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Hurricane and Wetlands
By Julie Hauserman

In 1993, a dredging boat named The Katrina (really, that was its name) started a project south of Morgan City, La. to restore destroyed coastal wetlands. The dredging project cost us federal taxpayers $2.6-million, and it only helped a fraction of the ruined wetlands south of New Orleans..

Who knows what's become of the dredge Katrina's mechanical wetlands repair now that the other Katrina, the hurricane, has shown brutally that nature is boss?

One thing Hurricane Katrina shows us, graphically, is that wetlands are worth a lot more than their property values might suggest. Everyone from governors standing at podiums in Mississippi and Louisiana to scientists emailing frantically from their university cubbyholes agrees: if we hadn't destroyed so many coastal wetlands, the hurricane's impact would have been a lot softer. And if we hadn't allowed houses and shopping centers and parking lots to go up in the wetlands we destroyed, we'd have fewer people dead and a lot lower tab for rebuilding now.

People died because government let developers build in wetlands. And we're still building in wetlands, more and more each day.

Wetlands are a sort of free storm insurance. They slow hurricanes down by absorbing the deadly storm surge. One estimate is that every 2.7 miles of wetland absorbs a foot of surge. Most governments don't factor that in when they weigh whether a developer should be allowed to fill marshes and put in buildings.

When it's time to rebuild, we should be asking whether people ought to live in houses that sit on spits of land where the government had no business letting them build in the first place.

Louisiana (like Florida) has been trashing wetlands in a big way. Before the dredges and cranes built the levees around New Orleans, the Mississippi River would top its banks during floods and wash through bayous and swamps. The river water carried silt to feed plants and build up new wetlands.

After engineers contained the river, it stopped flooding and the wetlands started disappearing. It's a lot like what happened when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers turned Florida's Kissimmee River into a straight-sided ditch and ended up hurting Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, miles southward. Taxpayers have paid dearly to restore the Kissimmee's old river bends. It is far more expensive to fix broken natural systems than it is to prevent harm beforehand.

Louisiana's wetland loss is the largest in the U.S., and Florida isn't far behind. Louisiana loses a football field of land every 30 minutes, reports the advocacy group America's Wetland. The state's shoreline has migrated inland 20 to 30 miles since the 1930s, says oceanographer Joe Suhayda. That massive wetland loss occurred in less than one human lifetime. If what the scientists say is true, that 30-mile wetlands buffer would have sucked up a lot of Katrina's storm surge.

Low-lying Florida has squandered its wetlands with abandon. St. Petersburg Times reporter Craig Pittman found that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has rubber-stamped permits to fill wetlands here more than any other state. In 2003, for example, the Corps approved 3,400 Florida wetland-destruction permits and rejected just one. The government could curb this, and steer growth to more suitable places. Instead, it bends to developers time after time.

Someone is getting rich from developing the Gulf coast, and you can bet it's not the people who stifled in the Superdome or tried to plan funerals for loved ones this week in Biloxi.

Centuries ago, when the U.S. paid France $15-million for 828,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi, folks described it as the greatest real estate deal in history. Just like in Florida, they got so busy draining and filling "cheap land" they forgot about the treasure right under their noses. Now we'll pay $8-billion to restore the Everglades. At least $14-billion to restore Louisiana wetlands alone - not to mention those in Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle. And the cost of rebuilding along the vulnerable Gulf coast carries a multi-billion dollar price tag.

But that's just money - many people paid with their lives this time.

When it comes to public policies like the war on drugs, our government leaders preach prevention. "Just Say No," they warn. But talk about the environment, and they pursue the addiction of money and growth blindly, trashing the landscapes that buffer us from storms, clean drinking water, and grow our seafood. Wetlands are a bargain: they do all this work for free.

Hurricane Katrina's winds and waves carried a message for our government leaders, one that should echo from town meetings all the way to Washington long after storm victims are buried and bulldozers push away the last of the debris. Here's the message: When it comes to building in wetlands, Just Say No.



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