The satellite map in Kerry St. Pe's office shows the great sweep of marshes protecting New Orleans from the Gulf in bright red, a warning they will vanish by the year 2040, putting the sea at the city's doorstep.What does this mean?
Coastal scientists produced the map three years ago. They now know they got it wrong.
"People think we still have 20, 30, 40 years left to get this done. They're not even close," said St. Pe, director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, which seeks to save one of the coast's most threatened and strategically vital zones.
"Ten years is how much time we have left -- if that."
In 10 years, at current land-loss rates:What is being done about this?
-- Gulf waves that once ended on barrier island beaches far from the city could be crashing on levees behind suburban lawns.
-- The state will be forced to begin abandoning outlying communities such as Lafitte, Golden Meadow, Cocodrie, Montegut, Leeville, Grand Isle and Port Fourchon.
-- The infrastructure serving a vital portion of the nation's domestic energy production will be exposed to the encroaching Gulf.
-- Many levees built to withstand a few hours of storm surge will be standing in water 24 hours a day -- and facing the monster surges that come with tropical storms.
-- Hurricanes approaching from the south will treat the city like beachfront property, crushing it with forces like those experienced by the Mississippi Gulf Coast during Katrina.
The entire nation would reel from the losses. The state's coastal wetlands, the largest in the continental United States, nourish huge industries that serve all Americans, not just residents of southeastern Louisiana. Twenty-seven percent of America's oil and 30 percent of its gas travels through the state's coast, serving half of the nation's refinery capacity, an infrastructure that few other states would welcome and that would take years to relocate. Ports along the Mississippi River, including the giant Port of New Orleans and the Port of South Louisiana in LaPlace, handle 56 percent of the nation's grain shipments. And the estuaries now rapidly turning to open water produce half of the nation's wild shrimp crop and about a third of its oysters and blue claw crabs. Studies show destruction of the wetlands protecting the infrastructure serving those industries would put $103 billion in assets at risk.
Despite such dire threats, the most disturbing concern may be this: Coastal restoration efforts have been under way for two decades, but not a single project capable of reversing the trend currently awaits approval.This article is a testament to the power man has to negatively impact his environment. Bad environmental planning and a bad hurricane have produced this situation. Only very good planning, money, and commitment will undo it. A reversal could be a testament to man's power to repair and improve his environment. If there's enough time.
The modest restoration efforts already under way have no chance of making a serious impact, experts say.
"It's like putting makeup on a corpse," said Mark Schexnayder, a regional coastal adviser with LSU's Sea Grant College Program who has spent 20 years involved in coastal restoration.