills to be sold over the counter. Wood headed the FDA's Office of Women's Health. Wood wrote, in a widely circulated email message, that she could, "no longer serve as staff when scientific and clinical evidence, fully evaluated and recommended by the professional staff here, has been overruled."

"Plan B" birth control is highly controversial, in the same way and for the same reasons that evolution is controversial: the radical wing of the so-called Christian right finds the entire concept to be morally objectionable, and they are doing everything in their power to fight it. It is not scientifically controversial in any way. As a New England Journal of Medicine editorial points out, an advisory panel agreed, by a vote of 28 to 0, that this drug is safe. The same committee voted 23-4 to approve the drug for over the counter sales. The FDA's professional staff agreed with that recommendation, but in an almost unprecedented move the FDA management overrulled the advisory panel and its own scientific staff, and rejected the application. FDA management cited fears that over-the-counter access would increase promiscuity in adolescents as their grounds for disapproval, although that very issue had been considered and rejected by the advisory panel.

Subsequently, the manufacturer resubmitted the application with the suggestion that the drug be made available over the counter only to those over 16. A decision on the application was due today, but the administrators have postponed ruling for at least 60 days over technical issues.

The actions of the FDA in this case reek of politics. Actually, that's an understatement. They stink of politics. The odor is stronger than week-dead fish in July. This is, of course, absolutely nothing new for this administration. These people, who believe that their values are absolutes, also believe that reality is relative, and should be distorted until it properly fits into their twisted little narrow view of things. They feel that their beliefs are better than anyone elses, and that they should govern what happens, even if this means that a government body intended to ensure that decisions about drug availability are made based on objective scientific evidence is forced to make sure that God's Word comes first, and science second. Hmmmm. I wonder where I've heard that before?

A little bit of politics in my life...

My brother Dan has tossed up a nicely illustrated criticism of our president's conduct during recent events over on his blog.

The National Guard, Iraq, and Disasters

Various spokesmen at various levels of the federal government have done their best since Katrina struck to assure people that there were still enough National Guard troops left at home to take care of disaster relief efforts. We were told, for example, that 60% of the Louisiana National Guard was not currently deployed overseas. We were not told which 60% that was.

Not all National Guard units are created equal. This statement is not in any way intended to reflect on the dedication or quality of the troops in any of the units. The simple fact is that different units have different missions, and therefore train differently and are equipped differently. This means that while every NG unit can provide valuable assistance in the aftermath of the storm, some units may have skill sets that are in more demand than others.

This got me to wondering what units of the Louisiana National Guard were deployed overseas, and what units were available at home for disaster relief, so I did a little research. Here's what I came up with:

I was not able, for understandable reasons, to directly access the Louisiana National Guard's website. I did, however, manage to read, via Google's cache, a list of National Guard units on active duty. The cached version of the page was obtained in early August, so it is possible that some of these units have returned in the last month, but this should at least give a reasonable overview of the situation. A listing of all Louisiana Army National Guard units was found on Globalsecurity.org. I'm not going to take the time to list everything individually, but here's the situation as far as I can tell from comparing these sites: currently, it appears that all of the main infantry units are deployed, the armor is deployed, the army aviation units are deployed, along with some engineers, field artillery, and some support units.

Left in Louisiana are three battalions of combat engineers. This is good news, since these are exactly the people who are good at cleaning things up, making emergency repairs, and that sort of disaster relief. Unfortunately, it appears that the deployment of the other units has left at least some of these troops responsible for security work rather than clean-up. For example, it would appear that one of the engineer battalions (527th EN BN) is the unit that is in charge at the Superdome. Other troops remaining in Louisiana include a maintenance company, a transportation company, a quartermaster battalion primarily responsible for fuel supply, a military intelligence battalion (minus a deployed detachement) that seems to be primarily composed of linguists, a regiment that handles training duties, and the 156th Army Band.

It may be that I am entirely wrong about this. It may be that an Army Band can put a stop to looting just as easily as an infantry unit. It may be that the military intelligence people can do as much to help evacuate an area as an Air Ambulance company can. In fact, I hope that I am wrong about all of this, since it will mean that the people of New Orleans are not suffering more hardship as a result of our reliance on the National Guard for the war in Iraq. Given some of the descriptions of the situation in New Orleans right now, though, I am very much afraid that I am not wrong.

