The Termites That Sank New Orleans


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.

MORE HARD-HITTING JOURNALISM

In 2014, before Donald Trump announced his run for president, we knew we had to do something different to address the fundamental challenge facing journalism: how hard-hitting reporting that can hold the powerful accountable can survive as the bottom falls out of the news business.

Being a nonprofit, we started planning The Moment for Mother Jones, a special campaign to raise $25 million for key investments to make Mother Jones the strongest watchdog it can be. Five years later, readers have stepped up and contributed an astonishing $23 million in gifts and future pledges. This is an incredible statement from the Mother Jones community in the face of huge threats—both economic and political—against the free press.

Read more about The Moment and see what we've been able to accomplish thanks to readers' incredible generosity so far, and please join them today. Your gift will be matched dollar for dollar, up to $500,000 total, during this critical moment for journalism.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight 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

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.