In the first part of this Earth Day series, the environmental devastation experienced by New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Region was discussed. This installment will focus on Louisiana's wetlands which are being washed away and the sinking of New Orleans and the rest of southern Louisiana.
When conservationist Mike Tidwell wrote his seminal work Bayou Farewell, in 2003, he predicted how a massive storm would destroy New Orleans. In the opening pages of this book, he said,
A devastating chain reaction has resulted from the taming of the Mississippi and now the entire coast is dissolving at breakneck speed...and New Orleans itself is at great risk of vanishing. A major hurricane approaching from the right direction could cause tens of thousands of deaths.
Tidwell also described visiting the Louisiana coast in 1999, traveling with Cajun fishers and observing their unique way of life, and seeing drowned graveyards, telephone poles, and forests. Since the 1920's Louisiana has lost an astonishing amount of land--equivalent to the state of Rhode Island--to the sea. The levees designed to protect New Orleans from flooding have been part of the problem. As described by Tim Fitzpatrick in this article,
Natural landscaping can be considered a city's Achilles' heel when it is faced with an oncoming hurricane. New Orleans, being below sea level, is a prime example of that. The city lies at the bottom of a "soup bowl" with the Mississippi River running right through it. As the river reaches the Gulf of Mexico, it slows down and creates a fan of sediment or what is commonly known as a delta. This sediment could have traveled thousands of miles through 40 of the 48 contiguous states before it eventually dumps into the Gulf. It is such a huge amount of sediment being transported that the Earth's crust literally sags underneath it. Every time a sag forms, new sediment fills the gap. Through millions of years, the Mississippi has changed course east and west creating six delta lobes, which has formed the entire coastline of southern Louisiana. Lake Pontchartrain, twice the size of New Orleans, lies on the lip of the bowl to the north and coastal wetlands lie to the east, west, and south of the city. Flood control engineering was designed to hold back spring floods and make New Orleans an important port city for oil exploration and transportation. This man-made flood control concept contributed to the disappearance of coastal wetlands. Since silt and nutrients, the bread and butter for marshland growth, were unable to be replenished, the existing land sunk and the wetlands turned to open water. A natural sponge for soaking up the floodwaters and protecting New Orleans against hurricanes had disappeared.
In his later work, The Ravaging Tide, Tidwell describes how after the publication of Bayou Farewell, it was a struggle to get leaders outside Louisiana to take action on this issue. He says that Louisiana's conservative Republican governor Mike Foster
publicly committed himself to waging "jihad" against the problem of coastal erosion, pushing the issue to the top of the legislative agenda.
As far back as the early '70's, adds Tidwell, geologists at Louisiana State University had come up with a plan, called Coast 2050, to restore Louisiana's shores. It said a
series of feasible engineering projects not only could counteract much of the subsidence but could actually create new barrier islands and wetlands fairly rapidly. This would involve permanently closing some of the most damaging canals and channels, like the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. It would also invlove harnessing the great land-building power of the Mississippi River itself. By building several gate-like "control structures" right into the levees of the river, the sediment-rich water could be released and then surgically guided via pipelines and manmade canals to areas in greatest need of wetland and barrier island development.
But the $14 billion price tag was too steep for a Bush Administration which had no qualms about throwing hundreds of times that much money away in Iraq. Bush consistently ignored requests for coastal restoration funding from both Foster, his successor Kathleen Blanco, and members of Louisiana's bipartisan congressional delegation.
In fact, ironically, Bush seemed prepared to sacrifce Louisiana in favor of Iraq--even before Katrina and the federal flood brought to light this seriously misplaced priority.
Despite the growing crisis, the president somehow found millions of dollars for the restoration of wetlands in Iraq while Louisiana lay dying on the table. Saddam Hussein had drained a vast area of wetlands inhabited by some of his staunchest enemies--the so-called Marsh Arabs...the Bush Administration in 2004 proposed spending ten times more federal money restoring wetlands for these Arab people than for restoring the Louisiana coast for Americans. Congress ultimately denied the request, but Bush actually sent wetland experts from Louisiana (Emphasis mine) to Iraq anyway to help spend the millions of dollars he persuaded Japan and Italy to invest in the project.
Only in the summer of 2005, just before Katrina struck, did Congress finally appropriate $570 million in new coastal restoration money for Louisiana...Even this amount was allocated over the objections of the White House.
Will a new Democratic Administration give Louisiana coastal restoration the attention and financing it needs before New Orleans is permanently wiped out and the distinctive Cajun culture of the Gulf Coast there is gone forever? We all need to make sure our Democrats know the importance of this issue--and not just in Louisiana and the rest of the Gulf Region, but in an increasingly energy-hungry world in which coastal erosion is bringing corrosive salt water closer and closer to oil installations. Indeed, Sen. Mary Landrieu has used the term "America's Energy Coast" to call attention to the value of this vital part of the country. Because as long as we are dependent on fossil fuels, we ignore the need to protect coastal Louisiana at our peril.