New Orleans

"Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living."
--Mary Harris "Mother" Jones (1830-1930)

By now, everyone has seen the images of chaos, horror, death, and destruction that continue to come out of New Orleans. We are now days into the disaster, and it is far from clear how or when things are going to end. People are still stranded in the city, without food, without water, and, more and more, without hope. The number of storm-related deaths in New Orleans is not yet known. In part, this is because there has been no time to count bodies. In part, this is because people have not yet stopped dying.

Watching the news images that have appeared on my TV, in my morning paper, on my computer, and in countless other places, there is one thing that has struck me the most about who is still in New Orleans: most of the huddled masses of miserable people seem to be residents of the city's poorer areas - the inner city. I am not at all familiar with New Orleans, but from my own experience growing up in the Bronx, and having spent time working for social service agencies, there are a few things that I think I know about the background that many of these refugees come from. I am going to write about my hunches regarding the situation in the city because I understand cities better than I understand smaller towns, but much of this may hold true along the rest of the Gulf Coast.

And, while it was regarded as pretty good evidence of criminality to be living in a slum, for some reason owning a whole street of them merely got you invited to the very best social occasions.

-- Terry Pratchett
Feet of Clay
Unfortunately, if I were to ask you what the first thing that pops into your mind is when I mention the people left in New Orleans, the answer is probably going to be "looting". It is an additonal tragedy, although one that pales in comparison to the others right now, that most of the people who are left in the city are going to be tarred with the same brush as the looters in the minds of many. That happens a lot when you live in poorer neighborhoods, but most of the people who live there are not criminals. They are good people, most of whom scrape by working at low-paying jobs - as janitors, or nurses' aids, or retail clerks. They are people who live in places that have more than their share of crime, that have more than their share of drug addicts and alcoholics, and that have perhaps a bit less than their share of opportunities. For the most part, they live in these places because that is where they can afford to live.

Many people are asking why these folks didn't evacuate when they were told to. There obviously isn't any one answer to that question, since there are many different people there now. For those in the poorer communities of the city, one of the reasons was probably that they didn't have anywhere to run to, and no way to get there. If there are areas in New Orleans that are anything at all like some of the places I've lived and worked, there are probably thousands of people who have never left the city in their lives. Many of them don't have cars. Fewer have new cars. Some may have been afraid that their homes would be looted if they left. Others may not have been able to afford to leave. Some may simply have not known what to do, where to go, or how to live. Some may not have thought that they were strong enough to make the trip on their own.

All of that, of course, doesn't really matter much right now. Whatever the reasons that they stayed, those people are there now, need to be rescued now, need to get food now, need to be sheltered now. Besides the federal, state, and local governments, there are going to be a number of non-governmental agencies, such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, helping meet the immediate needs of the survivors. Those groups are going to need money to do that, and I hope that everyone who is able to help will.

But the poor people, both within New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, are going to need assistance well into the future. The losses to the insurance industry from this storm are estimated to run over 25 billon dollars. But those losses do not take into account the losses suffered by many of the poor, because many of them had no insurance. FEMA will help with replacing some of what they lost, but keep in mind that many of those people lived in apartments or rented houses - I don't know how much assistance FEMA will be able to provide for them to relocate.

We often hear the phrase, "nothing left but the clothes on his back". Fortunately, it is often hyperbole. Even if the entire house is gone, along with all the contents, there is insurance and there are savings. For many of the victims of Katrina, this is not the case. In the neighborhood where I grew up, many people had no bank account and had no savings. They live paycheck to paycheck, cashing them for a fee at a Check Cashing storefront. Few had even a month's worth of savings to fall back on. Credit cards are not universally available. In my old neighborhood, some of the supermarkets and convenience stores didn't install terminals until the Food Stamp program went to an electronic fund transfer system. Virtually nobody there had 401ks. Those lucky enough to be in stable jobs might have had a union pension, but the rest had Social Security. Many of the senior citizens in the neighborhood had no family left. For anyone in the zone of destruction who was in a situation like that, "clothes on their back" may well be the literal truth.

