LAFAYETTE, LA (AP) Big, bold, seemingly impossible civil works projects became the stuff of scientific study Feb. 14 when engineers, scientists and others discussed how to defend Louisiana’s low-lying coast against the worst storms the Gulf of Mexico can throw at it.
Why not lay hundreds of miles of pipeline to funnel sand onto disappearing barrier islands that can act as speed bumps to hurricane storm surge? What about building tidal-surge barriers out of barges? How feasible would it be to grow new cypress swamp forests?
Better still, let’s build one, huge, massive wall — a kind of “Great Wall of Louisiana” — along the coast that would be the levee of all levees and protect Louisiana from the Big One, the kind of storm that would wash over all of New Orleans, even the French Quarter.
The gathering, which began Feb. 13, also was a window onto what other parts of the American coast might be looking at in the future: The threat of angrier oceans getting closer and closer because of sea level rise.
“We’re all in the same boat, but New Orleans is in the boat first,” said Al Naomi, a senior project manager of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which sponsored the event.
The meeting had shades of history in the making.
“The hard decisions we make related to the level of protection and the amount of risk we’re willing to put up with … is really going to define national policy,” said Robert Twilley, director of the Wetland Biogeochemistry Institute at Louisiana State University.
Scientists said the future is happening sooner in Louisiana because the southern part of the state is built on land made from relatively new deposits of the Mississippi River, and it’s susceptible to high rates of sinking.
Also, for years Louisiana has fought a war against an advancing Gulf of Mexico that’s eating away at buffer wetlands and barrier islands.
The discussions centered on building 30-ft. (9 m) high levees and using the natural world to protect Louisiana from Category 5 hurricanes, the most powerful storms. Congress asked the Corps of Engineers to craft the plan after Hurricane Katrina slammed the state as a Category 3, killing approximately 1,100 people and destroying approximately 100 sq. mi. (260 sq km) of critical wetlands.
A preliminary draft is due out by June and a final document is expected by early 2007.
The meeting brought together levee builders and wetlands scientists in an unusual melding of scientific fields that were largely viewed as separate before Katrina.
Besides building a massive $33-billion levee system, engineers talked about building floodgates, weirs and other structures to deal with the complex hydrology and waterway system around New Orleans by using techniques similar to those that keep the low-lying Netherlands dry.
The obstacles are formidable.
Much of the funding depends on Congress, and in this era of tight budgets getting money for coastal projects in Louisiana has proven difficult.
In practice, the Corps of Engineers envisions drawing a line across the coast to demarcate what is and isn’t worth putting behind Category 5 levees. Naomi said it would be impractical and nearly impossible to build a huge levee in the Gulf of Mexico to protect all of Louisiana.
Areas outside the levees and floodgate systems would, essentially, be left to the whims of the Gulf of Mexico.