What Hurricane Katrina Taught Us about Fixing Louisiana

In the coming days, the media and the pundits will be debating the good and the bad of what's happened to New Orleans in the decade since Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath turned the Big Easy into the dubious poster child of everything that can go wrong in a disaster.

First, the good: The restaurants are back, the tourists are back, many--but not all--residents are back, and $14.5 billion has been spent on upgrading levees.

Now, the bad: We still have a very long way to go to prevent the large-scale devastation of another mega-storm or tidal surge.

How is that possible after all we learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?

The issue is not just that storms are getting stronger--though science and technology prove they are. The real problem for New Orleans and all of coastal Louisiana is that the first line of defense--the wetlands that naturally buffer the impact of waves and wind--are disappearing at the shocking rate of one football field an hour.

Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost 1,900 square miles of land. That's an area the size of Delaware just gone, entire communities wiped off the map.

The shrinking wetlands also reduce protections for coastal residents, local economies, national industries, and wildlife habitats. We saw this as Louisiana was pummeled by back-to-back hurricanes with Hurricane Rita slamming Southwest Louisiana just four weeks after the eastern side of the state took the hit from Katrina.

And this is not just a Louisiana problem. Wetlands are vanishing throughout coastal America under the pressure of development and urbanization and sea-level rise with similarly devastating results: Witness Hurricane Sandy's impact on the New York City area in 2012 and the storms that regularly wipe out Florida's shoreline communities.

Who's to blame?

In Louisiana's case, the extensive wetlands that once spanned the Louisiana Gulf Coast have been sliced up by oil pipelines and navigation canals. These man-made cuts and channels have allowed salt water to penetrate deep into wetlands, killing the native grasses, trees, and other plants that hold the soils together.

So what can we do about it?

As it turns out, plenty. There are strong, science-based methods for repairing and bringing back protective coastal wetlands.

One of the best solutions is reconnecting the Mississippi River with its delta. The river has been straitjacketed by levees that prevent its sediment from replenishing the wetlands. Instead, it pushes precious amounts of sediment deep into the Gulf of Mexico, far beyond where it can do any good.

Audubon has been experimenting with using dredges to build marsh in depleted wetlands. Within a matter of months, the marsh grasses and other plants spring to life and start spreading. And important waterbirds, such as Black-necked Stilts, Greater Yellowlegs, and Tricolored Herons, and marsh birds, such as King Rails, Seaside Sparrows, and Marsh Wrens, start returning.

If we know how to fix the problem, why isn't more being done?

Money. And political commitment.

Louisiana officials estimate it will cost tens of billions of dollars over the next 50 years to restore and preserve the coast and reduce risk for coastal communities. To do it right we need to take on major projects that go to the root of the problem. Band-Aid fixes are not going to work.

We have a historic chance for a running start with the proposed settlement with BP for $18.7 billion in penalties for the environmental damages caused by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil gusher. Louisiana's share is estimated to be up to $8.7 billion dollars.

The challenge will be making sure every cent of that money goes to coastal restoration and isn't diverted to other state needs.

But the BP money is just a start. Doing the job right will require state and national leadership to fully fund key projects that will result in large-scale restoration. It will also mean protecting the existing federal dollars dedicated to coastal restoration and finding new funding in the future.

Why should the rest of the country care what happens on the Louisiana coast?

To be sure New Orleans is one of the great cultural and culinary destinations of the United States. And the Gulf Coast is an ecological treasure: Nearly half of North America's bird species use it as a resting or refueling stop at some point in their migrations.

But the Louisiana and the Gulf Coast are also powerful economic engines for shipping, energy, and other industries that support millions of jobs across America.

If there's one thing we all learned from Katrina, it's that we waited too long. We have to invest in serious restoration of our coasts now. This is not just a Louisiana problem: It's the challenge of virtually every country on the globe that has a coastline.

David Yarnold is president and CEO of the National Audubon Society.