Mark Davis is the executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. He is the father of a son who just turned four and a seven-week-old daughter.
Last December, not long after our family moved back into our New Orleans home, I fell asleep while reading A Christmas Carol to our 3-year-old son.
I had the strangest dream: I was visited by a spirit who led me to a wondrous place that lay 50 years in the future. I recognized it immediately as New Orleans, but it was different. Better. There were still familiar sounds, though mixed now with exciting new rhythms. Tourists and conventioneers mingled with locals in shops, restaurants and clubs that served as a window to the city's vibrant economic and cultural heart.
The neighborhood streets were clean but not fussy. Children played in neat parks and schoolyards, as parents and neighbors kept a relaxed vigil from the porches and stoops of gracefully simple houses. The houses themselves were elevated in a respectful accommodation with nature and life in the lowlands. And nearly all had solar panels.
"Affordable to build and affordable to live in," said the spirit. Following the deluge, the demand for good homes that working families could afford had redefined how homes were designed and built. This had made New Orleans one of America's most affordable, energy-efficient cities, and the center of the nation's then young but burgeoning alternative-energy and engineered-housing industries.
Poydras Street and the old business district bore witness to those changes as well. Sure, there were familiar oil company names and old-line family businesses, but they mingled with film and music production companies, and a host of energy-related companies I'd never heard of.
The spirit explained, "After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans realized that its economic future could not be based just on oil and gas and the echoes of its culture. It recognized that by nurturing the arts and by expanding beyond oil and gas into sustainable energy, it could forge a future without losing its soul."
"But most important," the spirit added, "New Orleans re-embraced its oldest treasure, the resource that, from the beginning, had fundamentally defined the city and the culture of all of south Louisiana: the River."
After centuries of trying to tame it, New Orleans and Louisiana had indeed embraced the Mississippi River as the key to their future. For navigation, to be sure, but more fundamentally, as the force that built the very lands and estuaries that were the foundation of all human enterprise in the region… and as the abundant source of that one vital, scarce substance for which there is no substitute: fresh water.
Finally, the spirit led me to the top of an earthen rise — a levee, an honest-to-God, well-built levee. From the top, I could see verdant wetlands interspersed with meandering waterways stretching to the horizon.
"They did it! They finally did it!" I exclaimed to the spirit. "They finally got smart and serious about conservation, business and protecting peoples' lives. What a great country! God bless America! God bless the Army Corps of Engineers!"
When I turned around, the spirit was shrouded in fog, and I felt myself waking. "Tell me, spirit, before I wake, have you shown me the shadows of the things that will be? Or are they shadows of the things that may be only?"
"Plan wisely and act boldly," was the spirit's only response, in a voice that could have been my son's. "Plan wisely and act boldly."