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America's tsunami

Survivors of Katrina are looking around at their flooded world and calling it "our tsunami."

Climate writer Ross Gelbspan says Katrina's real name is Global Warming. In a general sense, he is correct, but the scientific record shows that hurricanes come in cycles and we may be in a heavy hurricane cycle right now.

Scientists say that you can't pin the blame for any particular hurricane on global warming. However, higher temperatures are a definite cause of more intense and violent storms. And despite the Bush administration's denial, there is no doubt that the planet's temperature has risen as a direct result of human-emitted greenhouse gases.

So no one can say whether Hurricane Katrina was caused by carbon emitting SUVs, by a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa, or by George W. Bush flapping his ears in Texas, but as William Rivers Pitt said yesterday, Karl Rove standing on the roof in wizard's robes couldn't have summoned a better storm to distract the public from Cindy Sheehan and the growing disgust with the Iraq war.

Katrina has done what Sheehan and her fellow grieving parents have not been able to - drawn the president out of Crawford to engage with the world again. Bush said he needed to be in Washington to oversee disaster relief operations. "We have a lot of work to do," he said.

But I wonder if Bush is losing any sleep over whether there are enough sand bags and hospital beds or if what he's most worried about is how the oil industry's offshore rigs and thousands of miles of underwater pipeline have survived the hurricane.

Bush has the economy to worry about too, but the really with-it people always know how to make a buck off a crisis. Take the financial pages from yesterday. Please. Anthony Chan, a J.P. Morgan senior economist, said: "Preliminary estimates indicate 60 percent damage to downtown New Orleans. Plenty of cleanup work and rebuilding will follow in all the areas. That means over the next 12 months, there will be lots of job creation, which is good for the economy."

All those building supplies. Home Depot will make a killing. Buy stock now. As ten thousand people cower in the depths of a flooding Superdome, not knowing if they have any kind of home to go back to.

Financial analysts admit that some effects of the disaster on the economy could be hard to shake off. Especially since Katrina impacted somewhere around 30% of our domestic oil and gas production. And put about 10 percent of our refinery capacity off line.

There's a big panic now that gas could top $3 a gallon. Unprecedented! Very scary. Bush wants to tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, but the Louisiana part of it is inaccessible right now. There's talk of getting Europe to open its reserves to us. We wouldn't want Americans to have to face $3 a gallon gas on Labor Day weekend. That would be un-American.

If we had a president who was a leader, he or she would start by asking us to do our part by staying home and not driving our gas guzzlers this weekend. They are going to need lots of fuel down in New Orleans because once they get those levees rebuilt they have to pump all that water out of there. It's sure not going anywhere by itself - most of the city is six feet below sea level. A real leader would say, "We don't need the French to bail us out. We can solve this problem with good old American ingenuity, hard work and sacrifice."

The next thing an actual leader would do to save the economy from high gas prices is impose a gas tax. The Bush administration's new fuel mileage standards exempted Hummers again, but a hefty gas tax might start to tame those beasts. Matthew Yglesias of The American Prospect proposes such a tax coupled with progressive tax relief so that only the biggest guzzlers end up paying.

But these are only short term solutions. In the long term America will have to face the reality of a changing climate. For 25 years, climate scientists have been predicting violent storms like Katrina, along with melting glaciers and rising sea levels. As the title of an editorial in the Rutland Herald said yesterday: "It's Happening."

New Orleans is only the first of many big cities that will lose pieces of themselves to rising oceans and storm surges. After finally signing America up for the Kyoto protocol, the next thing a real leader would do is assess all low-lying cities in America and prepare for the swollen seas and wilder weather to come.

Seeing the aerial view of New Orleans like a submerged bowl with only her ramparts and turrets visible above the deluge, imagining the ten thousand people trapped inside the Superdome in rising waters, I can only think of the last days of Atlantis.

Tales of Atlantis, Noah, and hundreds of ancient flood stories from nearly every culture are a strong indication that our ancestors experienced great floods in the deep past. Geologic evidence has revealed that massive floods did take place during the last global warming at the end of the ice age. The most extreme of those floods happened sometime around 6000 BC.

Those flood times put the fear of God into man.

And these coming flood times may put in us the fear of Mother Nature, the goddess of the ages.


Kelpie Wilson is the t r u t h o u t environment editor. A veteran forest protection activist and mechanical engineer, she writes from her solar-powered cabin in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwest Oregon. Her first novel, Primal Tears, is forthcoming from North Atlantic Books in Fall 2005.

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