The Disappearing Mississippi Delta – A Preservationist’s Tour

Hurricane Katrina’s 10th anniversary is upon us and much attention is being paid to rebuilding and recovery. A bigger question is how much longer New Orleans and the disappearing lands around it will last. A great river delta is dying. (See my AP colleague Cain Burdeau’s fine feature from Delacroix). Richie Blink, a local boat captain, lives to save it.

Of the 55 classmates who graduated from his Plaquemines Parish high school in 2005 with Richie Blink only about a half dozen stuck around. Blink tried moving to Baton Rouge, where he worked at the airport and got his pilot’s license, but the land drew him back. What’s left of the land, that is.

Blink won’t quit on the Mississippi River Delta, which is disappearing at the rate of a football field an hour in what some have called the Western Hemisphere’s biggest environmental disaster after the deforestation of the Amazon.

He’s lobbying and cajoling to broaden coastal restoration projects and save the delta from the seeming death sentence rendered by human activity. (View ProPublica project Losing Ground)

One goal is to rebuild a 50-mile buffer against ocean storm surges that has been erased in a single human lifetime, a buffer that might have eased the hurt to New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina.

Mostly open bay just over the levee that shields the Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico


Blink sets off from the wharf at Buras _ where Katrina made landfall _ in a fisherman’s skiff into a mostly open bay with sparse clumps of marsh grass.

We’re 70 miles southeast of New Orleans on the right bank of the Mississippi. This is the sliver of land, sheltered on both sides by 20-foot-high levees, that those who remain inhabit. Rebuilt homes on the peninsula _ including the high school _ are raised on piles driven deep into sandy soil.

Blink shows us where engineers have built an “oyster break” in the shallow water by the wharf. It’s a concrete honeycomb designed to help rejuvenate the oyster population .

He opens up the throttle and the boat slides through heavily brackish water.

“When I was a kid, this was all little bayous, meandering streams. I spent a lot of time here,” he says.

Shrimp boat in mostly barren salt marsh


We pass a working shrimp boat and an old abandoned fishing camp on stilts.

A little more than a decade ago, the place was crawling with alligators and other wildlife, a teeming coastal swamp. Now, the Gulf of Mexico is in charge.

Man-made berm on the Gulf of Mexico side


We pull up to a barrier being built by barges that dredge the bottom and hurl muck over the berm. This is land-building. And it’s expensive.

The government has spent $300 million building a barrier a few miles away across more than 30 miles of coastal islands fronting the gulf.

It’s six feet high in some places.

But it’s not holding back the tide. Sea levels are on the rise with global warming. But that’s the least of it.

The reason the Mississippi Delta has been sinking by much as a meter a century is human engineering. It’s part of the reason half of New Orleans is now below sea level.

By stringing levees up and down the length of the Mississippi to protect homes and businesses from flooding, we have robbed the great river of vigor, diminishing the flow of silt that, since the last ice age ended 7,000 years ago, made the delta. Once meandering, the river is now straight-jacketed. Successful river control has degraded coastal wetlands.

The greatest flood danger now comes not from the Mississippi but the ocean, as Katrina proved.

Worsening matters, the energy industry has since the 1930s dug some 20,000 miles of canals in the delta to extract oil and natural gas and service pumping operations.

Add to that as aggravating factor the introduction of an invasive South American rodent, the nutria. It devours root systems _ yet another coastal erosion engine at work.

The toe of the boot that is Louisiana is wasting away. The physical version we know from maps is no longer true. The boot is not solid. It is gossamer.

“This is the dying side of the river,” says Blink. We head back to the marina. Blink runs the skiff up on its trailer.

It’s time to head over to the Mississippi and drop in there. We’ve done the bad news piece of our vanishing coastline tour.


Buras, Louisiana


Blink works as Coastal Zone Program Manager for Plaquemines Parish. He ensures coastal restoration projects are built as designed. The job dovetails with his passion of fighting to preserve a peninsula that four in five residents abandoned after Katrina.

