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Ten Years After Katrina: Are We Still Waiting to Safeguard Our Coastline?

My dad and I spent the morning of August 28, 2005, tacking up plywood to cover the windows of his house in Baton Rouge. It’s a routine part of preparing for any hurricane, the same way you look for anything the wind can turn into a missile and take it inside.

Dad lived through Hurricanes Betsy and Camille in New Orleans in the 1960s, and we both watched Hurricane Andrew churn and chew through central Louisiana in 1992. We both suspected Katrina would be worse.

All that work readying the house seemed a waste the next day, when Katrina’s winds pushed an 80-foot-tall oak tree right across the roof, allowing torrents of rain to pour in. The feelings of grief, disgust, and helplessness at the sight of that destruction were nothing compared to what my dad felt when he stepped out of a boat onto the roof of my grandmother’s house in New Orleans four days later.

Thankfully my grandmother was safe. Far too many were not. She never returned to the house my grandfather built. It was just a mile or so from Lake Pontchartrain and a couple blocks from the London Avenue Canal. Like other homes on Pasteur Boulevard and all across New Orleans, her house remains empty a decade later, still wearing the watermarks imprinted upon the bricks and stucco, a reminder of the failed federal levee system that turned the city into Lake Pontchartrain’s backwater.

Image courtesy of NOAA.

Image courtesy of NOAA.

Nearly everyone in south Louisiana and Mississippi has a Katrina story. If they don’t, they have a story about Rita, the oft forgotten storm that brought wind and surge equal to Katrina’s into southwest Louisiana just a month later. I didn’t lose my house. Many of my family members lost their homes, and the memories and possessions that went with them, but they didn’t lose their lives. The struggles of living in Baton Rouge, where the population swelled by 100,000 overnight, even without electricity, paled in comparison to what was unfolding in New Orleans, Lafitte, St. Bernard Parish, Slidell, and Biloxi.

The very least that my roommate and I could do to help was to welcome strangers into our home for a couple of nights. So, we hosted a father and young son who had nowhere else to go. We delivered food and clothes to shelters and helped elderly neighbors clean debris from their yards. We did anything we could to help in a time of such overwhelming helplessness.

Fishing is never far from my mind, but it was hard to even envision the pleasure of heading to the coast amid such chaos. The reality was that places I had fished just days before the storm made landfall, like Grand Isle, Shell Beach, Slidell and Lafitte, were flattened. Roads were broken to pieces, covered in boats, houses, trees, and anything else the storm shook loose. No tackle shops were open. No marinas. Camps and houses were ripped apart. Grocery stores and gas stations had been pushed off their foundations. Bridges were completely washed out.

Friends who made their living as fishing guides lost their businesses overnight. Other friends who sold live bait and owned boat launches had nothing left but the slabs their bait tanks once rested on. Bayous and canals were choked with debris and sediment, making many impassable.

My first post-Katrina fishing trip was in mid-October to Lake Pontchartrain. The fishing was pretty good, despite fears that floodwaters draining and being pumped into the lake would suck the oxygen from the water. The fishing was unremarkable compared to how awestruck I was by the destruction of literally every camp and house along the lake’s northern and eastern shorelines. It was living embodiment of the cliché term—“war zone”—that reporters used to describe everything, almost casually and nauseatingly, in the weeks since the storm. It was absolute destruction on a scale I had never seen. A dozen or more sailboat masts broke the lake’s surface, while the boats themselves rested 14 feet below, and root balls of a half-dozen pine trees were driven top-down, like nails, into the Pontchartrain’s sand and mud bottom.

In the 10 years since Katrina and Rita, communities have been rebuilt, some smaller but smarter, with homes elevated and constructed to better weather the next big storm. Marinas, boat launches, tackle shops, and gas stations—some of which had to be rebuilt again after Gastav, Ike, and Isaac pounded and swamped our coast over the last seven years—are back and bustling.

Those who rebuilt their homes, communities, and businesses in Katrina’s wake generally aren’t interested in the press conferences, commemorative speeches, and hour-long TV retrospectives on the 10 years that have passed. Those spectacles help only if they come with a renewed and unyielding commitment to continue to fix the failures that occurred at every level and led to Katrina and Rita’s destruction.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was rightly ashamed in admitting that its levees failed. Lawmakers had no choice but to commit the funds needed to fix those mistakes, because many of them shared in that shame. But culpability and urgency is still lacking in addressing the policies that have led to the loss of nearly 2,000 acres of wetlands which once helped to shield Louisiana’s communities from devastating storm surges. Chief among those policies is one that does not permit the lower Mississippi’s waters and sediment to feed and sustain its delta’s swamps and marshes.

Louisiana has developed a coastal restoration and hurricane protection master plan since Katrina and Rita, and there is an agency to ensure the plan’s implementation. The state has eliminated many of the divisive bureaucratic processes that often had levee-building and coastal restoration agencies at odds, competing for the same small pools of funding. With those impediments put aside, the state has admirably advanced science-based projects and initiatives that recognize the value of multiple lines of defense, including the vital role of wetlands, barrier islands, and natural ridges, in ensuring the integrity of levee systems and the safety of our citizens. But, the diversion of sediment back into a delta that’s wasting away from sediment starvation, a large-scale restoration of the delta’s ecosystem, has yet to be addressed. Some politicians have even suggested diversions not be built at all, bowing to pressure from constituents who insist the move will cripple fisheries and that compromises can be made.

As painful as it is for Gulf residents to be reminded of Katrina’s toll this August, hopefully those reminders reinforce our resolve. Hurricanes don’t take pity on us for poor policies and bureaucratic morass. They don’t stop threatening while politicians sort through their priorities. And, as Louisianans have seen three times since Katrina and Rita, storms continue to bring devastation while we wait to protect our communities and restore our wetlands.

There is no such thing as compromise when it comes to restoring our coast, unless we’re ready to accept that the next Katrina could take this coast from us completely.

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