Why America still hasn’t learned the lessons of Katrina

Annie Snider reports: The most important piece of the North American continent right now may be a slice of land here, 13 miles long, 65 feet wide, much of it just six months old.

From the air, the Caminada Headland is a sparkling strip of beige and green rising up from the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s also a barricade, protecting one of the most important nodes in North America’s oil supply, a busy seaport serving more than 90 percent of deep-water oil and gas activities in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Louisiana coast, this strip served as a critical barrier between the pounding waters of the Gulf and the machinery of the port just half a mile behind—and was all but washed away in the process, becoming little more than a narrow strip of sand with waves crashing over it. Restoring it before the next major hurricane became a top priority.

“It’s pretty freaking amazing. All of this stuff was the first line of defense that was just gone,” said Garret Graves, a U.S. congressman who served for six years as the head of Louisiana’s coastal protection and restoration efforts in the wake of Katrina.

Today, Caminada Headland is a robust new island backed by thick, healthy marshes, thanks to a $216 million project launched by Graves and the state of Louisiana. But what looks like a success story from the window of a seaplane was, to Graves and nearly everyone else involved, an expensive and exhausting struggle—one that raises serious questions about America’s ability to grapple with the increasing problems caused by rising coastal waters and more destructive storms as the climate changes.

As Hurricane Harvey plows furiously across the Gulf Coast, again endangering homes and critical industries, Graves and others worry that Washington’s systems for protecting communities against weather disasters haven’t gotten better since that 2005 disaster, and in many ways may be worse. The state of Louisiana wasn’t supposed to shoulder the Caminada Headland project itself: Rebuilding the island was originally the job of the Army Corps of Engineers, the 215-year-old entity charged with building and maintaining our country’s ports, harbors, locks, dams, levees and ecosystem restoration projects. Today, the agency is the single most important agency in coastal America’s battle against rising seas, at the center of every major water-resources project in the country, either as builder or permitter. But the state of Louisiana, exasperated by federal delays and increasingly worried that the next big storm could just wipe out the port, eventually fronted the money and pumped the sand on its own. Today, despite years and millions of federal dollars poured into studying the Caminada Headland project and neighboring islands slated for restoration, the Corps has yet to push a dime toward construction.

Graves compares his experience with the Corps to that of a “battered ex-spouse”: “I feel like I’ve been lied to, cheated, kicked in the teeth over and over and over again.”

The sclerotic Army Corps of Engineers is the most visible and frustrating symptom of what many officials have come to see as the country’s backward approach to disaster policy. From the way Congress appropriates money to the specific rebuilding efforts that federal agencies encourage, national policies almost uniformly look backward, to the last storm, rather than ahead to the next. And the scale of the potential damage has caused agencies to become more risk-averse in ways that can obstruct, rather than help, local communities’ attempts to protect themselves. The Army Corps, for example, requires Louisiana to rebuild a full suite of five islands before it can reclaim any of the money it spent on the one headland—and is currently insisting it will take another half-decade simply to review an innovative wetlands restoration project the state has been working on for more than a decade and views as the linchpin of its coastal efforts. Meanwhile, new design standards inspired by Katrina have made levee projects wildly unaffordable.

As the effects of climate change play out, the risks posed by storms like Katrina and Harvey stand to get only worse. A not-yet-final draft of National Climate Assessment, produced by scientists across 13 federal agencies, predicts that global sea levels will likely rise between half a foot and 1.2 feet by 2050, and between 1 and 4 feet by the end of the century. In areas like the Northeast and the Gulf of Mexico, relative sea-level rise will happen much faster, researchers say. Coastal Louisiana is currently losing a football field’s worth of wetlands every 90 minutes, making it a harbinger for the crises that coastal communities around the country are expected to face. [Continue reading…]

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