TCS Daily

California's New Orleans

By Melana Zyla Vickers - September 9, 2005 12:00 AM

Quick, name an American city of 450,000 where the majority of the population is non-white, where a quarter of the population lives in poverty, and where some of the city streets are, even on a dry day, below sea level. New Orleans, of course.

But also Long Beach, California.

Parts of the city in southern Los Angeles county stand an average three feet below sea level, compared to eight feet for New Orleans. Yet despite all the talk from the political left that the Bush administration has effectively drowned New Orleans residents, that same political left is working assiduously to leave Long Beach residents exposed.

Every time the storm swells and high tides of an El Nino flood the city of Long Beach, the only barriers protecting its poor Blacks, Hispanics, Cambodians and others from drowning are berms and sea walls. Yet across Los Angeles county, well-funded, white environmentalists and politicians who prefer pristine beach views uber alles do battle against such walls. They argue, as one veteran of the "Surfrider Foundation" does, that "beaches, surfing and the coastal lifestyle are things that people really care strongly about," and that the solution is government eviction from the coast, known as "managed retreat," and "putting as much of the coast lands in public trust as we can." Sea walls, in this way of thinking, are an absolute no-no. Besides, as SurfShot Magazine puts it, "seawalls are ugly." Pro-beach, anti-wall environmentalists are regular allies of Sens. Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein, both of whom are sharp critics of the Bush administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina.

Beaches are lovely and necessary, there's no dispute there. And, looked at harshly, Long Beach's very existence is aided and abetted by government, which constructed berms and walls around it in the first place. Indeed, a free-market extremist might argue that the solution in Long Beach, as in New Orleans and, well, all of Bangladesh, might be to let the population centers drown when they drown.

But in the meantime, people live there. Indeed, 80 per cent of California's 34 million residents live within 30 miles of the systematically eroding coast. "Managed retreat" in favor of nature and beaches would represent the biggest government expulsion of humanity of all time, and it would represent government intervention just as surely as sea walls do.

A technological solution seems far superior and more realistic. Consider the city of Rotterdam and surrounding, low-lying parts of the Netherlands. The Dutch have protected them with a series of walls, dams and sluices that have taken 50 years to build that cost some $5 billion, and that are designed to withstand a 10,000-year flood.

It'll be a long time before the extent of damage to New Orleans is clearly understood. But one thing is certain: There's a grave need to protect parts of Long Beach and other low-lying cities, and protecting people is of greater, near-term importance than protecting the view.


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