Welcome to NOW.
This stiff breeze is all that remains of the fury of Hurricane Katrina, as the storm's energy finally ebbs away, here on the beaches of Massachusetts.
We still don't know the full extent of the damage and loss of life, when the storm slammed into Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. But there is no debate that massive storm surges across unprotected shoreline played a big role in the devastation.
NOW has already taken a close look at the Gulf's disappearing barrier islands and marshes. What we found is that human decisions our attempts to tame the natural world ended up leaving Louisiana's coastline even more vulnerable.
Producer William Brangham and National Public Radio's Daniel Zwerdling have our updated report.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: We've been seeing the ruined city of New Orleans this week from the air...from helicopters.
Three years ago, three years before Katrina, we came to New Orleans and took a similar tour. Back then, I was traveling with officials from the Pentagon and the state capitol. They were here to inspect the city's first line of defense from a hurricane miles and miles of wetlands between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.
For thousands of years, the wetlands of Louisiana have been a natural barrier. They protect the city, the whole state from the storms that blow across the Gulf. The wetlands are like a giant rug at the city's front door. They absorb and slow the storms thrown against it.
But as I learned, that shield is vanishing.
It's kinda hard to convince people there's a problem, you point out and they say well it looks like a perfectly good gulf to me, but what they don't realize is that 10 years ago It wasn't a gulf it was a marsh!
DANIEL ZWERDLING: The marshes of Louisiana are massive they stretch for 300 miles along the coast. They go up to 50 miles inland. But this ground is disintegrating.
Studies showed that over the past 50 years, more than one thousand square miles of these marshes have crumbled and turned to open water. That's like losing a football field, every hour. Gone.
Just on an annual basis, 25-35 square miles of wetlands a year? That's a national catastrophe of the highest order… It's disappearing, in geologic time, overnight.
ZWERDLING: So why is a Delta that's been thriving for thousands of years suddenly disappearing?
Since Denise Reed moved here from England, she's been trying to solve this mystery
Follow me and you'll be fine…
ZWERDLING: Reed is a "geomorphologist." She's a leading scientist who studies wetlands. She took me into the heart of a dying marsh.
Wait, you're going too fast… I keep losing my sandal.
You all right?
I think so.
ZWERDLING: To an outsider, this wetland hardly looks like its dying. I'd always assumed a wetland was sloppy with water. But Reed says no. She says if this were a healthy marsh, we could stroll across it like a field.
When you just look at it now, it looks nice and green. It's a pretty day, It looks nice and healthy. We're standing here with grass up to our waists. But as we walked through it, we can tell that this is, by no means, a continuous cover of vegetation. It's full of holes. And of course we're standing here right next to a pond. And that's land loss. This is what coastal land loss is in Louisiana. Something that's a marsh with grass on turning to open water.
ZWERDLING: Reed says if you want to understand why this area is falling apart, you need to look back in history, say, five thousand years.
All of coastal Louisiana was built by the Mississippi River. This large area that we call the Delta millions of acres was all built by the Mississippi River.
The Mississippi River acts like a giant funnel. It gathers soil from fields and mountains across a huge swath of North America. And then it delivers that dirt to Louisiana's door.
Every day the Mississippi River brings about a half million tons of silt.
ZWERDLING: Oliver Houck runs the environment program at Tulane University Law School.
The Mississippi River built five million acres of south Louisiana. It built 20,000 square miles of south Louisiana. It built everything you see between Texas and Mississippi and inland about 50 miles. All of that's care of and thanks to the Mississippi River.
ZWERDLING: After the river built these wetlands, it sustained them for thousands of years. It stopped them from dropping into the sea.
This whole region is actually sinking a tiny bit, every day. All that rich, heavy soil keeps compacting under its own weight. But every few years, the river would flood and gush over its banks. And all that goo would spread across the landscape and build the wetlands back up. That is, until the Europeans showed up.
