Katrina 15th Anniversary a reminder of how critical coastal restoration is to our sustainability

On the morning of August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Louisiana coast. The devastation of that storm 15 years ago is something that no one will soon forget. The images of people stranded on rooftops, people walking through chest-deep (or higher) water, and the endless sea of water engulfing entire neighborhoods played out on live television – a reality show of the worst kind.

Of course, it’s hard to remember Katrina and not think of Hurricane Rita, which hit less than a month later. Rita’s path was much like what we’ve just witnessed this week. The people of coastal Louisiana barely had time to breathe a sigh of relief from the close call of Tropical Storm Marco before the arrival of Hurricane Laura – a storm that advanced from Category 1 to a very strong Category 4 in just 24 hours, making it one of most rapidly intensifying storms on record in the Gulf of Mexico.

These devastating events underscore the need for restoring our coast, which is plagued with erosion and subsidence (land sinking) due to several natural and human-induced factors. Having already lost nearly 2,000 square miles of land (approximately the size of Delaware), Louisiana desperately needs every tool at its disposal to build and maintain as much of our coastline as possible. Our natural defenses, such as barrier islands and wetlands, help reduce storm surge, offering protection for the people and infrastructure further inland.

Since Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has upgraded the levee system around New Orleans at a cost of $14.6 billion. These upgrades are nearly complete, however, it is expected that the Corps will request an additional $3.2 billion from Congress next year to keep the levees, which are already sinking, to a 100-year level of protection – that is, protection from a hurricane with a 1% chance of occurring in any given year. You can read more about the upgrades to the levee system here.

After Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana formed a new state agency, the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), which was tasked with addressing our land loss crisis through the development and implementation of coastal protection and restoration projects. Louisiana’s Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast (Master Plan), the document that guides these efforts, lays out a 50-year plan of projects that would protect coastal communities, businesses, and wildlife across coastal Louisiana. These projects include barrier island restoration, marsh creation, hydrologic restoration, oyster reef restoration, ridge restoration, sediment and freshwater diversions, shoreline protection, and structural protection.

Some of the cornerstone projects in the Master Plan are diversions. Sediment diversions such as the Mid-Barataria and Mid-Breton diversions will reconnect degrading wetlands to the Mississippi River, delivering sediment, freshwater, and nutrients to mimic the natural land-building processes that originally formed Louisiana’s coast. Freshwater diversions aim to reduce salinity rather than build land. For example, the River Reintroduction into Maurepas Swamp project, a freshwater diversion, will improve the survival of cypress and tupelo trees around Lake Maurepas by diverting freshwater and nutrients from the Mississippi River while sediment will be captured in a channel and periodically extracted.

Louisiana Wildlife Federation has been supportive of the Master Plan, which has also received strong bipartisan support from the Louisiana Legislature since its first iteration was approved in 2007. Our state has made great strides in addressing land loss and wetland degradation but it’s clear that our work is far from over. The Master Plan is updated every six years using the most up-to-date science to inform decision-making.

This year’s Annual Plan (FY 2021) marks the largest budget ever for the state’s coastal program, with $958 million in total expenditures – 74% for construction alone. Dollars allocated to the actual construction of projects are expected to increase to 82% in FY 2022 and to 87% in FY 2023. These are projects that are finally moving from the planning and design phases into real on-the-ground projects that will start providing the benefits our coast needs!

While much work has been done over the last 15 years, it’s important to note that the Master Plan is not fully funded. It’s critical that current funding is protected and additional sources identified in order for our coast to be as sustainable as possible for future generations.

The storms will continue to come so we must continue to protect and restore our coast, adapting our efforts as necessary to achieve a truly sustainable coast.

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