Critics Question "60 Minutes" Concerning "Sinking" New Orleans

This Sunday's "60 Minutes" featured a story entitled "New Orleans Is Sinking." The piece included an interview with a St. Louis University professor named Tim Kusky. In the piece, Kusky is shown telling correspondent Scott Pelley that "[w]e should be thinking about a gradual pullout of New Orleans," because, thanks to coastal erosion, New Orleans will be a "fish bowl" by 2095 – a city completely surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico. "New Orleans is going to be 15 to 18 feet below sea level, sitting off the coast of North America surrounded by a 50- to 100-foot-tall levee system to protect the city," he added.

Kusky's argument drew criticism even before the segment aired. After seeing a preview on the "60 Minutes" Web site last week, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco's hurricane recovery chief, Andy Kopplin, asked "60 Minutes" to hold the piece in a letter. "We are very concerned about the preview of your story on New Orleans' future posted on the '60 Minutes' Web site and hope it is not an accurate reflection of your work," he wrote. "We know of many scientists and engineers who have spent considerable parts of their careers becoming experts in addressing coastal land loss in Louisiana and who disagree fundamentally with Prof. Kusky's purported comments." He added: "I cannot request strongly enough that you delay the airing of your story and immediately get in contact with some of these scientists in order to provide your viewers with scientific objectivity as well as balance in your report."

Attached to Kopplin's letter was a letter from Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, who disputed Kusky's argument and wrote that an op-ed by Kusky published in the Boston Globe in September concerning New Orleans was no better than "an undergraduate paper" deserving of a low grade. "I am extremely disappointed that the widely viewed and well regarded '60 Minutes' would base a story on such an incredibly important issue on an 'expert' with so little standing on the subject and not seek the best scientific perspectives available," Boesch added.

Yesterday, before the piece aired, Pelley e-mailed Kopplin to respond to the criticism. Kopplin replied after seeing the piece. He wrote that he "particularly liked the fact that you closed the story on an upbeat note," but "remain[s] disappointed that Dr. Kusky was the only scientist featured in your story as his message that New Orleans cannot be effectively protected is contradicted by the research and work of numerous other scientists who have studied Louisiana's coast." The exchange is here.

I spoke to Kopplin this afternoon. He said he felt the piece "did a very good job empathizing with the plight of the victims of the storm," as well as "the passion of city officials who want to rebuild" into the story. But, he said, "[m]y concern was that you have a scientist on the one hand and a city planner on the other. One's making an argument based on passion, and you have another person whose viewpoint is that of a scientist. And that's the part that concerned me. You may have all the passion in the world, but if the science says don't rebuild it, there's no answer to that. We can all be sentimental, but absent a rebuttal from another scientist, the story is unbalanced (editors note: the preceding word was incorrectly transcribed and has been corrected) from a scientific perspective. It leaves you with sense there is this inevitable doom, which is just flat not true."

Louisiana officials, Kopplin said, are presently trying to convince Congress to invest in rebuilding and protecting New Orleans, and he is concerned that yesterday's story could give them a sense that it's a wasted effort. (The region is looking for about $14 billion – a number, Kopplin notes, similar to that spent on the big dig in Boston.) "There's a very legitimate pubic debate about whether it's worth the money that the state of Louisiana wants to put into rebuilding, but the inevitability of the situation that was put into that story was disappointing," he says. He acknowledges that the piece included a "passing glance" at his belief that a major restoration effort could keep the city protected for hundreds of years, but says it was not nearly enough. "If folks think it's a lost cause, they're not going to be supportive of protecting a city that's given so much to America," he says. (The piece, it should be noted, does not present Kusky's view as objective fact.)

Boesch, whose letter questioning Kusky's credentials was attached to Kopplin's initial letter to "60 Minutes," has penned a rebuttal to Kusky's assertion from yesterday's piece, as well as his Globe editorial.

"[Kusky's] position is based on an extreme estimate that has no basis in actual measurement in the city of New Orleans," he told me. "It's not a difference of opinion. It's just – he's wrong. My concern is that scientists have gone to the op-ed pages and written about this with very little personal knowledge of having conducted research on the subject. To make that point, they've exaggerated the case in an irresponsible way."

I asked Boesch if he had any financial stake in the debate. He replied via e-mail: "No, not at all. I did work for the state university system in Louisiana, but that was more than 15 years ago. I did get a small honorarium from the Corps of Engineers for reviewing the Louisiana Coastal Area plan, but otherwise my involvement in all of this is strictly my contribution to scientifically sound policy making--a passion of mine generally and a special interest of mine in my home state of Louisiana, particularly in light of the disaster."

Kusky, reached this afternoon, said he expected to be criticized for his comments. "People are in a terrible state down there, emotionally and financially, and they really don't want to hear that maybe the best option is to leave," he said. But he is still somewhat surprised that he's getting emails from people who think he's making it all up. "The fact that New Orleans is sinking has been in every introductory geology textbook for the last 20 years," he says. He e-mailed me a list of reference material on which his arguments are based, as well as a number of media reports he says are in line with his thinking. (Here's one from NPR and another from National Geographic.)

He says his critics are afraid that his comments "will mean there will be less money for reconstructing New Orleans. Hundreds of millions of dollars will go into relocating people, and the contractors won't get billions of dollars. It's a pretty big financial issue."

Pelley told me that "60 Minutes" called the Geological Society Of America to check out Kusky's claims. "60 Minutes" was put in touch with three scientists, Pelley says, all of whom backed Kusky's argument. One even said he was being too conservative in his estimate concerning how quickly the city would sink, he adds.

Pelley also said Kusky's involvement in the piece grew out of concerns that it was too biased in favor of rebuilding. "You can't just go down to New Orleans and interview all the people with a vested interested and put on a '60 Minutes' piece that says 'by golly we're going to rebuild this city as best as it ever was.' Because that doesn't capture spectrum of opinion across this country about whether this can be done or whether it should be done," he says. He notes that most of the people featured are in favor of rebuilding, and that Kusky only appeared in about 15 percent of the piece.

"People in Louisiana are desperately hoping that the federal government is going to come up with billions of dollars to restore the city and protect for city," Pelley adds. "It's not at all clear at this point that that is going to happen. People in Louisiana are very concerned anytime someone raises their head and says we don't know if this is a good idea or not. When a high profile story goes on the air that has just one guy saying 'just hold on a second,' they react passionately to that."