The Termites That Sank New Orleans

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.


399px-Coptotermes_formosanus_shiraki_USGov_k8204-7.jpg A new study in American Entomologist suggests termites damaged New Orleans dikes enough for Hurricane Katrina to knock them over. The researchers first noticed termite trouble five years before Katrina struck. They found Formosan subterranean termites in floodwall seams made of bagasse—the residue from processed sugarcane. Formosan termites love the stuff.

After the 2005 breaches, the researchers inspected 100 seams, including three areas with major breaks. Seventy percent of the seams in the London Avenue Canal had been attacked by insects, and two major dike breaks occurred there during Katrina. Twenty-seven percent of seams in the ravaged 17th Street Canal also showed termite damage.

The Formosan subterranean termite is an invasive species native to China, where it damages levees. Besides eating at bagasse seams, the termites may have contributed to the destruction of the levees of New Orleans by digging networks of tunnels that funneled water and undermined the levee system. Ooops. . . The authors suggest that New Orleans’ 350 miles of levees and floodwalls be surveyed for termite damage.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones’ environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

THE TRUTH...

is the first thing despots go after. An unwavering commitment to it is probably what draws you to Mother Jones' journalism. And as we're seeing in the US and the world around, authoritarians seek to poison the discourse and the way we relate to each other because they can't stand people coming together around a shared sense of the truth—it's a huge threat to them.

Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

payment methods

THE TRUTH...

is the first thing despots go after. An unwavering commitment to it is probably what draws you to Mother Jones' journalism. And as we're seeing in the US and the world around, authoritarians seek to poison the discourse and the way we relate to each other because they can't stand people coming together around a shared sense of the truth—it's a huge threat to them.

Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate