Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Walls, fireflies, & peanut farmers

Why do we build walls? Border walls, seawalls, floodwalls. Walls to hide our homes, walls to guard our belongings. Walls to keep us in, to keep them out. As if they make us invisible, or make them nonexistent. As if they protect us or shield us or change the inevitable. As if they cancel out the problems we’ve created, the ones that make us believe we need walls in the first place.

As an immediate action after Hurricane Harvey, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called on Congress to fund an $11 billion “coastal spine” of floodwalls and levees to protect the region from storm surge, even though it was torrential rain, not waves, that caused the flooding.

Around the same time, Nashville’s progressive mayor Megan Barry resurfaced her plan for a 2,100-foot-long floodwall and pumping station to protect the city’s thriving downtown. The wall is only one piece of her administration’s larger push for climate resilience, but it is the only portion most people are paying attention to — or arguing over.

As part of its $50 billion Coastal Master Plan that’s been in the works for years, New Orleans plans to spend $19 billion on floodwalls and levees along the coast.

Walls are tangible. They are direct action, in perhaps its most concrete and digestible form. They are simple, four-letter answers. But it’s becoming more likely that many of them won’t stand up to the unpredictability of climate change. Some experts say Richmond, Virginia’s floodwall could be easily overwhelmed by 50 inches of rain (it rained up to 51 inches in some parts of Texas during Harvey). In South Carolina, pillars meant to prop up removable seawalls were knocked down by the powerful storm surge from Hurricane Irma; officials still can’t decide if the walls are a good idea or not. Seawalls in Florida, which were built to protect homes and businesses along the coast, crumbled from the storm’s pressure. 

Americans are still flocking to the coasts, even though most know the risks. “History gives us a lesson, but we don’t always learn from it,” Graham Tobin, a disaster researcher at the University of South Florida in Tampa, recently told the Associated Press. Globally, more people are going to live near the coasts in the future. And when they live on the beach, they want to reduce the risk to their homes and loved ones. That usually means building some sort of barrier.

The ultimate protection from sea level rise and intense hurricanes is humans moving away from the water’s edge. Since that is unlikely, another key defense comes in the form of natural barriers like wetlands, marshes, forests, and reefs. Studies show that salt marshes annually reduce flood damages by at least 15 percent. In the Philippines, mangroves reduce 23 percent of flood damages to people living below the poverty line. Other research suggests that coral reefs could reduce the energy of incoming waves by up to 97 percent and the height of waves by 70 percent. Flooded forests along the coasts are able to transform into marshes, protecting inland areas from sea level rise.

And yet, Louisiana is losing nearly a football field of wetlands every hour; the Everglades are disappearing. Up to 90 percent of coral reefs in the Florida Keys have been lost in the last 240 years. What’s more: of the $50 billion taxpayers spent rebuilding infrastructure after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, less than 1 percent was invested in this nature-based infrastructure, which is undoubtedly effective.

There’s still time for a mayor to call on her city to build coastal marshes and mangrove forests, or for a local councilman to tell people to stop moving to places that will repeatedly flood. But many people believe a wall is the most critical aspect of any climate resilience plan — that it will stop the storms we don’t yet know will hit, and the rain we don’t yet know will fall. It’s similar to how many people believed a certain U.S. presidential candidate when he told them a border wall would keep them safe, that it was anything other than a divisive ploy. Walls, which can seem like the ultimate, obvious solution, are expensive and time-consuming. They may represent and inspire strength, security, and power. But all it takes is one budget cut, one storm, or one fact-check to realize that they are often an illusion.

Stories worth your time

In Jezebel, a lovely feature on climate change and the aftermath of the 2016 Gatlinburg fire, through the lens of a disappearing species of firefly: “When fireflies disappear from an area, it’s a visual note that something has gone wrong in that habitat. And a lot has gone wrong.”
I wrote two stories this week about energy and climate progress in the South: For InsideClimate News, I tracked down how homeowners and cities used solar and energy storage systems to power up after Hurricane Irma — and what we can learn about distributed energy to better prepare us for future storms. For CityLab, I looked at what Nashville and surrounding communities are doing to mitigate chronic flooding, seven years after the city’s devastating flash flood.

Despite the fact that North Carolina and West Virginia have both hit pause on plans for proposed pipelines in order to reevaluate risks to water quality, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality says it doesn’t plan to do the same. The Richmond Times-Dispatch digs into the arguments between the state agency and local environmental groups.

News flying under the radar

More than 1,000 acres of land were added to Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee, and more than 500 were added in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina.

Farmers in southeastern Alabama opened a peanut-buying station to sell the region’s cash crop. But instead of continuing to sell to big companies, the new station “functions as a community asset and provides a locally-owned option.”

A North Carolina nonprofit built a solar array on the roof of a church. A judge ruled it was illegal, saying they were acting as a public utility; they were fined $60,000.

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