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Dulac is ground zero in an age-old coastal debate: Defend or retreat? It's worth noting that the people of Dulac didn't move into harm's way. Harm moved into their way when the coast collapsed around them. But levees can create perverse incentives; Pierre wanted to elevate his house until he heard the Feds might protect it for him. Pierre also understands that Dulac might be doomed, or at least a bit remote for American taxpayers to protect for more than $10 million a mile, and he might be willing to move to higher ground for the right offer. "Retreat is not an American thing," Houck says. "We need a better word for it, because the concept is inexorable."
Corps managers say they're open to non-structural approaches to reducing flood risk. They also say they might adjust their levee paths to avoid damaging the coast. But expectations are hardening. "Morganza is considered egregious in the scientific community, but there's not a lot of enthusiasm down there for changing the alignment," says Randy Hanchey, who left the Corps after 37 years to oversee coastal projects for Louisiana. "The politics are very tricky."
Levees are still seen as instant local relief, even though Morganza is supposed to be a 16-year project and would probably take much longer. Restoration is often cast as a more general solution, even though scientists expect the Gulf to advance to the New Orleans suburbs within a decade. So political pressure and engineering instincts tend to favor a futile effort to wall ourselves off from nature. But Katrina and Rita wiped out 217 sq. mi. (562 sq km) of wetlands in a single month. And even Bush has acknowledged that without the coast, Louisiana is toast.
The good news is that scientists believe they know how to save it. They want the Corps to let go of the river in strategic areas so it can get back to work building land, even if that requires rearranging navigation at the mouth of the Mississippi. They want to fill in oil and gas canals, constrict the Gulf Outlet and start pumping sediment back into ridges and barrier islands. The Corps developed $14 billion worth of Louisiana restoration plans before Katrina, but Bush scaled them back to $2 billion. Now the scientists want to think even bigger about the entire ecosystem, even the sediments trapped behind dams 1,000 miles upstream (about 1,600 km). And they don't want to have to think about new to-the-Gulfs schemes that could further degrade the coast.
Next Becky Zaheri