Continued loss of coastal land risks natural disaster

Kathryne LeBell, Views Editor

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The following is an opinion article and opinion articles do not reflect the views of The Tulane Hullabaloo.

Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana coastline in what was one of the most disastrous natural events in recent history. Coincidentally, roughly 1,900 square miles of surrounding wetlands have been lost to the Gulf of Mexico since the ’30s. As it stands, there is very strong cause to believe that these two facts are intrinsically linked.

This land plays a crucial part in acting as a buffer between the Gulf and the working coastline. Indeed, every 2.7 miles of wetlands absorbs one foot of storm surge. Preserving this land is essential to the continued existence of our city.

Each year, 25 to 35 square miles of coastal land is lost and many are at fault for the rapid loss of land. This includes, to some extent, Tulane University.  

Rather than preserving the coastal landmass, a percentage of Tulane endowment goes towards oil corporations, major actors in the continued deterioration of the wetlands. South Louisiana is the source of 18 percent of U.S. oil and 24 percent of U.S. natural gas. The corporate interests in the region are very strong, making the halt of industrial activity very difficult.

By blocking the river with levees, dams and canals, sediment is prevented from reaching the delta and wetlands, as the Gulf continues to wear away the existing landmass. With no changes to the existing system, it is predicted an amount of land the area size of Rhode Island will be underwater by 2050.

In the past, there have been a number of attempts to recreate the natural defense that the Mississippi River once provided. Coast 2050 was an initiative introduced in 1996 by a combination of federal agencies, parish officials and community members. Its intended goal was to divert some of the river’s flow back into the delta via pipelines and canals.

At this point, Coast 2050 has mostly been dismissed, for various reasons. But immediate action is still required to correct for the damage that has occurred over the past century.

Ignoring the loss of this land could increase the impact of storms like hurricane Katrina. Since July, federal and state governments have been arguing over where the $2.9 billion required to restore the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a now unused shipping channel, is going to come from. This restoration is the most likely first step in shoring up the Louisiana coastline.

Given the commercial interests of the oil and gas industries, as well as an influx of residents as New Orleans continues to grow in size and renown, it may be difficult to completely stop all coastal land loss. The MR-GO restoration is currently the best means to recovery. 

It could be argued that the portion of university endowment invested in oil corporations could instead go towards these restoration efforts.

There is a movement protesting this continued use of Tulane University’s money. Divest Tulane, a student-run organization, has actively protested this with little meaningful response from the university administration. The university, through its public relations department, has expressed the importance of oil corporations to the local economy.

Not to say the local economy should be disregarded. Indeed, a common argument against withdrawing oil and gas from the coastline is a massive loss of jobs. Unfortunately, when the sea level rises by another four to nine feet, the local economy will lose more than just jobs.

Hurricane Katrina serves as a constant reminder of this grim potential outcome. The improperly designed and incomplete levee system constructed was intended to be able to withstand heavy flooding, but it failed. Had the miles of land buffer still existed, the levees would not have even been needed.

The Louisiana state government has intended to sue the Army Corps of Engineers for its failure in completing the Pontchartrain Hurricane Protection Project within a reasonable time frame, causing the flooding associated with Hurricane Katrina. This is one potential source for the funding required to MR-GO restoration.

Some argue that oil, gas and other corporations with unsustainable interests in the region should pay for restorations.

Regardless, if initiatives are not taken soon, it is likely we will see another tragic natural disaster befall our city and, in turn, our university.