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Restoring Coastal Barriers Vital for Region

by Mary Kelly

The first major hurricane of the Atlantic season, Hurricane Bill, developed into a dangerous Category 4 storm and served as a stark reminder that many of our coastal areas remain deeply vulnerable to severe damage from hurricanes.

Four years ago this month (Aug. 29, 2005), a Category 3 storm, Hurricane Katrina, caused massive destruction along the Gulf coast from central Florida to Texas. Much of the damage was due to the storm surge, which destroyed infrastructure and damaged critical refineries, putting some of them out of service for a year and leading to a spike in gasoline prices.

The storm surge also devastated the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama, making Katrina the most destructive and costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States, and the deadliest hurricane since the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane. More than 600,000 people lost power in Alabama as a result of Hurricane Katrina and many of its coastal communities were particularly hard hit.

The severity of Katrina's damage in Louisiana was caused, in part, by the fact that the state has lost a third of its original wetlands -- about 2,000 square miles, an area larger than Delaware.

Scientists agree that these lost wetlands could have helped reduce storm surge. It is widely recognized that we urgently need to restore these wetlands and coastal forests to prevent similar or worse storm damage in the future.

And it's not just Louisiana's problem. Here's what's at stake for our nation:

# The more vulnerable coastal communities are to hurricane damage, the more it costs the federal government -- and taxpayers -- to help those communities recover after the storm. The property damage alone from the top five Atlantic hurricanes since 1992 (Katrina, Andrew, Ike, Wilma and Charley) totaled nearly $200 billion, only a portion of which is covered by private insurance.

# Coastal Louisiana is home to critical energy production infrastructure, and the busiest port in North America by volume. Disruption of these industries because of storm damage ripples through the national economy.

# Coastal wetlands provide protection and are home to huge commercial and recreational fisheries. As land along the Louisiana coastline disappears, so does the rich habitat that supports the most valuable fishery in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as vast populations of migratory birds.

Despite these facts, four years after Katrina, Congress has been unable to fund major coastal restoration projects it authorized in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has not completed the projects' design and engineering yet.

One of the most critical projects is restoring wetlands east of New Orleans along the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet to protect the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish, where Katrina did the most damage. While the Corps now has closed MRGO, its MRGO Ecosystem Restoration Plan -- which must be completed before it seeks funding from Congress to rebuild the wetlands and cypress forests that will help protect New Orleans -- won't be completed until March 2011, nearly three years after the congressionally mandated deadline of May 2008.

The Corps must bring a renewed sense of urgency to coastal Louisiana restoration, and similar projects in other Gulf coast states, and honor President Obama's priority in his budget and campaign "to restore nature's barriers -- the wetlands, marshes and barrier islands that can take the first blows and protect the people of the Gulf Coast."

There are good people at the Corps and elsewhere who are trying to get their job done and move these projects quickly, but we need an unequivocal commitment from the Corps and other responsible agencies that they won't let outdated bureaucratic procedures stand in the way of necessary action. It's going to take creativity and breaking away from some long-standing ways of doing business, but the stakes call for nothing less.

The state of Louisiana has recently undertaken a constructive process to identify specific things the Corps could change to help move critical projects faster, in consultation with a wide range of coastal community interests. These recommendations, which include moving projects forward as a package instead of isolated actions and making better use of existing sources of funding, deserve attention and serious consideration by the administration and Congress. Many of Louisiana's recommendations for the Corps would also benefit coastal restoration projects throughout the Gulf of Mexico region.

Given the fragility of our nation's economy -- and the reminder from Hurricane Bill of how these dangerous storms remain a constant threat -- restoring the wetlands to protect the Gulf Coast cannot become just another Corps project among many nationwide. It must be priority No. 1, and the Corps should do everything it possibly can to expedite design and construction of critical restoration projects.

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