Blink sits on the parish’s Coastal Zone Advisory Committee and is active in the Louisiana Lost Lands Foundation that Pulitzer-winning journalist Bob Marshall and his wife Marie Gould created.

They run educational tours of these wetlands in kayaks. And Blink plants cypress trees, well over 10,000 to date, to fight the ravages of sinking soils and salt water seepage.


We cross the Mississippi to its left bank, what Blink calls the bank of hope.

Mississippi River lock, left bank, Buras, Louisiana


A few locks separate the river here from marshlands and estuaries to the northeast.

But there are also breaches, crevasses they’re called. We drop down one, the boat swirling in a churning whirlpool.

Below a crevasse, fresh water spills into a healthy tidal marsh


Soon, we are motoring through true tidal marsh. We hear songbirds, see fish jump. Marsh grass, cattails and lotus pods abound. A farmer still grazes cattle on land above one bayou.

Blink navigates into a narrow channel where grass gets caught in the outboard’s propeller.

He is taking us to a cemetery whose graves _ several score _ date back to the 1830s. The most recent is from 1976 and relatives still tend it, cutting the grass and even bringing flowers from time to time.

Video: Disappearing Tombs

Point Pleasant cemetery


Blink does his best not to get too heartsick. But he has no illusions.

Stacked up against the coastal reconstruction campaign he champions are an influential lot: oyster and shrimp fishermen, the oil and gas industry.

He realizes that he and others who are bound sentimentally to the disappearing delta and are trying to turn back the rising tide will most likely have to settle, if they want to stick around, for what climate scientists call adaptation.

“Either your house will be on stilts,” he says, “or on an earthen mound.”

Gaming Twitter – Measuring how Venezuela’s rulers marshal bots

Quite a bit of behind-the-scenes work went into Hannah Dreier’s story on how Venezuela’s ruling party, having successfully squelched most independent voices in traditional media, uses automated robot accounts on Twitter to try to dominate political discourse online.

We started with a few scripts (computer programlets) written for us by a Twitter programmer who wishes to remain anonymous. They were used to passively identify the bots that instantly retweet hashtags issued by various state- and party-run accounts. Hannah then passed the scripts along to three academic groups, who also used programs of their own.

_A Northeastern University PhD candidate, working under the supervision of an MIT adviser.
_The University of Washington’s team. It did it’s own research, “Political Bots and the Manipulation of Public Opinion in Venezuela”
_The Data Science lab at Utah State.

Takis Metaxis on the project also helped. Their results here.

And we checked in with Emilio Ferrara, part of the team at the “Truthy” project that created “Bot or Not.” – I recommend “The Rise of Social Bots”

Here is a partial image of what one script identified as bots:  TwitterBots



Peru decrees warrantless geolocation tracking

Most businesses are closed the day before Peru’s Independence Day so it’s a good time to issue a decree that you’d rather people not scrutinize. Except what’s becoming known as “The Stalker Law” is getting plenty of attention.

Taking advantage of special powers conferred on his government by Congress, President Ollanta Humala decreed on July 27 that police can track people’s location in real time using their cell phone signals. No warrant necessary. Telecoms need to hold onto the data for three years. Crime is getting bad, after all.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Katitza Rodriguez wrote that it provides the cops with “detailed footprints of our daily lives.” Most people don’t realize how much data their cellphones collect about them minute by minute. And even if they disable ¨location services¨ on their cellphone, they can´t turn off location tracking. It’s build into the wireless network.

Rodriguez says the surprise decree follows a global pattern of governments encroaching on their citizens’ digital privacy with limited debate.

The government, observed Miguel Morachimo, director of the Peruvian digital rights NGO Hiperderecho, tried to accomplish something similar three years ago in legislation that failed. Now it has achieved what it could not democratically: “To bypass all Peruvians’ right to privacy.” He’s thrown down the gauntlet in this post (Sp.).

Another digital rights legal expert, Erick Iriarte, considered the decree not very well thought out (Sp.). It lets judges retroactively declare inadmissible the geotracking information, which includes who you talked to, where you were, physically, the time and duration of the call. But what happens to the information collected. Can Peru’s police be trusted with it?

