Why the Midwest Should Care About the Future of New Orleans
Jan 03, 2019
The images of the death and devastation in Louisiana and Mississippi from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were stark and disturbing--coastal communities in both states wiped out, significant parts of the city of New Orleans, like the lower 9th Ward, flooded for months, the sheer chaos faced by the people forced to shelter in the New Orleans SuperDome. The final death toll for the storm and its aftermath was 1,833, most of them in Louisiana but also in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, and Ohio.
The short-term damage was bad enough, but what the storm disclosed about the ecological and structural vulnerabilities of the region that was hit by Katrina, especially the city of New Orleans and surrounding parishes, has become a massive challenge for both city and state officials to figure out how to address. And because of the importance of the U.S. ports on the Gulf of Mexico to the economies of the other 31 states whose rivers are part of the Mississippi River Basin, especially the Midwest, the rest of the country should care about these issues as well.
The Louisiana fishermen who ply their trade in the Gulf of Mexico make their state the top seafood producing state in the continental United States. The state sends millions of pounds of shrimp, crab, oysters, and crawfish as well as numerous finfish species to the rest of the country, generating more than $2 billion in revenue for the state every year.
More importantly, the port of New Orleans was the top port for seagoing vessels carrying dry bulk cargo (by tonnage) in the United States as of 2016, according to data reported by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Combined with other Gulf ports such as Houston (TX), Lake Charles (LA), Tampa (FL), and Mobile (AL), the region handled more than 1.1 billion tons of cargo, both out-bound and in-bound, in 2016.
The Mississippi River and its tributaries are particularly important for the movement of Midwest crops such as corn, soybeans, and wheat, for delivery to export elevator facilities on the Gulf of Mexico. On average, barge deliveries to the Louisiana Gulf provided 43 percent of all U.S. corn exports and 42 percent of all soybean exports on average during the 2008 to 2012 crop years. In 2005, in the months immediately after Katrina, Midwest farmers who were trying to sell their crops to terminal elevators faced incredibly low prices. This price decline occurred because those elevator operators knew that the damage to the Gulf port facilities by the hurricane was causing a back-up in barge traffic along the river system, and they wanted to discourage farmers from delivering grain they could not move downstream during the disruption.
The environmental problems facing the region are significant. Between 1932 and 2010, Louisiana’s coast lost more than 1,800 square miles of land. One sixth of that loss of wetlands came in a single five-year period, between 2004 through 2008, resulting from damage caused by Katrina and several other major hurricane that came through the region, including Rita, Gustav, and Ike. The loss of these wetlands has contributed to the ability of major storms to maintain their strength moving inland into heavily populated areas, allowing Katrina to maintain strong winds of 125 miles per hour (Category 3) as it made landfall in Louisiana that day in late August, 2005. The loss of those wetlands’ filtering function also contributes to the growing hypoxic zone in the Gulf.
Some of the past decisions made to build certain structures to improve the navigability of the lower Mississippi River also contributed to the current problems. For example, a 76-mile long shipping channel, the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (known as MRGO or Mister Go) was constructed in 1968 to facilitate shipping traffic within the river system. The channel allowed the storm surge from Katrina to come directly into New Orleans and neighboring parishes, creating a funneling effect that damaged levees and storm walls. It is estimated to have amplified the impact of the surge by 20 to 40 percent.
As you can see, a lot is riding on how the question about how to continue to bolster New Orleans’ protections against future storms are addressed. In 2017, after years of intensive work at the city, regional and state levels, Governor John Bel Edwards (D, LA) publicly released an 184-page document entitled “Louisiana’s Comprehensive Master Plan for A Sustainable Coast.” Under that plan, the state intends to spend $1 billion per year over the next half century to facilitate broad-based structural changes to the region, such as building a new surge barrier across the mouth of the Mississippi that closed off the MRGO. This project was completed in 2013 at the cost of $1.1 billion. The plan will also re-direct stream flow within the river to drop sediment in specific locations to rebuild wetlands, In addition, it encourages individual commercial building owners and homeowners in low-lying areas to take steps as well, such as by elevating or flood-proofing their buildings on a voluntary basis.
With the added sea level rise expected due to climate change, scientists estimate that the region could lose another 2,250 square miles of wetland over the next 50 years if no action is taken, having a huge impact on the future viability of the Gulf’s fishing and shipping businesses.