September 2, 2008

La. Assesses Storm Damage to Its Protective Wetlands

By Rick Jervis

NEW ORLEANS -- Though Hurricane Gustav seemed to spare New Orleans a repeat of 2005's catastrophic damage, it is likely to have done irrevocable damage to the area's wetlands.

State officials still were conducting flyovers and assessing damage to the miles of natural cypress marshes in Gustav's path, but the storm likely destroyed acres of valuable wetlands, said Garret Graves, head of Gov. Bobby Jindal's office of coastal activities.

"We're going to lose miles and miles of coastland," Graves said. "We consider this to be critical."

Besides breaking up marshes with its powerful waves and winds, Gustav could destroy miles of wetlands by depositing Gulf of Mexico saltwater into the freshwater marshes, Graves said. The salt quickly desecrates the freshwater marshes.

"It's like pouring salt on your front yard -- it's going to kill your grass," he said.

Louisiana's wetlands and sandy barrier islands are buffers against hurricanes. The cypress swamps break up tidal surges and slow a storm's speed, said Aaron Giles of the Gulf Restoration Network, a New Orleans-based environmental group.

Louisiana loses about 15 square miles of coast a year, according to the National Wetlands Research Center in Lafayette. An additional 217 square miles were mauled by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, according to center statistics.

An estimated 10,000 miles of transport canals dug by oil and gas companies over several decades have also contributed to coastal erosion and accelerated the vanishing of cypress marshes, Giles said.

Jindal recently announced a $1billion plan to restore wetlands and build up the levee system. The state needs $30million to $50million to restore lost wetlands, Giles said. "The last thing on anyone's mind during a hurricane is how the wetlands are going to do. But wetlands are a critical piece of keeping coastal Louisiana safe. We need to be treating coastal restoration efforts as urgent as hurricane protection efforts."

Gustav plowed ashore about 9:30 a.m. CT Monday near Cocodrie, about 72 miles southwest of New Orleans, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. The area contains some of the state's most important cypress marshes and barrier islands, said Ivor van Heerden, a hurricane specialist with Louisiana State University.

Without the barriers and marshes, Louisiana's coastline, including miles of oil pipelines and some of the country's busiest ports, remain dangerously exposed, he said. About 40% of the country's oil is pumped off the coast of Louisiana, he said.

If the wetlands had been healthier, Gustav's impact would have been far less, knocking off at least 3 feet of the storm's tidal surge of 12 feet, van Heerden said. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>