President Humala, his Cabinet chief and the ministers of interior and justice signed the decree. No debate in Congress. The same day, a different decree was issued creating the crime of ¨murder-for-hire” in Peru’s legal code.

Humala enters his last year in office as very much the lame duck and with crime worsening. His approval rating in last weekend’s GfK poll was 15 percent.

Markoff interview with @edge on tech future – Silicon Valley Zeitgeist

This interview with John Markoff, the dean of technology journalism along with Steven Levy and Bruce Sterling, is long-winded but well worth a read. I like, especially, his skepticism on robotics and automation decimating the workforce.

“We’re at that stage, where our expectations have outrun the reality of the technology.”

I agree with him that augmented reality will likely be the next killer app. I think it will be driven by the military-industrial complex. Markoff says it The Next Big Thing may not come from Silicon Valley, which he thinks may have plateaued.

He also bemoans what the current tech bubble has done to northern California. Rents at $3,000 for a one-bedroom apartment. Foreigners buying up luxury condos as investments and leaving them empty. People commuting to work in Wi-Fi equipped buses owned by private companies while the public transportation system crumbles.


Secure Messaging Scorecard – From EFF

Prying/preying eyes and ears a problem?

I had a source tell me today that he uses Hushmail to communicate with people who are under surveillance in a hostile digital environment. Not advisable. I sent him this link to the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s terrific Secure Messaging Scorecard (via Wickr encrypted chat).

Below is a a screenshot of a portion of the scorecard. Thumbs up to Jitsi (My preference for secure audio chats)! Thumbs down to Hushmail.

And while we’re promoting the organization _ EFF senior attorney Hanni Fakhoury, a Californian of Egyptian descent, told me it has doubled its staff in the past four years _ I will link to its handy Surveillance Self-Defense guide, available in English, Spanish and Arabic and coming soon, says Hanni, Portuguese.


eff secure messaging

The Greenpeace / Nazca lines saga and press freedom

I have occupied myself with little else since we learned on Jan. 7  that a provincial prosecutor planned to ask a judge in Nazca to throw our photographer Rodrigo Abd in jail at the request Peru’s Ministry of Culture because he had covered Greenpeace’s Dec. 8 stunt at the Nazca lines.

Peru GreenpeaceThe court hearing has twice been postponed. It is now set for Jan. 27. We have made our case publicly that Rodrigo and the Reuters videojournalist who also covered the action on assignment should not be jailed during the preliminary investigation. The Foreign Press Association of Peru and the Inter-American Press Association asked that all criminal proceedings be halted against the two journalists.

Now, Greenpeace has weighed in.

In a note delivered yesterday to the prosecutor , executive director Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace International stressed that the journalists “were not involved in the planning, preparations, or  execution” of the action, according to spokesman Mike Townsley.

In the note, Townsley told me via email, Naidoo explains Greenpeace’s press strategy/policy a bit.

“A large part of Greenpeace’s force for positive change comes from generating debate about public interest issues. As such, journalists are contacted to independently cover campaign activities. These journalists are always and necessarily independent from these activities. Their  independence is derived from journalistic ethics and standards that demand, among other things, telling the story from an objective perspective. It is their independence that gives them their professional credibility. A clear distinction should be drawn between the people organising events and the  journalists covering them. The rights of journalists to gather and report on news must be respected and protected.”

The note may sound self-serving, and indeed Greenpeace does cultivate the news media like any organization that seeks publicity. But do consider that Rodrigo’s visual documentation of the Nazca lines action provided people with independent information that helped them assess it and form their own opinions. That’s our role in a free society.

