Agencies Respond To Hurricane's Aftermath

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, areas of New Orleans are soaked with floodwaters containing sewage and chemicals, posing a threat of disease.

Officials with EPA stated that they could not predict how long the cleanup will take. EPA teams are currently assessing, evaluating, and supporting drinking water and wastewater facilities in the hurricane area. EPA estimates that the number of water systems affected by the hurricane is 60 in Alabama, 290 in Louisiana and 130 in Mississippi. Those systems that are running on generators will need additional fuel to stay operational. EPA sent its mobile laboratory to Baton Rouge on Sept. 1 to provide technical analysis to help drinking water systems restore service. EPA also is coordinating a multi-state water-quality-testing analytical network to help systems recover.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' immediate focus is on the repair of the breaches in the levees and floodwalls and the draining of the floodwaters from the city of New Orleans. These efforts are essential first steps in the recovery efforts.

The administration is facing criticism that funding cuts forced engineers to delay levee improvements. According to a May Corps memo, funding levels for fiscal 2005 and 2006 wouldn't be sufficient to pay for new construction on the levees. However, an agency official told Reuters that the funding issues couldn't be blamed solely on the Bush administration.

According to a Corps official, the initial storm surge struck New Orleans' levees with more than they were designed to handle. In a Sept. 2 UPI report, Al Naomi, project manager for the east bank Lake Pontchartrain hurricane levee system, said that the levees were built to withstand a surge for a Category 3 or less storm.

U.S. Geological Survey

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), as of Sept. 2, the Lake Pontchartrain water level has stabilized. USGS scientists are coordinating with many federal agencies to provide geospatial information, maps, satellite images, and scientific assessments to complete the recovery and begin the healing process.

USGS hydrologic crews are conducting storm surge reconnaissance mapping along the I-10 corridor. USGS scientists have completed photography flights of the coast from Florida to Louisiana to do preliminary coastal elevation change pictures and models and also to determine the erosion of wetlands and barrier islands.

USGS and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will be collecting Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR), which is similar to radar, on a flight from Florida to the Chandeleurs Islands in Louisiana. In support of a request by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers, they will also survey the levee breaks at the south end of Lake Pontchartrain.

The first post-hurricane flight on Aug. 30 examined the Louisiana coast eastward from Raccoon Island to Port Fourchon, an important oil port, to Grand Isle, a recreational area for sports fisheries, and then to Venice, the Chandeleur Islands, and back west to Fort Pike, Slidell, and Mandeville, an area where the greatest destruction stopped. An estimated 50 percent of the Chandeleur Islands were destroyed. The islands' lighthouse is no longer visible. This chain of barrier islands is historically New Orleans' first line of defense against tropical storms and hurricanes and is an important habitat for wildlife.

Wetland Issues

Louisiana's wetlands represent 30 percent of the coastal wetlands in the lower 48, but 90 percent of the coastal wetland loss. This vast, disappearing region has historically served as a natural speed bump for hurricanes and the storm surge they produce.

"Because of continuing land loss, many of coastal Louisiana's populated areas, including New Orleans, are almost completely exposed to the Gulf of Mexico," said Valsin A. Marmillion, a spokesperson for America's WETLAND: Campaign to Save Coastal Louisiana. "The sad irony of the situation is that the Mississippi River levees, which were constructed to protect lives in the 1930s have had the unintended consequence of laying waste to the very wetlands that are the state's greatest natural protection."

Since the levees were built, more than 1,900 square miles of wetlands have disappeared from the area. The projected loss over the next 50 years, with current restoration efforts taken into account, is estimated to be approximately 500 square miles.

"These wetlands are our first line of defense from hurricanes -- for every 2.7 miles of wetlands, storm surges are reduced by about one 1 foot," said Sidney Coffee, executive assistant for the Governor for Coastal Activities. "As revealed by the extensive impact of Katrina, we are out of time and need everyone to recognize that restoration efforts must begin immediately."

Experts have estimated that $14 billion is needed to fund a variety of projects that will restore and rebuild coastal Louisiana, including fresh water reintroduction, barrier island restoration, sediment diversion and vegetative planting.

References:

EPA Hurricane Katrina response page: http://www.epa.gov/katrina/activities.html

Corps' hurricane response page: http://www.mvd.usace.army.mil/hurricane/chr.php

USGS: http://www.usgs.gov

Check back with WWP online for updates related to the hurricane recovery efforts.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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