September 1st, 2008
09:56 PM ET

Mismanaging Mississippi exposes us to more violent disasters

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/09/02/katrina.320x640b.jpg caption="Northern Chandeleur Islands, 60 miles east of New Orleans: before and after Hurricane Katrina. Storm surge and large waves from Hurricane Katrina submerged the islands, stripped sand from the beaches, and eroded large sections of the marsh. Today, few recognizable landforms are left on the Chandeleur Island chain" width=292 height=640]

Ivor van Heerden
Ph.D., Author "The Storm – What Went Wrong and Why during Hurricane Katrina 
the Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist"

The Mississippi River, for the 7,000 years before Europeans settled in North America, built most of what is now coastal Louisiana.

The Mississippi river sediment load was deposited at the coast as the river went from a deep confined channel to the shallow continental shelf building over time a series of deltas. Approximately every 1,000 years it would switch it course because a shorter course existed to the Gulf of Mexico, the active delta having expanded many miles over its lifespan.

This switching of the loci of deposition was the basic geological framework. Every year the river flooded, every year it spread its life giving sediment and nutrient goodness over 100’s of square miles, maintaining the existing wetlands such that while they did subside, sediment additions and accumulation of organic matter from roots and leaf litter, maintained the wetland surface. In fresh water areas, cypress swamps abounded, as impenetrable walls to hurricane storm surges.

Based on old Indian mounds these surges never seem to have exceeded 6-8 feet.

However, along comes man; he must tame this Mississippi river ‘beast’; put it in strait jackets called navigation or flood control levees. By 1930 we had cut off the wetland’s ‘blood’ supply, no more flooding, no more wetland maintenance and growth.

Nature did try to flex its muscle; the Mississippi river tried one of its 1000 year switches, to the Atchafalaya River, a course to the Gulf some 100 miles shorter. Again, man stepped in and locked in the distribution of Mississippi flow down the Atchafalaya to about 30%. So instead of the Atchafalaya having the potential to build a new parish (county) it barely manages to maintain the two deltas at its seaward end.

The nation, however, has and continues to benefit enormously from the numerous ports that line the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to the sea.

Now, to add insult to injury, man ‘cut up’ these starving wetlands with thousands and thousands of miles of canals and channels in support of mining very easily accessible and rich oil and gas fields.

Again the nation benefited, from very cheap domestic energy. Unfortunately, in the process the wetlands were devastated such that since the 1930’s more than a million acres have been lost, and storm surges are now Louisiana’s worst enemy.

Hurricane Gustav, and it will be destructive, will hopefully be the final wakeup call for our nation. For the nation has benefited from our river in its strait jackets; for the nation has benefitted from our cheap energy and thus our nation needs to aggressive initiate a new Mississippi river management scheme; we must let the river ‘loose’ as much as we can to rebuild Louisiana’s coastal wetlands; we must go mine offshore sand and rebuild our barrier islands; we as a nation have to own up to the error of our ways, and we need to act now.

I know there is a tendency to blame it all on the US Army Corps of Engineers; we entrusted them the job to manage our treasure the Mississippi River and its coastal wetlands. They failed because they became focused on one thing and one thing only, navigation. However, we the people are also at blame, we allowed our politicians to allow the Corps to ‘get away with it’.

We as a nation have to take Katrina, Rita and Gustav as our wakeup calls, we need to act now, we need to restore coastal Louisiana to as much of its former glory as we can. Why you ask? To save some Cajuns? Yes I say, but it is much, much more. Once Gustav is finished our gasoline prices will rocket, oil and gas production from both federal and state waters will be severely curtailed; pipelines and production facilities will be damaged, some destroyed, we will have to for a while rely on more foreign imports; the port of New Orleans may not operate at full potential for long time, exports will be slowed.

So it’s up to us as a nation, do we say “they deserved it for living in the coastal wilderness”. Or do we say, this is part of America, its being messed up by us, we need to fix it.

Only time will tell, but if we walk away from Louisiana then we will walk away from whatever community suffers the next major catastrophe, maybe it will be your town; an earthquake; a tsunami; and major river flood, a dam break and so the list goes on..

What are you going to do?

Filed under: Hurricane Gustav • Hurricane Katrina • Weather
soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Mark Landrieu

    Great Article.
    Any thinking person cannot observe the coast of Loisiana and not see the thousands of oil platforms (activity ) and deny the diproportionate share of the burden with the other coastal states.
    It is utterly obsurd that Louisiana has allowed the rest of the Country to get away with this abuse of our resources and allowed ourselves to be violated as such.
    Honest mistakes have been made in the past and they just need to be fixed. End of story.

    September 5, 2008 at 8:49 am |
  2. Chrispin Barnes

    This is an excellent article. I just returned to my home in N.O. after Gustav came through, only to see that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is patting themselves on the back because the levees withstood tropical storm force winds. I am pleased as can be that they held, but this is no time for self-congratulating. There was some over-topping of levees. This over-topping is due to the storm surges traveling up the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet.

    Articles like this are essential to holding the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to task. Thank you.

    September 4, 2008 at 6:45 pm |