My speech at the Cabot awards ceremony

My speech, as delivered on Oct. 15, 2014 in Low Library at 
Columbia University. I was one of four recipients of the 
2014 Maria Moors Cabot award for excellence in coverage 
of Latin America.
I want to express my deep gratitude to Columbia University, to the Cabot
jury, to my editors and colleagues at the AP, to Claude Erbsen, who got
me to Bogota in 1996, and to my wife, Ceci. How she puts up with me and
my crazy work schedule is a mystery.
When I moved back to Bogota in 2006, some of my colleagues in New York
had an idea why I might be leaving the AP technology news department,
which I had pretty much built from scratch. A crack, loyal staff, they
knew, awaited me in Bogota, people who called me "jefe." I'll be honest.
I loved the trappings. I loved, most of all, that we had a large,
talented staff. We could be ambitious, comprehensive.
Then came the industry carnage.
Where once we were nine full-time AP English-language staffers in five
Andean countries, now we are three. And that's just English. We try to
adjust, but we cannot pretend to be pleased. Too much goes uncovered.
For all the noise on Twitter, for all the glut of information, U.S.
consumers of international news are simply less informed these days,
particularly from our beloved Americas. Every day, we front-line
journalists must make painful decisions about what we can't cover. Too
often, they are important stories that challenge powerful interests. In
Lima, my home since 2011, local established media tend to ignore such
So how do we ensure that such stories are told?
I'm pleased to report that I have come to know a group of talented,
tenacious and mostly young journalists who give me hope. They are my
colleagues in Peru's fledgling Hacks/Hackers group. They are serious,
idealistic. They are embracing data journalism. They are demanding that
Peru's freedom-of-information law be honored. They are scraping what
little public information is available to coax out news that matters.
And they are getting results.
Recently, some teamed with programmers and scoured the biographies of
the more than 100,000 candidates for the state and local elections that
Peru held this month. They cross-referenced the bios with public
databases. They found convicted embezzlers, deadbeat dads, rapists and
more than a dozen candidates convicted of drug-related crimes.
It was Peru's first big data journalism story. Authorities had no choice
but to react. Some candidates were disqualified. Peru's interior
minister compiled a list of 124 so-called "narco-candidates" under
investigation tried or sentenced for drug-related crimes. But it’s just
a start. Three of those candidates are now governors-elect.
I have great hopes for the young Latin American journalists doing such work.
They deserve our esteem, our attention _ and they deserve some serious
foundation money. It is an honor to shill for them.    
And now to my pet peeve.
I am an insufferable geek, and a terrible nag when it comes to digital
security. Just ask my co-workers. If we journalists don't protect our
data we can lose sources in the worst ways. They can lose their jobs.
They can be killed. Not enough news organizations are taking this
seriously enough. We need to invest in solutions and educate staff.
Anyone covering a beat that is even remotely sensitive needs to be using
encrypted communications. And they need to lock down their data.
Editors, too.  We must also equip our sources, and the provincial
journalists with whom we often deal. They can face the greatest dangers.
If we are to remain credible _ if we want people to trust us with
delicate data_ we must know how to protect its integrity. Otherwise, the
information war will be ours to lose.

Latin America ranks lowest in security / Venezuela most dangerous (Bolivia & Peru not much better)

Gallup published a study last month that found residents of Latin America/Caribbean, among global regions, the least likely to feel secure. Gallup’s Law and Order Index is based on confidence in local police, feelings of personal safety and self-reported incidence of theft. The region’s most insecure countries after Venezuela were Bolivia then Peru, whose score of 48 was the same as Syria’s.

Gallup image - Venezuela worst

Maria Moors Cabot awardee

It was a great week. Columbia U. announced this year’s recipients of the oldest award for international journalism given in the United States. It’s for excellence in coverage of Latin America and the Caribbean. There’s an Oct. 15 awards dinner in New York.

The last winner from The Associated Press (in 2000) was Eloy Aguilar, the late, great Mexico and Central America bureau chief (past winners). I’m in very distinguished company.  And we’ve certainly come a long way from 1965, when the men’s club lineup included AP’s LatAm editor. 1965 Maria Moors Cabot





The week’s tweets included this circa 1997 photo ,posted by daughter Luna, in my Bogota office. It had bullet-proof glass surrounded by a thin wooden frame. The Cali cartel was coming apart in those days but FARC rebels were overrunning military bases right and left and parents of my kids’ school chums were getting extorted by the guerrillas.

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