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No One Could Have Predicted

Gone with the Water
By Joel K. Bourne, Jr.
National Geographic OCTOBER 2004

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 carless, 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

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 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

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, cafe 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

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

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 Cafe 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

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.

More to Explore

Related Links LAcoast Maintained by the
National Wetlands Research Center, this is an excellent
site for articles, newsletters, and general background
information on Louisiana's disappearing coastline and
the restoration efforts to save it.

Save Louisiana Wetlands Find out
more information about this program run by Louisiana's
Department of Natural Resources.

Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration Plan A comprehensive site that includes history
and statistics on the coastal area, land change maps,
and a link to the LCA draft plan.

National Wetlands Research Center
Read factsheets, news releases, and hot topics on
Louisiana's coastline and wetlands in general, from
this research center of the U.S. Geological Survey.


Barry, John. Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood
of 1927 and How It Changed America. Simon and Schuster,

Hallowell, Christopher. Holding Back the Sea: The
Struggle for America's Natural Legacy on the Gulf
Coast. HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.

Streever, Bill. Saving Louisiana? The Battle for
Coastal Wetlands. University Press of Mississippi,

Tidwell, Mike. Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic
Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast. Vintage Books, 2004.

NGS Resources Swain, Christopher. "Then & There."
National Geographic Adventure (September 2002), 42-3.

Tourtellot, Jonathan B. "The Wealth of Marshes."
National Geographic Traveler (July/August 1996), 24,

Rinard, Judith E. "Down by the Riverside Supersize."
National Geographic World (October 1993), 15-22.


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The importance of new orleans as a port, cant be overemphised.
New Orleans was listed as one of three locations of possible disaster last year. The importance of this port facility was emphisized yet, funding to strengthen the levee's was pulled. The Bush Administration took a gamble and lost. The result is, as we now see. The port of New Orleans is shut down. The refineries, who's econimic value should be obvious, to the nation, shut down.
This is the legecy of the Bush Administration. Spin all they want, this is their legecy and they can't evade that, but watch them try.

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