From NYT: “How to Save a Sinking Coast? Katrina Created a Laboratory”

New York Times

The New York Times

AUG. 7, 2015

A house surrounded by eroded wetlands in Terrebonne Parish. Many land restoration projects in Louisiana are under way or completed. Credit William Widmer for The New York Times

In the 10 years since Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana’s losses have overshadowed the restorative steps it has taken.

NEW ORLEANS — Ten years ago, the neighborhood hard by the 17th Street canal in this city was water-blasted. The surges from Hurricane Katrina swept into the canal, broke through its flood walls and forced homes off their foundations.

Hurricane Katrina at peak strength on August 28, 2005

Much of New Orleans remained steeped in brackish filth for weeks until the sodden city could be drained.

In the aftermath, Congress approved $14 billion for a 350-mile ring of protection around the city with bigger and stronger levees, gigantic gates that can be closed against storms, and a spectacular two-mile “Great Wall of Lake Borgne” that can seal off the canal that devastated the city’s Lower Ninth Ward when its flood walls fail. More work is underway, including pump stations that will keep the city’s three main drainage canals from being overwhelmed again during storms.

The elaborate system of walls, pumps and gates is still not everything the Crescent City needs; some flooding of streets in heavy storms will always be a fact of life. But it goes a long way to fulfilling a promise by federal and state officials that the kind of widespread destruction from Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst disasters in United States history, will not happen again.

Windell Curole, center, general manager of the South Lafourche Levee District, at the Caminada headland project. Credit William Widmer for The New York Times

And it is only the start. As the federal government built a protective ring around New Orleans, state officials devised a plan to take care of other vulnerable areas in the state as part of a 50-year, $50 billion master plan. It combines structures such as levees with “green infrastructure,” like restored wetlands and bulked-up barrier islands to soften the punch of storms while providing havens for wildlife.

The lessons from Hurricane Katrina, laid out in concrete, steel, earth, marsh, and in the ambitious master plan, are being watched with interest from New York to Florida and the Texas Coast. People within sight of any coast want a wall to call their own.

To the northeast, New York and New Jersey are looking at multibillion-dollar proposals to limit the damage that could be caused by the next Hurricane Sandy.

Hurricane Sandy as a Category 3 hurricane on October 25, 2012

To the west, Galveston, Tex., wants an “Ike Dike,” a great wall to blunt storms like Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Hurricane Ike near peak intensity northeast of the Lesser Antilles on September 4, 2008.

Officials also have come from around the world by the planeload to see what is rising here.

Ricky Boyett, a spokesman for the New Orleans district for the Army Corps of Engineers, said that in 2010, during the corps’ construction boom on the system, he and his colleagues conducted more than 400 tours for congressional delegations and officials from two dozen nations, including Bangladesh, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, not to mention visiting conventioneers. After that, he said, “we quit counting.”

René Poché, another corps spokesman, said that he had led so many tours that he sometimes felt like a guide at Disneyland. “I have the pith hat,” he joked. “I have my little jungle vest.”

The tour buses would take visitors to see such engineering feats as the Lake Bogne wall and the gargantuan pump station and gates at the Harvey Canal on the West Bank, and end up at the 17th Street canal — then, as often as not, they would stop for lunch at Deanie’s Seafood in the nearby Bucktown neighborhood for shrimp, crawfish and spicy boiled potatoes.

These visitors see in Louisiana a glimpse of their own future, as climate change brings rising seas and heavy weather to coastal communities. And because Louisiana is dealing with the additional challenge of sinking land, the vanishing boot of the state has become a laboratory with tensions over the cost and pace of the work, and uncomfortable questions about whether the endeavor is an exercise in futility — for dealing with the effects of a warming world.

“We are at the forefront of addressing the issues caused by climate change,” said Chip Kline, the state’s top coastal official.

