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Original article at National Geographic
 
National Geographic predicted New Orleans disaster
National Geographic Magazine October 2004

Gone with the Water

By Joel K. Bourne, Jr.

The Louisiana bayou, hardest working marsh in America, is in big
trouble-with dire consequences for residents, the nearby city of New
Orleans, and seafood lovers everywhere.

It was a broiling August afternoon in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Big Easy,
the City That Care Forgot. Those who ventured outside moved as if they were
swimming in tupelo honey. Those inside paid silent homage to the man who
invented air-conditioning as they watched TV “storm teams” warn of a
hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Nothing surprising there: Hurricanes in
August are as much a part of life in this town as hangovers on Ash
Wednesday.

But the next day the storm gathered steam and drew a bead on the city. As
the whirling maelstrom approached the coast, more than a million people
evacuated to higher ground. Some 200,000 remained, however-the car-less, the
homeless, the aged and infirm, and those die-hard New Orleanians who look
for any excuse to throw a party.

The storm hit Breton Sound with the fury of a nuclear warhead, pushing a
deadly storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain. The water crept to the top of
the massive berm that holds back the lake and then spilled over. Nearly 80
percent of New Orleans lies below sea level-more than eight feet below in
places-so the water poured in. A liquid brown wall washed over the brick
ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over
the white-columned porches of the Garden District, until it raced through
the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the
Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet (eight meters) over parts of the city,
people climbed onto roofs to escape it.

Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and
industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from
dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to
pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of
putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It
was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.

When did this calamity happen? It hasn’t-yet. But the doomsday scenario is
not far-fetched. The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists a hurricane
strike on New Orleans as one of the most dire threats to the nation, up
there with a large earthquake in California or a terrorist attack on New
York City. Even the Red Cross no longer opens hurricane shelters in the
city, claiming the risk to its workers is too great.

“The killer for Louisiana is a Category Three storm at 72 hours before
landfall that becomes a Category Four at 48 hours and a Category Five at 24
hours-coming from the worst direction,” says Joe Suhayda, a retired coastal
engineer at Louisiana State University who has spent 30 years studying the
coast. Suhayda is sitting in a lakefront restaurant on an actual August
afternoon sipping lemonade and talking about the chinks in the city’s
hurricane armor. “I don’t think people realize how precarious we are,”
Suhayda says, watching sailboats glide by. “Our technology is great when it
works. But when it fails, it’s going to make things much worse.”

The chances of such a storm hitting New Orleans in any given year are
slight, but the danger is growing. Climatologists predict that powerful
storms may occur more frequently this century, while rising sea level from
global warming is putting low-lying coasts at greater risk. “It’s not if it
will happen,” says University of New Orleans geologist Shea Penland. “It’s
when.”

Yet just as the risks of a killer storm are rising, the city’s natural
defenses are quietly melting away. From the Mississippi border to the Texas
state line, Louisiana is losing its protective fringe of marshes and barrier
islands faster than any place in the U.S. Since the 1930s some 1,900 square
miles (4,900 square kilometers) of coastal wetlands-a swath nearly the size
of Delaware or almost twice that of Luxembourg-have vanished beneath the
Gulf of Mexico. Despite nearly half a billion dollars spent over the past
decade to stem the tide, the state continues to lose about 25 square miles
(65 square kilometers) of land each year, roughly one acre every 33 minutes.

A cocktail of natural and human factors is putting the coast under. Delta
soils naturally compact and sink over time, eventually giving way to open
water unless fresh layers of sediment offset the subsidence. The
Mississippi’s spring floods once maintained that balance, but the annual
deluges were often disastrous. After a devastating flood in 1927, levees
were raised along the river and lined with concrete, effectively funneling
the marsh-building sediments to the deep waters of the Gulf. Since the 1950s
engineers have also cut more than 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers) of canals
through the marsh for petroleum exploration and ship traffic. These new
ditches sliced the wetlands into a giant jigsaw puzzle, increasing erosion
and allowing lethal doses of salt water to infiltrate brackish and
freshwater marshes.

While such loss hits every bayou-loving Louisianan right in the heart, it
also hits nearly every U.S. citizen right in the wallet. Louisiana has the
hardest working wetlands in America, a watery world of bayous, marshes, and
barrier islands that either produces or transports more than a third of the
nation’s oil and a quarter of its natural gas, and ranks second only to
Alaska in commercial fish landings. As wildlife habitat, it makes Florida’s
Everglades look like a petting zoo by comparison.

Such high stakes compelled a host of unlikely bedfellows-scientists,
environmental groups, business leaders, and the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers-to forge a radical plan to protect what’s left. Drafted by the
Corps a year ago, the Louisiana Coastal Area (LCA) project was initially
estimated to cost up to 14 billion dollars over 30 years, almost twice as
much as current efforts to save the Everglades. But the Bush Administration
balked at the price tag, supporting instead a plan to spend up to two
billion dollars over the next ten years to fund the most promising projects.
Either way, Congress must authorize the money before work can begin.

To glimpse the urgency of the problem afflicting Louisiana, one need only
drive 40 minutes southeast of New Orleans to the tiny bayou village of Shell
Beach. Here, for the past 70 years or so, a big, deeply tanned man with
hands the size of baseball gloves has been catching fish, shooting ducks,
and selling gas and bait to anyone who can find his end-of-the-road marina.
Today Frank “Blackie” Campo’s ramshackle place hangs off the end of new
Shell Beach. The old Shell Beach, where Campo was born in 1918, sits a
quarter mile away, five feet beneath the rippling waves. Once home to some
50 families and a naval air station during World War II, the little village
is now “ga’an pecan,” as Campo says in the local patois. Gone forever.

Life in old Shell Beach had always been a tenuous existence. Hurricanes
twice razed the community, sending houses floating through the marsh. But it
wasn’t until the Corps of Engineers dredged a 500-foot-wide (150-meter-wide)
ship channel nearby in 1968 that its fate was sealed. The Mississippi
River-Gulf Outlet, known as “Mr. Go,” was supposed to provide a shortcut for
freighters bound for New Orleans, but it never caught on. Maybe two ships
use the channel on a given day, but wakes from even those few vessels have
carved the shoreline a half mile wide in places, consuming old Shell Beach.

Campo settles into a worn recliner, his pale blue eyes the color of a late
autumn sky. Our conversation turns from Mr. Go to the bigger issue affecting
the entire coast. “What really screwed up the marsh is when they put the
levees on the river,” Campo says, over the noise of a groaning
air-conditioner. “They should take the levees out and let the water run;
that’s what built the land. But we know they not going to let the river run
again, so there’s no solution.”

Denise Reed, however, proposes doing just that-letting the river run. A
coastal geomorphologist at the University of New Orleans, Reed is convinced
that breaching the levees with a series of gated spillways would pump new
life into the dying marshes. Only three such diversions currently operate in
the state. I catch up with Reed at the most controversial of the lot-a
26-million-dollar culvert just south of New Orleans named Caernarvon.

“Caernarvon is a prototype, a demonstration of a technique,” says Reed as we
motor down a muddy canal in a state boat. The diversion isn’t filling the
marsh with sediments on a grand scale, she says. But the effect of the added
river water-loaded as it is with fertilizer from farm runoff-is plain to
see. “It turns wetlands hanging on by the fingernails into something quite
lush,” says Reed.

To prove her point, she points to banks crowded with slender willows, rafts
of lily pads, and a wide shallow pond that is no longer land, no longer
liquid. More like chocolate pudding. But impressive as the recovering marsh
is, its scale seems dwarfed by the size of the problem. “Restoration is not
trying to make the coast look like a map of 1956,” explains Reed. “That’s
not even possible. The goal is to restore healthy natural processes, then
live with what you get.”

Even that will be hard to do. Caernarvon, for instance, became a political
land mine when releases of fresh water timed to mimic spring floods wiped
out the beds of nearby oyster farmers. The oystermen sued, and last year a
sympathetic judge awarded them a staggering 1.3 billion dollars. The case
threw a major speed bump into restoration efforts.

Other restoration methods-such as rebuilding marshes with dredge spoil and
salt-tolerant plants or trying to stabilize a shoreline that’s eroding 30
feet (10 meters) a year-have had limited success. Despite the challenges,
the thought of doing nothing is hard for most southern Louisianans to
swallow. Computer models that project land loss for the next 50 years show
the coast and interior marsh dissolving as if splattered with acid, leaving
only skeletal remnants. Outlying towns such as Shell Beach, Venice, Grand
Isle, and Cocodrie vanish under a sea of blue pixels.

