By Eric Freedman
Nine years after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina and four years after the BP Deepwater oil spill, the mega-topic was risk and resilience when about 700 environmental journalists, scientists and professional communicators from the United States and abroad gathered in New Orleans earlier this month.
Some spent a day exploring a rebuilding project on a Gulf of Mexico barrier island and a marsh restoration, for example. Others boarded boats to examine oyster reefs and fisheries in the aftermath of both disasters.
Still others probed changes in the Army Corps of Engineers flood protection system, including a 2-mile-long surge barrier and new earthen levees intended to safeguard New Orleans and its environs from future storms.
Participants at the Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference shared experiences and professional advice with each other, scientists and policy gurus on how to cover such complex topics as regulation of power plant emissions, sustainable cities, “water wars” between communities with and without enough water , bio-energy, habitat destruction, hazardous waste hot-spots and natural disasters such as blizzards, drought and tornados.
But risk and resilience are nothing new for us in the Great Lakes Basin.
Unlike Gulf of Mexico communities and those along the Atlantic coast, communities on the shores of the Great Lakes are unlikely to be devastated by hurricanes or massive oil spills. They’re also far less likely to face inundation by rapidly rising water levels caused by climate disruption, at least in the short term.
However, there are certainly risks here in the basin. Among them: crumbling infrastructure, uncertainty about aquifer contamination from hydraulic fracturing, urban decay, shifts in farming and wildlife habitat due to climate change, algae blooms, air quality, invasive species and agricultural runoff into the waterways.
There is also plenty of evidence of resilience.
For that evidence, look at urban farming and community gardening on abandoned lots in Detroit. Look at restoration and redevelopment efforts along Cleveland’s Lake Erie shore. Look at the impact of projects in coastal communities through the federal government’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
Even look at Gary, Ind., which recently demolished what USA Today called the city’s “tallest–and arguably most decrepit building”– a vacant downtown hotel. Its story told how University of Chicago students “are cataloguing Gary’s blight — no small task in a city of vacant homes and empty lots overrun with shoulder-high weeds and trash.
The USA Today article headlined “City no longer on its deathbed” quotes Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson as saying. “We’re pulling people in and saying let’s re-imagine these neighborhoods. Let look at our park assets, let’s look at our lakefront assets.”
Elsewhere, removal of the gray wolf in Michigan from the list of threatened and endangered species is evidence of resilience as well, despite the hot-button political debate concerning whether the state should let them be hunted.
Also on the good-news resilience list is the growing proportion of electricity generated from renewable energy sources, especially wind and utility company efforts to close some aging coal-fired power plants.
The risks remain, but so does the resilience.
Eric Freeman is the director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism