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Louisiana coast uprooted by Katrina

A drive down coastal Louisiana roads tells the story of Katrina's erosion: Brittle, dead marsh reed is everywhere — draped over the eaves on homes, wrapped around car wheels, twisted about trees.
Marsh reed covers a roof and front lawn in Chalmette, La., on Oct. 30, 2005. Vast chunks of coastal marsh were ripped up by Hurricane Katrina, exacerbating the region's disappearing wetland problem.Robert F. Bukaty / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

People often think of Louisiana as an American Amazon — hot, jungly swamps where alligators drowsily peer from sluggish bayous and critters slink across vine-covered grounds.

Today, it’s more like Kansas-on-the-water.

Much of low-lying, southern Louisiana is sun-drenched, open marsh. A drive down coastal roads tells the story. Brittle, dead marsh reed is everywhere: draped over the eaves on homes, wrapped around car wheels, twisted about trees. Chunks of marsh — sod, grass and all — sit on roofs of sludge-filled homes.

It’s all evidence of how hurricanes Katrina and Rita tore at the coast’s protective wetlands.

The damage is still being assessed, but scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey believe about 100 square miles of marshland were torn up and turned into open water.

Add that to Louisiana’s yearly hemorrhaging of about 25 square miles of marsh, and this year has been one of the most damaging on record for the state’s coastal environment. And it means even less protection from storm surge.

Dark storm forecast
Beaches and barrier islands will slowly come back on their own as ocean currents push sand along the coast. But with forecasts for a 30-year cycle of more intense storms, scientists worry they won’t have time to recover.

The storms also set Louisiana’s coastal restoration program back by months.

Since the early 1990s, about a half billion dollars has been spent pumping sand onto barrier islands, building rock barriers, planting marsh grasses and diverting freshwater from rivers into estuaries being eaten by salt water. Katrina and Rita gnawed all that away.

The storms also severely battered barrier islands.

The sun sets over flooded coastal wetlands - a haven for water birds - in Venice, La., Friday, Oct. 28, 2005. Efforts to restore the fragile ecosystem of coastal wetlands were dealt a severe setback by Hurricane Katrina. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)Robert F. Bukaty / AP

“They’re all damaged,” said Shea Penland, a University of New Orleans coastal expert. “Grand Isle by itself had at least a $10 million hit. That would be my estimate.”

Grand Isle, a barrier island southwest of New Orleans, is a favorite fishing spot, built up with fishing cabins, hotels and restaurants.

Sand and dunes on barrier islands such as Isle Derniere, Whiskey and Timbalier were all eroded, said Garrett Broussard, a civil engineer with the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources.

And to the west, Rita smashed beaches, some that had been carefully restored — 34 yards at Holly Beach, according to one expert.

Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost about 1,900 square miles of coastal land — an area about the size of Delaware. With the latest hurricanes and a stormy future predicted, it’s going to get worse.

Restoration plan was scaled back
Before all the destruction this hurricane season, Louisiana was on a public relations campaign boasting of “America’s wetlands” — because about 40 percent of the nation’s coastal wetlands are in Louisiana.

The campaign’s goal was to get Congress and the president to approve a $14 billion plan to restore Louisiana’s sinking and eroding coastline.

Under pressure from the White House, the plan was scaled back last year to include $1.9 billion in projects easily attainable on a short-term basis. On Wednesday, a National Academy of Sciences panel said that 10-year plan was not broad enough to stem Louisiana’s land loss.

In the wake of Katrina, it looked like getting enough money to stop the land loss would be a shoo-in after years of frustration. But much of the focus has turned instead to flood protection — levees, flood walls and flood gates.

It’s been difficult to get policy-makers and the White House to accept that building up the coast is part of the solution to protecting New Orleans and south Louisiana, said Mark Davis, the executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, an important lobbying group.

“We ought not assume,” he said, “that anyone in Washington is ready to give us what we need or even understand our situation beyond dealing with the people in shelters, dealing with the wrecked homes and businesses.”