Those who believe diversions are the key to saving Louisiana’s coast often
point to the granddaddy of them all: the Atchafalaya River. The major
distributary of the Mississippi River, the Atchafalaya, if left alone, would
soon be the Mississippi River, capturing most of its flow. But to prevent
salt water from creeping farther up the Mississippi and spoiling the water
supply of nearby towns and industries, the Corps of Engineers allows only a
third of the Mississippi’s water to flow down the Atchafalaya. Still, that
water and sediment have produced the healthiest wetlands in Louisiana. The
Atchafalaya Delta is one of the few places in the state that’s actually
gaining ground instead of losing it. And if you want to see the delta, you
need to go crabbing with Peanut Michel.

“Peanut,” it turns out, is a bit of a misnomer. At six foot six and 340
pounds, the 35-year-old commercial fisherman from Morgan City wouldn’t look
out of place on the offensive line of the New Orleans Saints. We launch his
aluminum skiff in the predawn light, and soon we’re skimming down the broad,
café au lait river toward the newest land in Louisiana. Dense thickets of
needlegrass, flag grass, cut grass, and a big-leafed plant Michel calls
elephant ear crowd the banks, followed closely by bushy wax myrtles and
shaggy willows.

Michel finds his string of crab pots a few miles out in the broad expanse of
Atchafalaya Bay. Even this far from shore the water is barely five feet
deep. As the sun ignites into a blowtorch on the horizon, Michel begins a
well-oiled ritual: grab the bullet-shaped float, shake the wire cube of its
clicking, mottled green inhabitants, bait it with a fish carcass, and toss.
It’s done in fluid motions as the boat circles lazily in the water.

But it’s a bad day for crabbing. The wind and water are hot, and only a few
crabs dribble in. And yet Michel is happy. Deliriously happy. Because this
is what he wants to do. “They call ‘em watermen up in Maryland,” he says
with a slight Cajun accent. “They call us lunatics here. You got to be crazy
to be in this business.”

Despite Michel’s poor haul, Louisiana’s wetlands are still a prolific
seafood factory, sustaining a commercial fishery that most years lands more
than 300 million dollars’ worth of finfish, shrimp, oysters, crabs, and
other delicacies. How long the stressed marshes can maintain that production
is anybody’s guess. In the meantime, Michel keeps at it. “My grandfather
always told me, Don’t live to be rich, live to be happy,” he says. And so he
does.

After a few hours Michel calls it a day, and we head through the braided
delta, where navigation markers that once stood at the edge of the boat
channel now peek out of the brush 20 feet (six meters) from shore. At every
turn we flush mottled ducks, ibis, and great blue herons. Michel, who works
as a hunting guide during duck season, cracks an enormous grin at the sight.
“When the ducks come down in the winter,” he says, “they’ll cover the sun.”

To folks like Peanut Michel, the birds, the fish, and the rich coastal
culture are reason enough to save Louisiana’s shore, whatever the cost. But
there is another reason, one readily grasped by every American whose way of
life is tethered not to a dock, but to a gas pump: These wetlands protect
one of the most extensive petroleum infrastructures in the nation.

The state’s first oil well was punched in south Louisiana in 1901, and the
world’s first offshore rig went into operation in the Gulf of Mexico in
1947. During the boom years in the early 1970s, fully half of the state’s
budget was derived from petroleum revenues. Though much of the production
has moved into deeper waters, oil and gas wells remain a fixture of the
coast, as ubiquitous as shrimp boats and brown pelicans.

The deep offshore wells now account for nearly a third of all domestic oil
production, while Louisiana’s Offshore Oil Port, a series of platforms
anchored 18 miles (29 kilometers) offshore, unloads a nonstop line of
supertankers that deliver up to 15 percent of the nation’s foreign oil. Most
of that black gold comes ashore via a maze of pipelines buried in the
Louisiana muck. Numerous refineries, the nation’s largest natural gas
pipeline hub, even the Strategic Petroleum Reserve are all protected from
hurricanes and storm surge by Louisiana’s vanishing marsh.

