Katrina’s Hidden Cost

It’s been more than two years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, and the city is still trying to pick up the pieces. Countless reconstruction projects have yet to get off the ground; unsurprisingly, many of those evacuated appear to have given up on their former hometown altogether.

But while the Big Easy bore the brunt of Katrina’s destructive force, scientists are growing increasingly concerned at storm damage outside the city limits. Across vast tracts of Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Texas, winds leveled more than five million acres of forest, killing or badly damaging almost a third of a billion trees. Now the stricken oaks, cypresses, and pines have begun to decompose - and in the process are releasing vast quantities of greenhouse gases.

Collectively, scientists say, the fallen trees could emit more than 100 million metric tons of carbon, outweighing the combined annual absorption of all the United States’ remaining woodlands. That’s led greens to brand Katrina the worst eco-disaster in US history, conjuring the specter of a feedback loop in which disasters caused by global warming could themselves accelerate the rate of climate change.

Adding insult to injury, experts now believe the impact was worsened by - you guessed it - a bumbling response from the federal government. Officials focused their attention on the economic cost of the storm, thinking of the damaged woodlands in terms of lost lumber and failing to consider the potential environmental damage.

While a $504 million fund was set aside for tree replacement, it operated as a conservation program rather than an emergency relief effort: Subsidies were small, and landowners were required to promise not to allow logging on any of their land, even if they claimed relief only for a small portion of their property.

Unsurprisingly, few tree farmers took the bait, preferring instead to leave their land dormant or sell it to developers. Two years on, despite pleas from environmentalists, just $70 million dollars has been disbursed and barely two percent of the affected woodlands have been replanted.

Officials say they’re tweaking regulations to make the funds more attractive to landowners, but greens fear the changes may prove too little, too late. Invasive plants have now overtaken fallow woodlands, forestry experts say, increasing clean-up costs by a factor of four and making large-scale replanting prohibitively expensive. Thanks to the federal government’s foot-dragging, it looks like America’s southern forests may already have been damaged beyond repair.

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