The French came in about 1700. They find Louisiana in the fall, and they find it dry. And they find the site of New Orleans to be a good site to build and so they decide to build there.
ZWERDLING: Actually, the settlers couldn't have picked a worse spot for a city. As you've been hearing all this week, most of New Orleans is below sea level. And its shaped like a bowl. And the biggest river in the country snakes right through it.
Of course the next spring it floods. So their answer to that is to build a little levy.
A little wall. And they built a little wall between their houses and the river. And that works for about a year, but then the river jumps the wall upstream and comes around behind the wall and hits the houses. So, they have to extend the wall upstream. And we've been extending that wall upstream for the next 300 years.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: The US Army took over the job in the late 1800s, and every time they thought they'd conquered nature, the Mississippi River proved them wrong. So the Army's Corps of Engineers built more walls, and they built them higher. It's been one of the biggest engineering projects in American history.
The project was, from an engineering point of view, brilliant, brilliant. From an environmental standpoint, it was a disaster. And it was a disaster because all of that bed load, all of that material that had built south Louisiana for thousands of years, now was thrown away like a waste product into the deep Gulf. And Louisiana was poised like a patient in a hospital. It was put on a starvation diet. It wasn't killed it was just made weak and susceptible to attack. And in about the 1930's the attack came.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: That 'attack' … was the oil and gas boom. All the big companies flocked here. They carved thousands and thousands of canals through the wetland so they could get to the energy underneath.
Back then, hardly anybody realized the consequences. And the whole country got the benefits the companies sold us energy and the Army kept homes in Louisiana dry. But Denise Reed says now we know the price: the wetlands are sinking into the Gulf:
This marsh cannot survive in this state much longer. It hasn't had any sustenance. It hasn't had any sediments from the Mississippi River. It has canals cut through it. It has all kinds of other things that people have done in it. And it's still there, as we see it on the other side, over here. But we don't think it's gonna be there for much longer.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: As we traveled across the region three years ago, everybody told us: "If you still don't understand the danger, just drive down State Highway One." You'll come to a spot that symbolizes why state leaders say the whole country should care what's happening to this coast.
This little dot on the map, this small place in Cajun southeastern Louisiana on the Gulf of Mexico, plays a strategic role in furnishing this country with somewhere between 16 and 18 percent of its entire hydrocarbon supply. That's oil and gas.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: This is Port Fourchon. This is the command center that supports the huge oil and gas industry out in the Gulf of Mexico. Ted Falgout runs this complex for the state.
There's no other place in this country that plays such a great role to this nation's oil and gas supply.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: But here's the problem: the industry pumps all that oil and gas through pipelines that are buried along this coast. The companies buried thousands of miles of pipelines, to keep them safe. But now that the land around them is disintegrating, the pipes are getting exposed in open water.
You know, we have 20,000 miles of pipeline in coastal Louisiana that was not designed to be in the Gulf of Mexico. This business could wash away overnight. And that's a threat. Not only to us, but to everybody in this country.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: As you might have seen on the news, Hurricane Katrina battered Pt. Fourchon. The complex is operating again, but barely.
Meanwhile, refineries that generate almost one third of oil and gas that America produces are totally shut down. The Coast Guard says at least 20 offshore oil rigs have sunk or been knocked off their moorings. And you already know some of the results: gasoline prices have surged to more than over $3 a gallon since Katrina hit.
Three years ago, some of the most powerful people in Louisiana gathered to make plans for what they knew could happen at any time. They knew that as the wetlands barrier disappear, it won't take a monster storm to devastate New Orleans, a smaller hurricane could do it too.
JACK CALDWELL, HEAD OF LA DEPT OF NATURAL RESOURCES:
Welcome aboard, the train is pulling out of the station, and it's time for action…"
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Even back then they knew enough to argue that the nation, the federal government, needs to do something dramatic to try to rebuild this coastline. It's a remarkable coalition bankers, scientists, Democrats, Republicans and they're pushing an audacious plan. They said the government triggered the wetlands crisis when it tamed The Mississippi River, now they want to unleash the river to undo the damage.