Restoring the Wetlands

In the last 80 years, the state has lost 1,900 square miles of its coastal wetlands, a land mass roughly the size of Delaware. That has happened in large part because of the levees along the Mississippi, which cut off the Delta from its replenishing sediment, and because oil and gas operations cut in pipelines and channels for navigation that allowed saltwater to creep in and kill off the delicate wetlands.

This history of loss has been repeated so often that just about everybody here can recite the statistics by heart.

“People know about the number of football fields we lose every hour,” Mr. Kline said (the answer: one).

But the losses have overshadowed the steps being taken to restore the land.

The state has more than 150 projects from its master plan underway or complete. More than $11 billion in state and federal funds has been spent on hurricane risk reduction, with more than $2 billion earmarked for ecosystem restoration.

The state is building up eroding barrier islands and headlands, restoring their beaches, dunes and marshes. It is bringing land back to wetland areas that had degraded to open water.

Each project is its own puzzle: The Caminada headland is receiving sand brought in by barge and pipeline from a rich, sandy shoal 30 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico. The headland shields the bustling shipping industry at nearby Port Fourchon and Highway 1, a vital link and hurricane evacuation route for communities like Grand Isle.

Over at Bayou Dupont, hundreds of acres of land, already sprouting fields of grass, have risen in recent months from open water because of a 13-mile pipeline that carries dredged sand from the bottom of the Mississippi.

Restoration efforts like these provide protection from the power of hurricanes, said Reggie Dupre, a former state legislator who is the executive director of the Terrebonne Levee & Conservation District.

“Anything you put between the Gulf of Mexico and where you live takes away some of that energy,” he said.

Dredging can build land quickly, but it is expensive. And because the forces that are eating away at Louisiana are not going away, the work will have to be repeated. State officials say they would like to see a system that replenishes itself, and that will involve reversing, even by a little, one of the greatest engineering accomplishments in American history.

After Congress ordered the Corps of Engineers to wall off the Mississippi after the disastrous floods of 1927, the region became safer to live in. But those levees cut off the supply of sand and silt that built the land and kept it above water. Now Louisiana wants its dirt back, flowing through cuts in the river bank known as diversions.

“When people talk about diversion, they think we’re blowing a hole in the levee,” said David Muth, the head of the Gulf Restoration Program for the National Wildlife Federation.

Davis Pond, a freshwater diversion 15 miles upriver from New Orleans, built by the Corps and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, shows what such a project can do. The concrete and steel structure allows water, nutrients and suspended sediment to flow out into nearby marshes and estuaries. Future diversions — four planned and two under evaluation — will channel heavier sand to build land more quickly.

On a recent fine summer morning, engines at the Davis pond diversion whined to life and opened the gates separating the river from the 9,300-acre pond. Soon, 5,000 cubic feet of water per second coursed through a culvert and into the open water, where dozens of alligators congregated to feast on a breakfast of marine life flowing out of the chute.

In the pond, accumulating silt and the flow of freshwater have helped bring back aquatic vegetation and toughened the floating marshes rich in waving grasses and buttonbush, that teem with white ibis, egrets and herons.

Diversions are controversial with some fishermen and oystermen, who say that sending freshwater into areas like Barataria Bay will disrupt their livelihood. Environmental groups favor diversions, however, and officials insist that they are the fix for a sinking state.

“The Mississippi River is the lifeline for the crisis we face in coastal Louisiana,” Mr. Kline said. “We can’t just keep throwing money at the problem, dredging and dredging and dredging.” Instead, he added, “we just let the river do the work.”

Lagging Outside New Orleans

Even with all that’s been done since Hurricane Katrina to build a protection system around New Orleans, many residents and officials elsewhere in the state worry about the pace of projects that involve the corps.

Mr. Kline praised the corps for the “phenomenal” speed and strength of the work around New Orleans. But, he said, “the same sense of urgency needs to be taking place elsewhere along coastal Louisiana.”

The corps is the essential partner for large-scale projects, but it moves at a frustratingly slow pace, he said, adding: “At every turn in the game, it’s either study or wait. We don’t have time to study anymore.”

