AFTER THE DELUGE

Amidst the post Katrina finger pointing, some critics are looking at how the loss of Gulf Coast wetlands and barrier islands contributed to the devastating impact of the recent hurricane. Experts point out that the loss of the buffer zones provided by wetlands along the Louisiana coastline basically created a runway for Hurricane Katrina to land with full force in New Orleans.

The ability of wetlands to control erosion is valuable because in coastal areas they protect the mainland from the storm surges from hurricanes and tropical storms. Wetlands at the margins of lakes, rivers, bays, and the ocean shield shorelines and stream banks against erosion. Additionally, wetland plants hold the soil in place with their roots, absorb the energy of waves, and break up the flow of stream or river currents.

Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost over 1,900 square miles of land. Between 1990 and 2000 wetland loss was approximately 24 square miles per year. Currently Louisiana has 30 percent of the total coastal marsh and accounts for 90 percent of the coastal marsh loss in the lower 48 states. The causes of wetland loss are complex and vary across the Gulf Coast states. They can be attributed to both natural processes (e.g., subsidence and storm events) and human activities (e.g., levee and canal construction).

For example, New Orleans is below sea level because of the levees located there, which were introduced by the French settlers in the early 1700s to protect them from flooding. The levees stop the Mississippi River from flooding; however, the river is what has built the coast of Louisiana through thousands of years of alluvial deposits. Another problem with the levees is that if the process of river flooding is interrupted, then the natural phenomenon of subsidence begins to occur. This happens because since the alluvial soil is fine, it is prone to compact and shrink.

The residents and elected officials of the Gulf Coast have been concerned about the problem of coastal erosion for quite some time. Past attempts to obtain federal funding to alleviate the problem of coastal erosion, however, have been controversial because of the big price tag involved. In the mid-1990s, Louisiana's congressional delegation started pushing for the restoration of the region's wetlands. Yet, the legislators did not succeed in persuading the other members of the U.S. Congress to provide funding to deal with this problem -- other than a small annual appropriation called the Breaux Amendment named for the recently retired Sen. John Breaux (D-La.). Finally, this year after lots of political wrangling, a bill emerged from Congress that provided Louisiana with $540 million for coastal restoration over the next four years. Proponents of coastal restoration argue that this amount is woefully lacking.

For example, Mike Tidwell, the author of the prescient book Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast (2003, Pantheon) estimates the cost of rebuilding Gulf Coast wetlands and barrier islands to be approximately $14 billion. To put this in perspective, Tidwell points out that $14 billion is about the cost of the "Big Dig" road improvement project in Boston or about two weeks' worth of U.S. funding to carry out operations in Iraq. He argues that no repairs should be carried out in New Orleans ("not one window fixed") until the fundamental problem of coastal erosion is first addressed. As he points out in his book, "The whole ragged sole of the Louisiana boot is literally washing out to sea" and New Orleans will continue to be an endangered city until this problem is corrected.

One group working to gain more funding to deal with coastal erosion is the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (www.crcl.org). They, along with other stakeholder groups like the Louisiana Wetland Conservation and Restoration Authority and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources Coastal Zone Management Authority, have developed a strategic plan to tackle the problem of coastal erosion called Coast 2050. The goals of this plan include restoring the coastal ecosystem to the highest practicable acreage of productive and diverse wetlands and accomplishing this restoration through an integrated program that has benefits for wetlands and the communities and other resources of the coast.

Sadly, Hurricane Katrina has wreaked unprecedented damage to the people and the land along the Gulf Coast. Yet, from terrible adversity can come strength and knowledge. We Americans need to work together to build back the Gulf Coast by providing the money, expertise, and commitment to restore the coastline of this great region of our country.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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