Image by David Mark from Pixabay

The hurricane highway is shown by dead cypress stumps.

The disastrous effects of the “hurricane highway” can be seen where Arthur Johnson is pointing, out among stumps of dead cypress trees in wetlands on the edge of the Lower Ninth Ward. “You look at each one of those stumps out there, imagine those are cypress trees,” said Johnson, head of the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development, a community advocacy group. “So it really protected this area from anything that came up the Gulf of Mexico. This broke up the wind and water surge.” The plan is to restore that protection. The problem is figuring out who’ll pay.

Paying, the usual road block.

The Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, or “Mr. Go,” which many environmentalists and state officials labeled a “hurricane highway” that helped funnel a wall of storm surge into New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, was closed more than a decade ago. But much of the widespread environmental damage it caused remains. Legislation pending in Congress could ensure that the federal government foots the bill to repair wetlands destroyed by the shipping channel that once led from the Gulf to New Orleans’ doorstep. Beyond being an integral part of the local ecosystem in southeast Louisiana, those wetlands served as natural hurricane protection, providing a buffer for storm surge barreling in from the Gulf. The dispute boils down to a long-simmering legal fight over how much the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should pay for the restoration, which was estimated at $3 billion a decade ago but would almost surely amount to far more now. The Corps has previously set out a cost split that would see it pay 65% and the state the remainder. The state believes the Corps should pay the full cost, and contends that was made clear in previous legislation.

He said she said. Not a way to run a railway.

A bill recently passed in the U.S. House of Representatives seeks to clarify that full responsibility falls on the federal government. The Senate version, which is yet to be passed, specifies that the federal government pay 90%. It is yet to be determined what the final version will say. The provision is part of a larger bill on water-related projects. U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, the former chair of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority who has worked on the issue in the House, said the Corps “is the one that caused all of this loss of coastal wetlands.” “By coming in and doing the restoration work, you’re helping to ensure you have speed bumps or barriers that no longer allow for unimpeded storm surge to be able to come and hit St. Bernard and New Orleans and the north shore, and even the whole Lake Pontchartrain Basin, from that south or that eastern direction,” said Graves.

I have wondered, even before we moved here, why the restoration did not include rebuilding the cypress barriers.

The MRGO and the damage it caused were among the many government missteps that Katrina helped bring to light. Fully opened in 1968, the 76-mile channel wasn’t used as heavily as intended. In the meantime, it ate away at vast areas of marsh and changed the ecosystem by flooding it with saltwater, killing cypress and tupelo trees and altering fisheries. After Katrina’s 2005 devastation, momentum built to close the shipping channel. The Pontchartrain Conservancy, part of the MRGO Must Go Coalition of environmental, community and social justice groups, concluded that the channel impacted more than a million acres of coastal habitat. The closure eventually occurred in 2009, when a rock dam was constructed at Bayou La Loutre, near Hopedale.

Now they know what to do but the funding dispute means nothing happens.

But a federal plan by the Corps to restore and protect around 57,000 acres of wetlands and coastal habitat has stalled because of the funding dispute. The disagreement has included a lawsuit filed by the state that was ruled “premature” by a federal appeals court in 2016. The state is still seeking to clarify the matter, but has not waited in the meantime. It has gone ahead with about $455 million in work on its own. The work has included marsh creation in various areas, such as around the new Lake Borgne Surge Barrier, the wall that’s part of the the post-Katrina hurricane protection system to block storm surge, said Chip Kline, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. Having the Corps cover the cost of the entire project would free state coastal restoration resources to be used elsewhere. Speaking of the importance of the project, Kline said: “I think it was one of the greatest lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina.” “That area served as storm surge alley. That channel undoubtedly allowed for storm surge to get into populated areas,” said Kline. “But then it also killed thousands of acres of marsh because of that salinity intrusion.” For him, the issue is clear: The federal government built the channel. It should pay to fix the damage. Corps spokesman Ricky Boyett said he could not comment on the proposed legislation.

The closure seems to be working as the salinity is down.

The waterway’s closure has already reduced the salinity in some area waters. “You’re seeing things like cypress trees being able to survive in areas all the way up to Manchac and the Maurepas area that weren’t doing that before,” said Amanda Moore, director of the Gulf program at the National Wildlife Federation. “You’re seeing oysters come back in areas like Biloxi Marsh.” In addition to the state, volunteers and environmental groups have sought to fill the gap through efforts like tree planting. That includes the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, which has planted nearly 66 acres of wetlands with 9,250 cypress, tupelo and swamp red maple trees with help from more than 600 volunteers, said the organization’s Gardner Goodall.

Involving community groups means that some volunteers have a personal stake in the work.

For Johnson, the community activist, efforts to restore the wetlands have special meaning. His grandmother used to live in the Lower Ninth Ward. He now lives in New Orleans East and rebuilt his home after Katrina badly damaged it. He believes the federal government should pay. As he stood on a platform built by volunteers overlooking wetlands near Bayou Bienvenue, he said the channel was built with “no regard” for the majority Black community in that area. He also noted it had been little-used by the shipping industry. “All of this was sacrificed, and people’s lives were sacrificed through Katrina,” he said. “Unfortunately for no real reason that came out in the end.”

They are not far apart so, please, get this done!

Hurricane Highway, a gift that keeps requiring paying
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