08/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Plea for the Presumptives

Dear Mssrs. McCain and Obama--

I know you have a lot of pressing issues to deal with on this long slog to the White House. Your path is rife with speculation and promises. Yet in my view, there remains a matter worth noting, which both of you have failed to adequately address. Most of us regular Americans started caring about this in the summer of 2005, when New Orleans was lost in a flood of biblical scale. Though it was an unanticipated, unpreventable and unparalleled tragedy, what haunts us most in retrospect was the sever under-preparedness of the levee system and the befuddled response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Not even your monkey-brained (and slightly simian looking) predecessor can be blamed single-handedly for the dire plight of global warming and the weird weather that results. None of us can be. It is a planetary problem we have achieved globally, though the U.S. is especially culpable. And the U.S. is paying a hefty price: back in 2005, MIT professor Kerry Emanuel noted that, "future warming may lead to an upward trend in [hurricanes'] destructive potential, and--taking into account an increasing coastal population--a substantial increase in hurricane-related losses in the 21st century." That was three years ago, and as the increasingly destructive storms continue to come to American coasts in droves--Hugo, Andrew, Ivan, Katrina--our infrastructure remains unprepared.

It's easy for us not to mind these occurrences when they're not direct hits at our hometown. Need I remind you, Mr. McCain, that one of the greatest donor bases of your campaign (not to mention the state renown for throwing races in GOP favor) is constantly berated by violent gusts from the Gulf? And Mr. Obama please recall how many of the students you rely on for their political enthusiasm spent several days this spring hurling sandbags onto the banks of the Iowa River to keep their university library from submersion. The time is nigh to consider the nuts and bolts of what keeps America safe amidst the tangible effects of a warmer climate.

Please keep talking about what you will do to halt and reverse the damage of green house gasses and global warming. But please include in that dialogue an examination of fundamental infrastructural issues across the country--especially the crumbling levees. The effects of global warming are no longer an abstract, intangible possibility. They are upon us now and need to be addressed immediately.

Do you, Sen. McCain, or you, Sen. Obama know how many levees there are in the United States? If you offered an answer, you are either a liar or a psychic: not even the Army Corps of Engineers can confidently say how many levees exist in America today, let alone estimate their condition. According to an AP report published last May, "Robert Bea, a University of California at Berkeley levee expert, said many levees are old, with rusting infrastructure and built to protect against relatively common floods -- not the big ones like the Great Flood of 1993, when 1,100 levees were broken or had water spill over their tops." Nineteen ninety-three was a decade and a half ago. How much have those already inadequate levees deteriorated since?

It's essential to address global warming on a large scale: how to prevent it, and how to develop innovation with an eye on sustainability. In this case, sustainability means protecting our citizens while addressing the changing environment. Spending billions on rebuilding our long-ignored mud humps isn't as glamorous as talking about the war or tax cuts, but ignoring these fundamental structural issues is bound to cost us billions of dollars and thousands of hours to repair--not to mention innumerable lives.

It's a topic dear to many Americans and more pressing than ever. The husband and wife team Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie raised the issue nearly ninety years ago regarding the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927: "I works on the levee, mama both night and day, I works so hard, to keep the water away / I's a mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan, gonna leave my baby, and my happy home."

So presumptives, what will you do when the levees break? Will your FEMA walk away with its tail between its legs? Or do you have an answer for all of the citizens who rely on precarious, crumbling banks and who care about how those levees will stay standing? Do you have a plan in place now to keep thousands of Americans from losing their homes? As you both make environmental issues a "focus" of your campaigns, please explain how will you protect ordinary citizens--like my loved ones and me--from the problems that already exist.

PS: If you're at a loss, revisit the National Levee Safety Program Act of 2007. Then support it.