Rising waters

August 31, 2005

IF NEW ORLEANS was lucky -- spared a direct hit Monday as Hurricane Katrina veered east of the below-sea-level metropolis -- the sigh of relief was all too brief. As the nation yesterday was only beginning to grasp the lethal blow that the storm dealt to Gulfport and Biloxi in Mississippi and Mobile in Alabama, waters suddenly began rising in the Big Easy from several breaches in its life-sustaining levees -- submerging 80 percent of the town in as much as 20 feet of water.

Though perhaps not quite the long-predicted worst-case scenario for New Orleans -- the town turned into a toxic soup bowl -- it is much too close. It is a disaster that has been in the making for almost three centuries, the growth of a major population, port and energy center made possible only by 2,000 miles of levees and massive navigation projects -- that, in turn, have destroyed the Mississippi Delta's natural capacities to replenish itself and to absorb and buffer big storms from the Gulf of Mexico.

In other words, long before Katrina blew ashore, the waters of the gulf have been rising and the Louisiana coast sinking.

In just the last 70 years, Louisiana has lost 1,900 square miles -- an area nearly the size of Delaware. The state still loses about 24 square miles a year. In the next 50 years, without aggressive actions, it is expected to shrink by another 500 square miles -- increasing the size of storm surges hitting New Orleans and making yesterday's horrifying scenes of flooding ever more likely.

Make no mistake, this is a national disaster. Coastal Louisiana, the nation's richest estuary, accounts for 90 percent of the losses to U.S. coastal marshes. At the same time, the region's ports, the nation's largest complex, handle 21 percent of U.S. waterborne commerce. About 30 percent of the oil and natural gas delivered to the continental United States is produced in the area or transported through it. The region accounts for 30 percent of U.S. commercial fishing.

Federal and state efforts to reverse the degradation of the delta have been too little, too late. Since 1990, Washington has been providing about $50 million for piecemeal state wetlands-restoration projects. In the late 1990s, an extensive planning process produced a sweeping Coast 2050 plan to restore the Louisiana coast at a cost of $14 billion over the next half-century. The Bush administration, however, has supported only a truncated version of the plan (costing $1.9 billion over 10 years) that has not yet been approved by Congress.

Katrina highlights the urgent need for a longer-term commitment, which ought to draw national support -- like that for the $8 billion plan to restore the Florida Everglades. It is not too early for the Bush administration to take another look at Coast 2050.

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