You can smell the petrodollars burning at Port Fourchon, the offshore oil
industry’s sprawling home port on the central Louisiana coast. Brawny
helicopters shuttle 6,000 workers to the rigs from here each week, while
hundreds of supply boats deliver everything from toilet paper to drinking
water to drilling lube. A thousand trucks a day keep the port humming around
the clock, yet Louisiana 1, the two-lane highway that connects it to the
world, seems to flood every other high tide. During storms the port becomes
an island, which is why port officials like Davie Breaux are clamoring for
the state to build a 17-mile-long (27-kilometer-long) elevated highway to
the port. It’s also why Breaux thinks spending 14 billion dollars to save
the coast would be a bargain.

“We’ll go to war and spend billions of dollars to protect oil and gas
interests overseas,”
Breaux says as he drives his truck past platform anchors the size of
two-story houses. “But here at home?” He shrugs. “Where else you gonna
drill? Not California. Not Florida. Not in ANWR. In Louisiana. I’m third
generation in the oil field. We’re not afraid of the industry. We just want
the infrastructure to handle it.”

The oil industry has been good to Louisiana, providing low taxes and
high-paying jobs. But such largesse hasn’t come without a cost, largely
exacted from coastal wetlands. The most startling impact has only recently
come to light-the effect of oil and gas withdrawal on subsidence rates. For
decades geologists believed that the petroleum deposits were too deep and
the geology of the coast too complex for drilling to have any impact on the
surface. But two years ago former petroleum geologist Bob
Morton, now with the U.S. Geological Survey, noticed that the highest rates
of wetland loss occurred during or just after the period of peak oil and gas
production in the 1970s and early 1980s. After much study, Morton concluded
that the removal of millions of barrels of oil, trillions of cubic feet of
natural gas, and tens of millions of barrels of saline formation water lying
with the petroleum deposits caused a drop in subsurface pressure-a theory
known as regional depressurization. That led nearby underground faults to
slip and the land above them to slump.

“When you stick a straw in a soda and suck on it, everything goes down,”
Morton explains. “That’s very simplified, but you get the idea.” The
phenomenon isn’t new: It was first documented in Texas in 1926 and has been
reported in other oil-producing areas such as the North Sea and Lake
Maracaibo in Venezuela. Morton won’t speculate on what percentage of wetland
loss can be pinned on the oil industry. “What I can tell you is that much of
the loss between Bayou Lafourche and Bayou Terrebonne was caused by induced
subsidence from oil and gas withdrawal. The wetlands are still there,
they’re just underwater.” The area Morton refers to, part of the
Barataria-Terrebonne estuary, has one of the highest rates of wetland loss
in the state.

The oil industry and its consultants dispute Morton’s theory, but they’ve
been unable to disprove it. The implication for restoration is profound. If
production continues to taper off in coastal wetlands, Morton expects
subsidence to return to its natural geologic rate, making restoration
feasible in places. Currently, however, the high price of natural gas has
oil companies swarming over the marshes looking for deep gas reservoirs. If
such fields are tapped, Morton expects regional depressurization to
continue. The upshot for the coast, he explains, is that the state will have
to focus whatever restoration dollars it can muster on areas that can be
saved, not waste them on places that are going to sink no matter what.

A few days after talking with Morton, I’m sitting on the levee in the French
Quarter, enjoying the deep-fried powdery sweetness of a beignet from the
Café du Monde. Joggers lumber by in the torpid heat, while tugs wrestle
their barges up and down the big brown river. For all its enticing
quirkiness, for all its licentious pleasures, for all its geologic
challenges, New Orleans has been luckier than the wetlands that lined its
pockets and stocked its renowned tables. The question is how long Lady Luck
will shine. It brings back something Joe Suhayda, the LSU engineer, had said
during our lunch by Lake Pontchartrain.

“When you look at the broadest perspective, short-term advantages can be
gained by exploiting the environment. But in the long term you’re going to
pay for it. Just like you can spend three days drinking in New Orleans and
it’ll be fun. But sooner or later you’re going to pay.”

I finish my beignet and stroll down the levee, succumbing to the hazy, lazy
feel of the city that care forgot, but that nature will not