Organizations such as the Red Cross are going to need money now, and I hope that everyone who can chip in will contribute to the charity or charities of their choice. But please don't make that your last involvement with this crisis. For many people, the road to recovery will be extremely long and extremely difficult. They will be faced with trying to replace everything that they own, with finding new housing to rent, with finding new jobs, and they will be forced to do this without having savings or insurance to fall back on. They will need a great deal of assistance, and they will need it for a long time to come. Please keep this in mind, and please try to remain aware of the situation so that you can help again later on, after the charities have gone through the burst of immediate donations. For many, the need two or three months down the road may be as pressing as it is now.

31 August 2005

On a lighter note...

There was a cool column in today's Honolulu Advertiser about the history of the ever-popular shaka sign.

30 August 2005

New Orleans satellite images - before/after

Addendum: 1 September.
I've put up another post with some of my thoughts about the situation in New Orleans right now, and about the long-term needs that some victims are likely to have.

One of my professors just emailed these out to a bunch of us. The originals are available from NASA's Earth Observatory site, but that site seems to be overloaded right now, so I'll put the pictures up here, too.

Lake Pontchartrain appears to have simply overflowed - not just into New Orleans, but over all of its banks. The pictures, very sadly, speak for themselves. For once, I am totally at a loss for words.
For those who want to see them, the original pictures are available at these two links:

August 27 (before) picture
August 30 (after) picture

Update 30 Aug 05, 20:30 HST. I finally got onto the original NASA site. Here's a link to the news release containing those images with the NASA interpretation.

California: The Saga Continues

As I continued my review of the complaint filed in the California creationist lawsuit, I came to a passage that was completely stunning in it's irony:
Furthermore, the State of California has agreed that in public and private schools, students do not have to accept everything that is taught, and cannot be required to hold a state-prescribed viewpoint:
Nothing in science or in any other field of knowledge shall be taught dogmatically. Dogma is a system of beliefs that is not subject to scientific test and refutation...
To be fully informed citizens, students do not have to accept everything that is taught in the natural science curriculum, but they do have to understand the major strands of scientific thought, including its methods, facts, hypotheses, theories, and laws.

California State Board of Education, Science Framework for California Public Schools,
“State Board of Education Policy on the Teaching of Natural Sciences” ¶¶ 3-4 (2003).
Plaintiffs support, and do not object to, understanding the major strands of scientific
thought, methods, facts, hypotheses, theories, and laws. Their constitutional rights are abridged or discriminated against when they are told that the current interpretation of scientific method must be taught dogmatically, and must be accepted by students, to be eligible for admission to University of California institutions.
That argument is amazing, if not completely unreal. In essence, these folks are arguing that, because UC has a policy against being dogmatic in science, their own massively dogmatic "science" curriculum must be accepted as valid. To put it another way, they are basically trying to say, "if you don't allow me to be dogmatic, then you are being dogmatic".

There's nothing like watching people who are willing to fight for the right to never have their beliefs challenged by the harsh winds of reality.

29 August 2005

From the "My Father is an Idiot" File:

"Try to get it near the center, daddy. That's the good spot."

-my daughter, in all seriousness, as I'm playing darts.

Still more on the California creationist lawsuit

Someone named Emma kindly provided a couple of links to PDF files relevant to the California creationist lawsuit. One of the links is to a propaganda piece written by the Association of Christian Schools International, which is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. The second link is to a copy of the actual complaint that has been filed in the case.

The ACSI propaganda flyer is an interesting read, but I'm not going to take the time to criticise it at present. Instead, I'm going to begin by looking at the complaint, which should contain the real meat of the suit. The complaint is over one hundred pages in length, and I have found material that I'd like to comment on very early in the complaint. Since both my time and my tolerance for this type of thing are limited, it will probably take several posts over several days for me to wade through everything.

