Can Louisiana Take Gustav's Punch?

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NOAA / Getty

Tropical Storm Gustav churns through the Caribbean at 13:45 GMT, August 28, 2008.

Three years to the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall, another storm is barreling toward the Louisiana coast. Are the manmade defenses around New Orleans prepared for Gustav? Afraid not. Are the marshes and cypress swamps that once provided natural protection for the Louisiana coast still vanishing? Afraid so. How should local residents feel after a manmade catastrophe followed by three years of promises? Afraid, period.

But there is some good news to report. New Orleans is still extremely vulnerable to catastrophic flooding, but it is not quite as vulnerable as it was before Katrina. And while there is still tremendous pressure to build gigantic new levees that could destroy hundreds of thousands more acres of wetlands and doom the coast in the name of saving it, those misguided plans for a Great Wall of Louisiana seem to be losing momentum.

In a TIME article for Katrina's second anniversary, I explained how the warped priorities and tragic errors of the Army Corps of Engineers drowned New Orleans, and how the Corps and its allies in the political world were planning to repeat and extend some of those mistakes along the entire Louisiana coast. I'm thrilled to report that over the last year, the Corps has gently applied the brakes to those plans. That won't save the coast from Gustav; the storm is coming so soon after Katrina that there isn't much else to do except hope it weakens or misses. But over the next year, decisions about the coast could determine whether southern Louisiana can be sustainable, or whether the Katrinas and Gustavs of the future will obliterate it. "We're still vulnerable, no question about it," says John Lopez, director of coastal sustainability for the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. "We just have to stop making ourselves more vulnerable."

The Corps has pledged that by 2011 New Orleans will be protected against a 100-year storm, the protection that was required in theory before Katrina but was never provided in practice. Since Katrina, the Corps has repaired or improved 220 miles of floodwalls and levees, and has installed floodgates that should keep storm surges from Lake Pontchartrain out of the city's drainage canals. "The New Orleans area now has the best flood protection in its history," the Corps said in a statement.

Perhaps, but the Corps has yet to address the city's two biggest vulnerabilities: the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a little-used Corps navigation channel that carried Katrina's surge into the city, and a "funnel" near the entrance to the Industrial Canal, another little-used Corps channel. The Corps has said it will take $15 billion to bring the entire system up to the 100-year level, and so far it has only spent about $2 billion. "That should give you an idea of how much work there still is to do," says Garret Graves, who oversees coastal protection and restoration for Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.

And the rest of the coast has received virtually no additional protection. That's why officials in Louisiana's southern parishes have been pushing for a series of gigantic levees, starting with a 72-mile project known as Morganza-to-the-Gulf. Morganza (the name of a small inland community) would protect the city of Houma as well as a series of tiny bayou towns, but it would also cut off 135,000 acres of wetlands from their natural tidal exchanges. Scientists have said the project would make the area even less safe by ravaging natural storm buffers, amplifying storm surges and encouraging a false sense of security. First proposed in 1992, the project was finally authorized by Congress last year. "It's just insane," says Tulane law professor Oliver Houck, who has been warning about the vanishing coast for decades. "The politicians get tears in their eyes when they talk about restoring wetlands, but at the same time they push this mega-levee system to destroy our natural protections."

But Morganza no longer seems as inevitable as it did last year. The Corps has agreed to review its original cost-benefit study, and a preliminary analysis suggested that building the levee according to real 100-year standards could cost $10.7 billion — a 1,200% increase. Meanwhile, Governor Jindal has convened a science panel to review whether Morganza is consistent with restoration plans. Even Keith Magill, the editor of Houma Today, wrote a brave column suggesting that the new cost figures represented "the end of Morganza as we know it," and praising a levee alignment proposed by environmentalists that would still protect Houma without cutting off wetlands.

But even if the coast-killing Morganza alignment is scuttled, southern Louisiana is still losing a football field worth of wetlands every 38 minutes. It will not be enough to stop making the problem worse; at some point there will have to be some real restoration. Southern Lousiana began to disappear in the 20th century after the Corps imprisoned the Mississippi River and converted it into a barge channel that no longer deposited sediment into coastal marshes; this NASA satellite image shows that sediment cascading into the Gulf of Mexico during the Mississippi floods this spring. "You can see on that map how we missed our chance this year," says Paul Harrison, an Environmental Defense attorney. The huge brown plumes around the Atchafalaya, the Head of Passes and Bonnet Carre are where sediment isn't needed; the too-small-to-see diversions at Davis Pond and Caernarvon — and a planned diversion at Myrtle Grove — are where sediment is needed.

There are already about $1 billion worth of projects on the books to divert sediments, restore marshes and rebuild barrier islands. But those projects are moving much, much slower than the levee projects, and scientists have estimated that real restoration could cost $20 billion or more. "Coastal restoration is just one of those things that politicians say, like 'I owe it all to my lovely wife,'" Houck says. "Meanwhile, we keep building up the coast, no matter how many times we get hit on the chin. At some point the American public is going to stop paying for chin surgery."

This week, all Louisiana will have to hope that Gustav's haymaker misses the mark. But in the future, the coast is going to have to relearn how to block a punch.