Source: State of Louisiana By The New York Times

In an interview earlier this year, Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, commanding general of the corps, noted that the agency was often held back by the congressional process of authorization and appropriation, which can lead to conflicting signals of a mandate to act but no money for building.

While the money for New Orleans was given by Washington upfront, Congress normally pays in fits and starts, he said; the delays drive up costs and levels of frustration.

Without a tragedy like Hurricane Katrina to push the nation into decisive action, projects can straggle. “Sadly, that’s why we do so well with disasters,” he said. “That becomes the priority.”

Such arguments do not appease locals. During a helicopter tour high above the $49 million Bubba Dove floodgate near the town of Dulac, Mr. Dupre, the Terrebonne parish official, pointed out work on the “Morganza-to-the-Gulf“ levee system.

This was first planned as a nearly 100-mile long, federally funded levee project, but residents tired of waiting as cost estimates for the project escalated into the billions of dollars.

Now earthen walls are being piled up by excavation equipment across the watery landscape. The wall is not as brawny as the eventual federal system will be, but the state and local authorities have spent $366 million to kick-start interim construction, with money raised in part through taxes that local residents voted to pay.

Windell Curole, general manager of the South Lafourche Levee District, noted that most of the voters in the area were conservative and Republican, and not generally friendly toward the idea of new taxes.

“Over here, it’s not a partisan issue,” he said. “It’s a matter of survival.”

A High, Necessary Cost

The $50 billion price tag on the master plan will require many sources of funding. Federal and state appropriations, as well as private funds, will be part of the mix, of course, but the state will also receive at least $6.8 billion from the recently announced $18.7 billion civil settlement over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill between BP, the federal government, five Gulf states and hundreds of local governments.

The state is also in line to receive billions in offshore oil revenue through the federal Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act. The $145 million reconstruction of the Caminada headland is coming out of the $2.5 billion in penalties paid by BP and Transocean as part of the criminal settlement in the Deepwater Horizon disaster. A local levee board has sought further funding by suing oil and gas companies over the coastal damage caused by their operations, but state officials oppose the suit.

State officials express confidence that the $50 billion will come together over time. Mr. Kline refers to the master plan as “a marathon, not a sprint,” and said that his office could manage about a billion dollars a year in projects, with money coming in as the projects move along.

Restoring the coast will be expensive, but inaction would be even costlier, said Mark S. Davis of Tulane University Law School. He said that the nation paid one way or another, and the more than $100 billion in relief is simply replacing what Hurricane Katrina broke — “You didn’t buy a future with that money.”

Yet all that is planned still might not be enough, said Oliver Houck, an environmental law expert at Tulane University Law School. “There is no one that says that $50 billion is going to get us anything but a hold in the status quo,” he said, adding that moving citizens away from the riskiest areas is essential.

Suggestions to retreat go against the grain in Louisiana, where people are tied to their home in a visceral way that can seem peculiar to a more rootless nation. But America benefits from this rich coast, local officials argue, producing energy for its homes and industries, as well as seafood for its tables.

The fact that the newly built land will subside and erode, and that seas will rise and severe storms will do their worst, is no argument against moving forward, said Garret Graves, a Republican member of Congress from Louisiana who formerly led the coastal authority. “You don’t not build a road because you’re going to have to maintain it,” he added.

Standing on the fresh ground in Bayou Dupont, Chuck Perrodin, a spokesman for the coastal authority, took up the question of what will happen when the next hurricane hits. His blunt prediction: “What it’s going to do is mess this up.”

Even so, the ambitious projects, which carry ambitious price tags, are worth it to change the calculus, even a little bit, of what can seem like a Sisyphean task.

“As long as we’re taking two or three steps forward for every step back, we will have a net gain,” he said. “It used to be we’d take one step forward and two steps back. We’re turning that around.”

See the full article here, with a slide show.

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