The text of the complaint begins on page two:
Plaintiffs state this complaint against defendants, for viewpoint discrimination and
content discrimination by defendants toward Christian school instruction and texts,
which violates the constitutional rights of Christian schools and students to freedom of speech, freedom from viewpoint discrimination, freedom of religion and association, freedom from arbitrary governmental discretion, equal protection of the laws, and freedom from hostility toward religion. This court has jurisdiction of this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, as this action is brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, as well as 28 U.S.C. § 2201.
Let's look at the beginning of that again:
Plaintiffs state this complaint against defendants, for viewpoint discrimination and
content discrimination by defendants toward Christian school instruction and texts,
"Content discrimination". What a wonderful phrase. It makes it sound like there is somehow something wrong with evaluating the worth of courses based on the material that is being taught. I wonder what comes after this. The next step doesn't even need to be from one of these creationist groups. Instead, it could be a homeopath suing a state medical board for a license on the grounds that the state board exams constitute an unfair "content discrimination" favoring conventional medicine over the spiritual doctrines of homeopathy. After that, let's go ahead and license the bloodletters and spiritual healers.

Let's get one thing straight right from the start. The University of California absolutely discriminated against the content contained in those textbooks, and that is a good thing. It means that they decided to actually make sure that classes claiming to teach, for example, biology actually teach biology. Based on what I've seen of the Bob Jones "biology" curriculum, the Christian School courses in question do not teach Biology. They certainly, and by their own admission, do not put science first. Call me crazy, call me biased, call me anti-Christian if you want, but I think that the main book used in a science class should put science first. I'm just strange like that.

M. T. is a rising senior, suing through parent T. TAYLOR, whose SAT I
scores and, on information and belief, SAT Reasoning Test scores would otherwise
qualify for admission, but (i) who is discriminated against and excluded from University of California and California State University institutions because some courses at Calvary Christian School are disqualified from approval as a-g curriculum because of the Christian viewpoint added to standard subject matter presentation in those courses and their texts,
That's a very interesting perspective. It's not one that has much of a basis in reality, but it's interesting nonetheless. While I cannot speak to the situation with any of the other questioned courses, the problem with the biology text is that it does not, in fact, teach the "standard subject matter presentation". Further, the "Christian viewpoint" is not an addition to the text, it is the main focus of the text. If you scan down my earlier post again, you will find this quote from the Bob Jones University Press textbook:
The people who prepared this book have tried consistently to put the Word of God first and science second...If...at any point God's Word is not put first, the authors apologize.
Although the authors should, perhaps, be complimented for their forthrightness, a science textbook that puts a particular interpretation of Christianity before the science does not exactly constitute "standard subject matter" with a dash of Christianity added for flavor. It is, instead, apologetics trying to hide in a lab coat.

You will also find this:
God created humans and all of the other kinds of organisms with the ability to reproduce after their own kind (Gen. 1:12, 21, 25, 28); therefore, humans reproduce humans, oak trees reproduce oak trees, and cats reproduce cats. The idea of all life forms descending from a common ancestor cell that originated from non-living chemicals is absurd.
"Evolution is absurd" is hardly "standard subject matter" for a secondary school biology textbook. Nor, for that matter, are in-line references to bible verses.

As I have said before, and will undoubtedly say again, Colleges and Universities have the right to set criteria for incoming students. They also have, or should have, the right to examine the curricula, grading systems, textbooks, and other components of required courses in order to ensure that they in fact meet the criteria. If institutions of higher learning do not have this right, then they might as well not have admission criteria, as there will be no way to enforce them.

If the schools in question want to keep teaching biology the way that they have been, then that is their right. It is their private school, and they can take the actions that they see fit when it comes to setting up their classes. But actions have consequences, and one of the consequences is that colleges might not accept these courses as constituting adequate preparation. If parents decide not to enroll their children in a school that does not adequately prepare its students for higher education, and the school financially suffers as a result, that, too, is a consequence.

The plaintiffs in this suit are not asking to be protected from discrimination; they are asking to have their cake and eat it too. They want the religious freedom to teach whatever they want, but then they want to be protected from the consequences of not having taught what colleges want their students to know. Unfortunately for them, the right to escape the unpleasant consequences of your actions is not a civil right.

Usually smart newspaper. Unusually stupid columnist.

In a page E-1 column, WaPo Columnist Sally Jenkins manages to spew out an enormous number of unsupported assertions in a very limited amount of space. My space here is virtually unlimited, but my time is not, so I'll just bring up a few of them and the questions that they raise.

