(6 of 8)
The real controversies involve a separate study of Category 5 protection and restoration for the entire Louisiana coast. The initial plans floated by the Corps and its state partners proposed a Maginot Line of towering new levees that evoke the "levees only" policy that failed on the Mississippi River, this time seeking to confine the Gulf. Water needs to go somewhere, and the agency's own modeling suggested that Donaldsonville-to-the-Gulf would not only cut off vast swaths of wetlands but also double storm surges in some areas by piling up water and concentrating its fury. "They're talking about chopping an estuary in half," says John Lopez, a former Corps geologist who is now the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation's director of coastal sustainability. "Even for the Corps, that's extreme."
Morganza-to-the-Gulf is less extreme but imminent; it's part of a $20 billion national package of Corps projects nearing congressional approval. The Corps has proposed to use "leaky levees" to allow tidal exchange, but many scientists predict the structures will still wall off marshes, providing a false sense of security to vulnerable towns while increasing their vulnerability. lsu's Van Heerden calls it "absolutely screwy, the exact opposite of what we need." Many scientists argue that it's dangerous and unrealistic to commit billions of dollars to protect middle-of-nowhere fishing towns, when the Corps has a $58 billion backlog of unfinished projects, and cities like New York and Miami are largely exposed to the sea. They want the Corps to focus on fixing the coast and protecting denser communities while helping families in small coastal towns elevate homes or move to higher ground. "I'm afraid that once we say yes, we're giving clearance to levees all across the state," says lsu ecologist Robert Twilley, who's leading Louisiana's science-review team. "My great fear is that we're going to cut off the coast with barriers, just like we did to the river. I'd hate for that to be my legacy."
Even Morganza's most ardent defenders say coastal levees can have dire coastal consequences. But they don't want to do nothing for people in harm's way. "I sit up at night and ask myself, Why the hell do you want to spend $1 billion on another levee?" says Jerome Zeringue, a biologist who runs the local levee district. "But if we don't protect Dulac, there won't be a Dulac."
In Shrimpers Row in tiny Dulac, a sign says water on road aheadnot a flashing sign, a permanent sign. Ivy Pierre has fished these bayous since he was a kid. He says the biggest change over his 78 years is that he walks up a ladder instead of down a ladder to climb into his boat. "We're sinking!" he says. Katrina was the fifth time his house has flooded, but home is a powerful place. "They call it Dulac," he says with a grin, "because we Du what we Lac!"
Next Becky Zaheri