The Times Picayune has the first of a 3 part series titled “Last Chance.” It is devastating…
The satellite map in Kerry St. Pe’s office shows the
great sweep of marshes protecting New Orleans from the Gulf
in bright red, a warning they will vanish by the year 2040,
putting the sea at the city’s doorstep.
Coastal scientists produced the map three years ago.
They now know they got it wrong.
“People think we still have 20, 30, 40 years left to
get this done. They’re not even close,” said St.
Pe, director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary
Program, which seeks to save one of the coast’s most
threatened and strategically vital zones.
“Ten years is how much time we have left — if
That new time frame for when the Gulf could reach New
Orleans’ suburbs sharply reduces projections that have
stood for more than three decades. Unless the state rapidly
reverses the land loss, coastal scientists say, by the
middle of the next decade the cost of repair likely will be
too daunting for Congress to accept — and take far too
long to implement under the current approval process.
Interviews with the leading coastal scientists, as well
as state and federal officials, brought no disagreement with
that stark new prognosis. And while the predictions stand at
odds with nearly a decade of official optimism, scientists
said the death and destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina
prompted them to voice private concerns that have been
growing in recent years.
“I think that shocked us as much as any other
group,” said Robert Twilley, director of Louisiana
State University’s Gulf restoration initiative who has
worked on the issue for years. “I think our concern now
is that we may have contributed to false optimism.”
Unless, within 10 years, the state begins creating more
wetlands than it is losing — a task that will require
billions of dollars in complex and politically sensitive
projects — scientists said a series of catastrophes could
begin to unfold over the next decade.
U.S. Geological survey benchmark, located at the
southwestern end of Couba Island at the edge of Lake Salvadore, was
installed in 1932 on dry land, and is now standing in 2 feet of water. 2/26/07
(link for photo gallery)
In 10 years, at current land-loss rates:
— Gulf waves that once ended on barrier island beaches
far from the city could be crashing on levees behind
— The state will be forced to begin abandoning outlying
communities such as Lafitte, Golden Meadow, Cocodrie,
Montegut, Leeville, Grand Isle and Port Fourchon.
— The infrastructure serving a vital portion of the
nation’s domestic energy production will be exposed to
the encroaching Gulf.
— Many levees built to withstand a few hours of storm
surge will be standing in water 24 hours a day — and
facing the monster surges that come with tropical storms.
— Hurricanes approaching from the south will treat the
city like beachfront property, crushing it with forces like
those experienced by the Mississippi Gulf Coast during
The entire nation would reel from the losses. The
state’s coastal wetlands, the largest in the
continental United States, nourish huge industries that
serve all Americans, not just residents of southeastern
Louisiana. Twenty-seven percent of America’s oil and 30
percent of its gas travels through the state’s coast,
serving half of the nation’s refinery capacity, an
infrastructure that few other states would welcome and that
would take years to relocate. Ports along the Mississippi
River, including the giant Port of New Orleans and the Port
of South Louisiana in LaPlace, handle 56 percent of the
nation’s grain shipments. And the estuaries now rapidly
turning to open water produce half of the nation’s wild
shrimp crop and about a third of its oysters and blue claw
crabs. Studies show destruction of the wetlands protecting
the infrastructure serving those industries would put $103
billion in assets at risk.
Despite such dire threats, the most disturbing concern
may be this: Coastal restoration efforts have been under way
for two decades, but not a single project capable of
reversing the trend currently awaits approval.
The modest restoration efforts already under way have no
chance of making a serious impact, experts say.
“It’s like putting makeup on a corpse,”
said Mark Schexnayder, a regional coastal adviser with
LSU’s Sea Grant College Program who has spent 20 years
involved in coastal restoration.
Decades after scientists alerted the nation to the
problem, the Gulf not only continues to eat into the coast,
its appetite remains insatiable: For every square mile the
state has created since 1989, when serious restoration
efforts started, the Gulf has devoured 5 more miles. Looking
at just the wetlands surrounding New Orleans, the prognosis
grows even more ominous, because these are the areas with
the highest rates of loss on the coast.
Dead skeletons of cypress trees frame downtown New Orleans, just a few miles away. 11/21/06 (link for photo gallery)
Congress provided a note of hope last year, voting the
state a permanent 37.5 percent slice of offshore oil
revenues for coastal restoration work. But full financing
— some $650 million annually — won’t kick in until
2017. During the critical next decade, the state will be
receiving only about $20 million a year, a pittance in the
face of a problem that will require tens of billions of
dollars to solve. Although the state could borrow against
future revenues, scores of logistical and political hurdles
St. Pe and others say 10 years will be too late for many
coastal communities; they’ll have to be moved within
the next decade if serious land-building hasn’t already
“If we aren’t building land I can walk on
inside of 10 years, we’ll be moving communities,”
St. Pe said. “It’s already the witching hour for a
lot of these places, and a lot of other places are
The demise will not come only as a steady south-to-north
movement of shorelines melting away from the pounding of
waves. Subsidence and saltwater intrusion will also eat away
marshes from the inside. Like a digital image rapidly losing
pixels, small holes appear in the marsh and then grow larger
as almost every high tide and strong wind carries away more
plants and soil. Soon the holes join to form large lagoons,
which, in turn, merge with nearby lakes and bays.
That reality becomes disturbingly clear from the window
of an airplane. Vast sections of the state’s majestic
marshes, once spread across the sportsman’s paradise
like a thin veil of green lace, have been swallowed by the
sea. The water now pushes against the city’s boundaries
and spreads unbroken to the southern horizon.
Katrina has sparked an outbreak of frank urgency among
“I’m concerned we’ve built a level of
expectation of restoration among residents in many
vulnerable communities that is simply not warranted by what
we can deliver,” said Twilley, who anticipates the
state soon will have to give up on restoring the marshes
protecting many communities.
“People have a right to know that,” he said.
No area is more imperiled than the wetlands of the
Barataria-Terrebonne basins, directly south of New Orleans
— the weakest link in the metro area’s hurricane
While engineers say they can protect the city’s
northern flank by controlling storm surge into Lake
Pontchartrain with floodgates or other barriers across key
passes, no such option exists to the south. The Barataria
estuary is simply too large. It stretches in a wide arc
along the Mississippi River’s west bank, from the
freshwater marshes behind Marrero and Westwego, south past
Lafitte to Grand Isle, including Belle Chasse, Port Sulphur,
Empire and Venice near the mouth of the Mississippi.