Jeffrey M. Schwartz, a neuroscientist and research professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, is a believer in ID, or as he prefers to call it, "intrinsic intelligence." Schwartz wants to launch a study of NASCAR drivers, to better understand their extraordinary focus. He finds Darwinism, as it applies to a high-performance athlete such as Tony Stewart, to be problematic. To claim that Stewart's mental state as he handles a high-speed car "is a result of nothing more than random processes coming together in a machine-like way is not a coherent explanation," Schwartz said.

Instead, Schwartz theorizes that when a great athlete focuses, he or she may be "making a connection with something deep within nature itself, which lends itself to deepening our intelligence." It's fascinating thought. And Schwartz would like to prove it's scientifically justifiable.

The gap from fascinating thought to scientifically justifiable cannot be simply wished away. There was a question that any competent reporter should have asked there, but which Jenkins quite unsurprisingly did not bring up: exactly how does Schwartz propose to test that "thought"? What metric does he propose to use to measure it. How does he intend to ensure objectivity in the experiment? Ok, that was more than one question, but you get the idea.

It seems to be yet another example of IDers compensating for their lack of actual completed experiments by mentioning absurd potential experiments that they may carryout - someday. After, of course, they finish lobbying schoolboards to teach this "science" that may someday be the foundation for the great things that they might get around to doing. Who was it who said, "ID is the science of the future - and it always will be"?

Human muscle can only get so strong, it will only produce as much force as it has area, about 3.5 kilograms of weight per square centimeter.
Does anybody have any idea of what she is talking about here? I sure don't. For starters, weight isn't a unit of force. For another thing, why is she talking about area? What type of area is she talking about here? Surface area? Cross-sectional area? It can be a really terrible thing when someone trys to display knowledge that they don't actually have.

Our bodies break down a lot. If we were designed more intelligently, presumably we wouldn't have osteoporosis or broken hips when we get old. Some evolutionists suppose that the process through which people evolved from four-legged creatures to two, has had negative orthopedic consequences.
Hello, Mr. Apple, I'd like to introduce you to Mrs. Orange.

Osteoporosis is a bone disease that is characterized by a loss of bone density. It is primarily a disease of old age, and is most commonly seen in postmenopausal women. Both nutrition and hormones play a role in this disease process. Upright posture per se does not. The effects of osteoporosis are seen frequently in the hip and spine, to be sure, and are particularly noticable in these areas because of our upright posture. However, the wrist is also a common site for osteoporosis-related fractures. The effects there are somewhat less noticable, since they don't effect mobility the way hip fractures do, and they don't effect posture the way spinal fractures do.

The negative consequences of our two-legged posture tend to show up in other places. Chronic lower back pain is one example of this. Flat feet are another, as, I suspect, is ankle weakness. From an evolutionary standpoint, such weaknesses are not a problem. Natural selection, after all, will accept any solution that is good enough to get to the next generation. Intelligent design is another matter. I suspect that if such a designer were found, there would be plenty of people trying to figure out where to file the malpractice complaints.

Crackpot speculation? Maybe -- maybe not. ID certainly lacks a body of scientific data, and opponents are right to argue that the idea isn't developed enough to be taught as equivalent to evolution.
Somehow or another, Jenkins has once again managed to miss asking a blatantly obvious question: if the idea isn't developed enough to be taught as equivalent to evolution, why in hell is it that the leading proponents of ID appear to have spent more time lobbying to have ID taught than they have "developing" their crackpot speculation into something more scientific?

One of the things we learn in a grade school science class is a concrete way of thinking, a sound, systematic way of exploring the natural world.

But science class also teaches us how crucial it is to maintain adventurousness, and surely it's worthwhile to suggest that an athlete in motion conveys an inkling of something marvelous in nature that perhaps isn't explained by mere molecules.
It may indeed be worthwhile to suggest that there are things that may not be explained by mere moleules. It is, however, mere molecules that make up the natural world, and mere molecules are what science is limited to studying. Find a way to quantify beauty, and it may become possible to study it scientifically. Until then, however, such speculations are simply not scientific.

