By David Muth, Douglas J. Meffert and Steve Cochran Ten years after Hurricane Katrina slammed ashore and New Orleans descended into unfathomable chaos, the restaurants are back, the French Quarter is jam-packed with tourists and millennials are turning the city’s infamous “brain drain” into a “brain gain.”
In the weeks approaching the tenth anniversary of Katrina on Aug. 29, there will be much celebration of New Orleans’ comeback — as there should be. There’s a lot to celebrate. But as always in New Orleans, it’s what you don’t see that’s often the real story.
Since Katrina, $14.5 billion in improvements have been invested in Greater New Orleans’ levee risk reduction system. That is significant, but as leaders of national environmental organizations working with local partners to address Louisiana’s land loss crisis, we know levees alone can’t protect us. Louisiana’s biggest problem persists: The state’s natural defenses — its coastal marshes, wetlands and barrier islands — have grown weaker, and in some places have disappeared completely. Without question, Louisiana and its residents are still vulnerable to large-scale devastation from future storms.
The extensive wetlands that once spread across the horizon south and east of New Orleans, buffering it from storm surges like those during Katrina, have been disappearing for decades. Due to levees and modifications for navigation of the Mississippi River, the river has been cut off from its delta, severing the tie between the river and its life-giving sediment and the delta wetlands that need it to survive. Additionally, Louisiana’s existing wetlands have been slashed and scored by pipelines, oil and gas and navigation canals. These man-made cuts and channels have allowed salt water to penetrate deep into wetlands, killing the native grasses and trees that hold the soils together.
Louisiana’s wetlands are disappearing at the alarming rate of one football field every hour. The state has lost 1,900 square miles of land since the 1930s, an area equivalent to the size of the state of Delaware. As the wetlands disappear, so does the natural protection they provide for millions of residents, local economies and nationally important industries.
The good news is that there are strong, science-based solutions available, such as reconnecting the Mississippi with its delta to rebuild critical wetlands. And with the announcement of the $18.7 billion BP settlement from the 2010 oil disaster, there soon will be real funding available to pay for major restoration projects all along the Gulf Coast.
This is an historic, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The challenge will be making sure that every dime of money intended for coastal restoration goes to coastal restoration. The settlement, once finalized, will provide a revenue stream over the next 15 years for meaningful large-scale restoration.
Construction already has begun on rebuilding barrier islands that buffer wind and wave damage and provide habitats for birds, turtles and other wildlife. In a place known mostly for losing land, we are seeing the potential to build land in areas where nature can replenish marshes with sediment.
But we can’t lose sight of what remains to be done. Our leaders need to fully fund the most critical projects outlined in Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan and make sure the BP fines and other coastal restoration revenue streams are protected and spent as intended on science-based projects that can save Louisiana and sustain our communities, industries and ecosystems for the long-run.
Why should the rest of the nation care? Because this is more than a Louisiana issue. The economic cost of Hurricane Katrina was $200 billion, including loss of revenue from tourism, shipping, and oil and gas. The benefits of coastal restoration will ripple across the United States. Louisiana and the Gulf Coast are important economic engines and ecological treasures that feed and fuel the rest of the country. The state’s wetlands and waterways contribute tens of billions of dollars to our national economy every year and support millions of jobs.
Our best offense for protecting New Orleans and south Louisiana from future Katrinas and ensuring long-term resiliency is the strong defense provided by a healthy and restored coast. We have the science and with appropriate funding, we can make this restoration plan a reality. Leaders at all levels of government need to make sure we don’t squander an opportunity that may never come again.
David Muth is director for gulf restoration for the National Wildlife Federation; Douglas J. Meffert, D. Env., MBA is executive director of Audubon Louisiana, National Audubon Society; and Steve Cochran is director for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Mississippi River Delta Restoration Program. All are members of the Restore the Mississippi River Delta Executive Team.