Saturday, October 15, 2005

A shortcut to the Gulf, for the Gulf

"This is a problem that's going to be devastating if we have a hurricane. New Orleans and St. Bernard will be destroyed."
--St. Bernard Parish President Junior Rodriguez, Feb. 4, 2004 in Louisiana Weekly

In the aftermath of Hurricane , commentators across America continually ask: why would anyone build a city there?

The answer is quite simple, and the rationale seemed as valid in 1718 as it did 250 years later: a shortcut to the sea. Bienville chose his site based on an indian portage that connected the riverfront with Bayou St. John, which flowed into Lake Pontchartrain. From there, it was clear sailing in open water to the Gulf of Mexico.

That portage saved sailing ships days if not weeks working up the 100 miles from Head of Passes, where the channels of the birdfoot delta split off. It provide ready access to the sea for ships that would carry the wealth the Mississippi promised to float down from an immense continent.

The skeletal remains of that traffic on Bayou St. John were still in place in the early 1960s, with the walls of a lock (gates long removed), and a rotating pedestrian foot bridge (which not moved in recent memory) still there. Along the concrete capped seawall near that bridge, the remains of one old pier jutted out into the bayou, and the ribs of wooden boats (ships to our small eyes) were visible at the bottom.

Commerce of any real sort via the lake had long since ceased. But the dream of a shorter path to the Port of New Orleans didn't die.

The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet was authorized in 1956 to provide an alternate channel for seagoing ships to the Port of New Orleans. The ships would not actually reach the river, but a new port would be constructed in the Almonaster-Michoud Industrial District just east of the city. (There was, and still is, talk of a ship-size lock at the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal linking the River directly to the MRGO).

The project was a mammoth undertaking, longer than the Panama Canal by a third, requiring the removal of 60 million more cubic yards of earth than it's southern cousin.

An economic boom was promised, not just for the City of New Orleans, but for adjacent St. Bernard Parish as well.

What St. Bernard received instead was the gradual destruction of the marshes to the north east, wetlaneds that provided many residents a livlihood and others a respite of fishing and hunting after their day in the refineries.

Ultimately, the parish received a monumental storm surge that rivaled the Pacific tsunami in its destructiveness, as the waters of the Gulf were funneled through the MRGO, the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and Lake Borgne to the very back porch St. Bernard Parish, and on into the heart of New Orleans.

The MRGO was authorized by Congress to be created and maintained by the US Army Corp of Engineers at a width of 500 feet at the bottom, 650 feet at the surface. The channel pre-Hurricane Katrina had grown as wide as 2,000 feet from the erosion caused by ships wakes, threatening to merge the channel with Lake Borgne. Katrina has completed that linkup, with the channel now open to that lake just east of Pontchartrain and right behind St. Bernard.

Wide swaths of marsh and cypress were killed by the salt water intruction facilitated by the MRGO, which cut through the La Loutre Ridge that previously isolated the area from the Gulf. An estimated 40,000 acres of cypress swamp were lost, leaving a skeletal grey forest standing in open water, and robbing the area of an important barrier against storm surge.

Everyone knew the day of reckoning was coming. When I was editor of the St. Bernard Guide weekly newsapaper, Parish President (then Ward juror) Junior Rodriguez would bend the ear of anyone who would listen about the MRGO, how it was destroying the swamp and marsh behind the parish, and would some day be its undoing.

After Katrina, even Rodriguez told WWL-TV "the force of that water and the wind that drove that water, I don't know if there was a levee that could have saved us from that."

The director of the Port of New Orleans, which has a vested interest in keeping the MRGO open, told the Washington Post "the jury is still out" on whether the MRGO contributed to Katrina's devestation.

Was Katrina an inevitable disaster, lurking in the Gulf and just waiting to destroy a city and a parish that should never have been? Or was this a forseeable and preventable catastrophe, one badly exacerbated by man's own meddling in the marsh environment?

St. Bernard Parish's levees were 17.5 feet along the north, with a second 15 foot drainage canal levee behind that. Could anything have stoped a storm surge that Lake Borgne Levee District manager Bob Turner told WWL he estimted between 20 and 25 feet?

One man in Baton Rouge might know.

Up at LSU, Professor Hassan Mashriqui campaigned to warn people of the imminent danger, showing by computer modeling how the MRGO would amplify storm surges by 20 to 40 percent. "I showed how dangerous that outlet was -- there was no ambiguity," Mashriqui, who came to the United States after a tropical cyclone devastated his native Bangladesh, told the Washington Post in the above cited story.. "And now it's all come true."

With 17.5 feet of protection and a ballpark estimate of 20-25 feet--if accept the the MRGO/Intracoastal Waterway affect added 30 percent to the "natural" storm surge(splitting the difference with Professor Mashriqui)--some quick arithmetic leads to one ready conclusion: if the MRGO had not been there, the storm surge might not have topped the levees of St. Bernard Parish.

Larry Ingargiola, the head of emergency management in St. Bernard, said he knows exactly why only 52 of [the parish's] 28,000 structures made it through Katrina unscathed. "That's where the damn water came -- right up MRGO," he said. "We've been screaming about it for years. I don't know how many politicians I've taken on tours. But there it is."

There has been a grass roots efforts in St. Bernard Parish--it's government voted recently to ask the Corps to close the channel--and in parts of New Orleans. Ironically, the white flight suburb of St. Bernard found common cause with the black New Orleanians who lived just accross the line in the Ninth Ward.

Edwin Doody, a retired mechanical engineer, for the Coalition to Close the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. Papers have been prepared, and even the Corps of Engineers--accused of not wishing to give up the MRGO--had a study on closing the outlet due for completion in 2005.

The Port of New Orleans and other city officials were not in such a hurry pre-Katrina. They argued that a ship channel needed to be opened from the Mississippi River to the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, to provide shipping access to the container facilities built along the MRGO.

That improvement is slated to cost $750 million, and take twelve years. Already, the government spends almost $13,000 per ship to maintain the MGRO, where traffic has steadily dwindled. Only three percent of the port's cargo travels the MRGO, fewer than one ship per day.

Amid all the finger pointing after Hurricane Katrina, it seems clear that a pollyana disregard for how we have altered the coastal environment played as large a roll as mother nature. More than any other change, the MRGO fundamentally changed the hydrolics of the Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne area.

The MRGO was a fuse waiting for a match.

If the defenders of the MRGO--the Corps of Engineers, the Port of New Orleans, and the Louisiana Congressional delegation--if these folks don't immediately move to close the MRGO, we will know where there priorities lie. Keep the MRGO, and abandon St. Bernard, New Orleans East, and the Ninth Ward.

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