You'll get a sense of what they wanted to do if you visit the project called Caernarvon. On the surface, it doesn't look like something that could help transform the region, but scientists say this steel and concrete structure is recreating the old Mississippi floods.
You push a few buttons and giant gates open under water. And huge amounts of river-water and sediment rush from the Mississippi onto the marsh on the other side.
Denise Reed took me out into that marsh three years ago to show how it was working: she says before the project began, this wetland was sick.
You see how the vegetation out here, that green, that kind of creeping vegetation is gradually filling in this area. You look at those ponds over there in the distance. You see how the grass is gradually moving in from the edge and filling in.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: To prove her point, she suggested an experiment: which was partly inspired, partly sadistic.
Go on, Daniel, go out there.
Am I going to come back?
Well, go on, let's see. I mean, John and I know what's going to happen…
Before Caernarvon, I would have been sinking in water. Now the marsh was rebuilding, with good, honest mud.
I love this marsh!
See, if you look back where you were, you can see the hole. It's not like yogurt, it didn't fill in, its more like clay, you can mold it, the hole is still there.
So this is good, healthy marsh.
You got it! A lot of people think it's hopeless down here in coastal Louisiana. But just coming down here and looking at this, this gives us more than hope. This makes us believe that we can do this.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: But that will cost money. The Canaervon project cost 26 million dollars, and it covers only a tiny part of this whole Delta.
State officials say they'll need hundreds of projects like Canaervon. They say realistically, its gonna take decades to rebuild any significant chunk of the wetlands. And they'll need at least $14 billion dollars. But the Bush administration has cut the funding by 90%.
Back In New Orleans, three years ago, officials knew they had to take urgent action to protect the city before a big storm hit. Again, a lot of it depended on Washington.
For instance, The Army Corps of Engineers asked the administration for $27 million to beef up hurricane protection around Lake Ponchartrain. The Bush administration slashed that request by over 80%. Congress restored a bit of it.
The Corps asked for $78 million dollars partly to help drain floodwater out of the city. New Orleans has an elaborate system of giant pumps, but those pumps were only designed to handle rainwater, not hurricane flooding from the lake. The Bush administration cut that request by more than half, Congress added back a bit.
No ones arguing now that this money would have saved New Orleans from Katrina. But it symbolizes the fact that this administration, and others before it, didn't take the threat seriously enough.
A couple of days ago we actually had an exercise where we brought a fictitious category five hurricane--
The absolute worst, into the metropolitan area.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: When we first Met Walter Maestri three years ago, he'd just run a kind of hurricane war-game to help get ready for the real thing. Maestri is the Chief Emergency Manager for the biggest suburb in New Orleans. The simulation envisioned almost everything that's happened to New Orleans this week.
Anybody who is here, anybody who has left under the scenario of this particular exercise is-- is, you know, gone. We have 22, 24, 26 feet of water in the metropolitan area.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Even back when we filmed this, Maestri was feeling frustrated with the way the city and the nation were preparing. He'd managed to get funding for some key projects, but then suddenly the nations leaders turned to a different priority.
The money was in place. But now because of the issues of homeland security, that money has been diverted. The the project has been postponed. And we don't know when it will be completed, if ever. So that's very, very frustrating to have to deal with that.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Maestri said, of course, federal officials have to make tough decisions: what are the most pressing problems? He says he wants the government to protect us from terrorism as much as anybody. But Maestri says, you know what, sometimes natural threats can do as much damage.
I think the terrorism threat is, is something that's new. It's something that's different. It's something that is on everybody's mind right now. As far as the threat from natural disasters, from hurricanes, we've sort of pushed that to the side and say, "Well, didn't happen last year." You know? "Didn't happen the year before, so maybe we'll slip by again."