New Orleans Still Faces Enormous Challenges 10 Years After Katrina, 5 Years After the BP Oil Disaster

Posted Aug. 19, 2015

MP3 Interview with Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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Aug. 29 marks the tenth anniversary of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and along the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf coasts. The bulk of the damage in New Orleans occurred as a result of the failure of Mississippi River levees, which inundated vast swaths of the city. The devastating flood led to the horrific, iconic images of residents frantically calling for help from their rooftops, and of thousands of storm refugees stranded for days in the Superdome without adequate food and water.

New Orleans is 100 miles upriver from the Gulf of Mexico, where damage resulted more from the impact of Katrina's winds and waves on already compromised wetlands. These wetlands have been destroyed over the past half century by oil and gas development, natural subsidence – or sinking of land – and the rise in sea level due to climate change.

Five years after Katrina, the BP oil disaster devastated the area again in 2010. Effects of the massive oil spill are still being felt today both in the ecosystem and in human health. Many residents say a recent $18 billion settlement from BP will help, but is not enough to restore the area or compensate workers and businesses who lost everything. Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Cynthia Sarthou, the longtime executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network, based in New Orleans. Here she highlights some of the ongoing challenges facing the Gulf Coast before the region can recover and thrive.

CYNTHIA SARTHOU: Sadly, five years after the storm, many communities – particularly communities dependent on natural resources, like fish and shrimp – were heavily hit by Katrina because of loss of equipment and just upheaval. And five years after the hurricane, that fishing community was just coming back. They were thinking 2010 would be their big year, they could recover all their losses and return to status quo, and then they were hit by the BP disaster. So, many members of those communities have been devastated. They have not recovered from the BP disaster, despite all the media otherwise. They are hanging on by a thread. Shrimp prices and shrimp imports are adding to the injury, and some are predicting that most of that community will not survive as a result of all this. So, you know, that traditional live from the land community that made up coastal Louisiana is very much at risk, and sadly, it was the BP disaster on the heels of Hurricane Katrina that put them there.

BETWEEN THE LINES: For years, I’ve been hearing that coastal Louisiana loses a football field worth of land every 45 minutes, that it just slips into the Gulf. Has that land loss accelerated, slowed down, or stayed the same in the past few years?

CYNTHIA SARTHOU: There’s been a little bit of slowdown – not a lot. And there is movement. We now have a state master plan, and the state of Louisiana has been very good at focusing all the money they can get on that master plan, and has begun restoration projects which are focused on making communities more resilient, but that restoration process is going to take a long time. But at the same time, no one in the US has really taken action to reduce the impacts of climate change, and we are at ground zero for sea level rise, and I’m hearing predictions that even in parts of New Orleans, if you take into account both sea level rise and subsidence, which is soil compaction, that some places may be as much as 15 feet below sea level that are not at sea level. So we are facing not just status quo. The concerns for scientists and the state in terms of restoration is that things are not going to be status quo, just as they are not going to be status quo in any coastal community.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What’s the position of your governor, Bobby Jindal, who’s also running for the Republican nomination for president?

CYNTHIA SARTHOU: He’s a big climate change denier. He will talk about sea level rise, but really, according to NOAA at least – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – the state is way under-estimating sea level rise, and they are total deniers of climate change and in fact are one of the groups that has sued the president over almost anything having to do with reducing greenhouse gases or otherwise reduce the impacts of climate change.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Cynthia Sarthou, I’m reading a fascinating book called Rising Tide. It’s about the 1927 Mississippi River flood and how it changed America. It was amazing to me that despite the insistence of the top engineers of the turn of the 20th century that a levees-only policy would be a disaster, that’s exactly the policy that was followed to try to control the river.

CYNTHIA SARTHOU: I don’t think we have at this time a levees only policy. The state has actually acknowledged the need for what’s called a multiple lines of defense strategy, which means you have to marry coastal restoration outside the levees with some structural protections like levees or roads that are elevated, then married with things like home elevation, green infrastructure inside the levees, then of course evacuation. It’s called a multiple lines of defense strategy. The concern is that people’s first knee-jerk reaction is, Give us a levee; levees will protect us. Sadly, as Katrina taught us, and this hasn’t changed at all, levees along are not enough. Levees without wetlands are not protected and are not very sturdy. What you need to do is have environmental protections. The problem really is the same as coastal restoration for us. You know the [Army] Corps [of Engineers] has rebuilt levees and rebuilt storm surge barriers. I don’t know that they’re stronger than ever, but they’ve made them as strong as they can, and they still have to revisit some of them because subsidence has been faster than they projected. But what hasn’t really happened is money has not come in for comprehensive wetland restoration in front of those levees that’s needed to really dampen storm surge.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, ten years after Katrina and five years after the BP disaster, how would you sum up the situation for New Orleans and the Louisiana coast?

CYNTHIA SARTHOU: I’ve been just a little bit concerned because I hear even in New Orleans, that oh, New Orleans is back, we’re as resilient as we’ve ever been, we’re stronger than ever. And to be honest, New Orleans since Katrina is not stronger than ever. I told somebody the other day, we’re stronger than we were the day before Katrina, but really, the lines of defense needed haven’t been restored.

For more information visit Gulf Restoration Network at healthygulf.org.

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