Economy & Trade, Environment, Headlines, North America

ENVIRONMENT-US: Wetlands Loss Left Gulf Coast Naked to Storm

Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Sep 1 2005 (IPS) - Massive destruction of wetlands and rampant coastal development are among the reasons Hurricane Katrina may have killed thousands of people on the U.S. Gulf Coast and wreaked upwards of 25 billion dollars in damages.

“This was predicted. It is not surprising that a Category Four storm like Katrina would result in such devastation,” said Robert Twilley, director of the Wetland Biogeochemistry Institute at Louisiana State University. “But it is difficult to comprehend the extent of the damage.”

However, it would have been much less had Louisiana not lost a third of its coastal wetlands, Twilley told IPS.

Open and forested coastal wetlands act as natural protection against storms and rising sea levels, he explained. “That’s one of the services wetlands provide us, but we don’t appreciate their value until something catastrophic happens.”

Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf states of Louisiana and Mississippi on Aug. 29, leaving over one million people homeless. The city of New Orleans, Louisiana is almost completely flooded and been evacuated. It will take years and billions of dollars to rebuild, officials say.

“Because of continuing land loss, many of coastal Louisiana’s populated areas, including New Orleans, are almost completely exposed to the Gulf of Mexico,” said Valsin A. Marmillion, a spokesperson for America’s Wetland: Campaign to Save Coastal Louisiana, an environmental NGO.

One of the lessons from the South Asian tsunami last December was that mangrove forests growing along the coastlines helped reduce the impact by absorbing some of the waves’ energy. Satellite photos clearly showed how regions with coastal mangroves were relatively intact while those without were often devastated.

Wetlands are the first line of defence against storms, said Kip Patrick, a spokesperson for America’s Wetland in New York City.

“For every 2.7 miles of wetlands, storm surges are reduced by about one foot,” Patrick said in an interview.

“The sad irony of the situation is that the Mississippi River levees … have had the unintended consequence of laying waste to the very wetlands that are the state’s greatest natural protection,” added Marmillion in a statement.

The Mississippi, the second-longest river in the United States, flows through New Orleans and out into the Gulf of Mexico. Since the early 1900s, the Mississippi has been extensively engineered to prevent flooding and improve navigation. Those engineering efforts including straightening the river, damming tributaries, dredging channels and building hundreds of miles of levees, dikes and pumps.

New Orleans is 10 feet below sea level and surrounded by 15 to 20-foot-high levees.

“The Mississippi river delta is among the most highly engineered and industrialised river deltas in the world,” says Twilley.

Those mighty engineering efforts have transformed the region into a major port and oil, gas and chemical processing zone. But they have also had a severe ecological impact on the whole Gulf Coast.

Millions of tons of sediment from the river no longer reaches the delta to replenish the wetlands. Meanwhile, oil and gas companies have dug channels through the wetlands and sucked oil from underneath, causing the land to sink and saltwater to intrude, killing the vegetation.

More than 1.3 million acres of coastal wetlands have been lost. Louisiana has the largest coastal wetlands in the continental U.S., accounting for 40 percent of all coastal wetlands.

“Despite their acknowledged importance, we’re still losing 17 square miles of wetlands each year,” Twilley said.

That is an improvement over the 50 square miles that were being lost annually in the 1970s, but since so much is already gone, additional losses have a disproportionate impact. Flooding has become a regular occurrence in the region.

“Minor storms that had no impact 20 or 30 years ago cause flooding today,” he said. “It’s alarming a lot of people.”

That alarm, and plenty of scientific evidence, produced a 14-billion-dollar, 30-year plan in 2002 to construct new barrier islands, improve levees and reroute up to one-third of the river to help restore coastal wetlands.

However, the George W. Bush administration balked at the costs, supporting only a two-billion-dollar expenditure.

And according to reports in the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper, little of that money has been made available despite the increased risk of damage from hurricanes. Government officials cited the cost of the war in Iraq and homeland security for the delay and need for drastic cuts, it reported.

Those costs seem small in the face of the current disaster, says Twilley. “We know how to protect and restore wetlands. All we need is the funding to get started,” he concluded. “Let’s go.”

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