Hat Tip: Pharyngula

28 August 2005

Of hurricanes and tsunami

There's an interesting WaPo article up about the potential impact of Hurricane Katrina. There's another available on CNN's website, titled, "Katrina may be 'our asian tsunami'". After reading the first, I found the title of the second to be somewhat ironic.

In the CNN "our tsunami" article, the potential for hurricane-caused toxic chemical releases is outlined:
Some 25 feet of standing water is expected in many parts of the city -- almost twice the height of the average home -- and computer models suggest that more than 80 percent of buildings would be badly damaged or destroyed, he said. (Watch a report on the worst-case scenario)

Floodwaters from the east will carry toxic waste from the "Industrial Canal" area, nicknamed after the chemical plants there. From the west, floodwaters would flow through the Norco Destrehan Industrial Complex, which includes refineries and chemical plants, said van Heerden, who has studied computer models about the impact of a strong hurricane for four years.

"These chemical plants are going to start flying apart, just as the other buildings do," he predicted. "So, we have the potential for release of benzene, hydrochloric acid, chlorine and so on."

In the Washington Post article, Ken Ringle concludes with a discussion of the possibility that the loss of wetlands may be increasing the risk of damages from the hurricane:
For more than 2½ centuries, that precise scenario [the overflow of lake Pontchartrain -TQA] has never quite happened, though hurricanes rake the Louisiana/Mississippi Gulf Coast regularly and sideswipe the Big Easy more often than not. One reason it hasn't is that the city was long protected by scores of miles of surrounding saltwater marshes capable of sponging up even massive storm surges like a swampy dishrag.

But for the last half of the 20th century and into the present day, those wetlands have been disappearing -- hundreds of acres of them every year -- starved by levees from the Mississippi River overflows that once fed them with silt from Minnesota and Iowa and Missouri, and eroded by canals dug for oil exploration and suburban subdivisions. To compare a 1930 aerial portrait of Louisiana with a contemporary satellite picture is to realize with stunning force how hundreds of miles of the state's beautiful if mosquito-laden southern wetlands now resemble moth-eaten lace.

With a far smaller marshland buffer zone to suck up Katrina's ferocious storm surge, New Orleans is very definitely in harm's way. Never mind the roof-ripping winds. Water fed New Orleans with commerce most of her life. If she dies today, it will be water -- born of Katrina's catastrophic power -- that's the death of her.

The irony in the title of the CNN article is this: it appears that one of the factors that may have increased the damages caused by the December 26 tsunami was a loss of coastal mangrove forests, coral reefs, and other forms of natural barriers. From a December 31, 2004 Wall Street Journal article:
Mangroves -- trees and shrubs that live in tropical tidal zones -- line one-quarter of the world's tropical coastlines. But Asia is hurriedly uprooting them as its economies take off. In less than 20 years between 1975 and 1993, Thailand's mangrove area was almost halved, says Edward Barbier, a professor of economics at Wyoming University and editor of a recent book on Asia's disappearing mangrove ecosystems. India laid waste to as much as 50% of its mangroves between 1963 and 1977. Belatedly, some countries have made efforts at replanting.

Mangroves offer a double layer of protection against the pounding surf: Low red mangroves anchor themselves in mud flats along tidal estuaries, their flexible branches and tangled roots absorbing the sea's power. Behind them stand black mangroves as tall as trees.

Environmentalists point out that coastal communities around the world are vulnerable to natural calamities: Florida took four direct hits this year from hurricanes. But whereas the cleanup in Florida takes just a few months, it could be years before life returns to normal in poor parts of Asia.

To be sure, not even mangroves could have parried the blow from Sunday's tsunamis, and the waves inflicted severe damage on relatively undeveloped sections of coastline, too.

But ecological damage "has left coastlines vulnerable," says Mr. Barbier, and if natural defenses had been left standing, they "would have reduced some of the losses" by reducing how far and fast the waves surged inland.

I truly, truly hope that New Orleans will once again escape the worst case scenario. But no matter what happens, we should take this as a warning that wetlands - no matter how mosquito infested - are important barriers that help protect the land from the ocean's fury. We may not need them to do this very often, but when we do, we really need them to be there.