As radical environmentalists continue to blame the ferocity of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation on President Bush’s ecological policies, a mainstream Louisiana media outlet inadvertently disclosed a shocking fact: Environmentalist activists were responsible for spiking a plan that may have saved New Orleans. Decades ago, the Green Left – pursuing its agenda of valuing wetlands and topographical “diversity” over human life – sued to prevent the Army Corps of Engineers from building floodgates that would have prevented significant flooding that resulted from Hurricane Katrina.
In the 1970s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Barrier Project planned to build fortifications at two strategic locations, which would keep massive storms on the Gulf of Mexico from causing Lake Pontchartrain to flood the city. An article in the May 28, 2005, New Orleans Times-Picayune stated, “Under the original plan, floodgate-type structures would have been built at the Rigolets and Chef Menteur passes to block storm surges from moving from the Gulf into Lake Pontchartrain.”
“The floodgates would have blocked the flow of water from the Gulf of Mexico, through Lake Borgne, through the Rigolets [and Chef Mentuer] into Lake Pontchartrain,” declared Professor Gregory Stone, the James P. Morgan Distinguished Professor and Director of the Coastal Studies Institute of Louisiana State University. “This would likely have reduced storm surge coming from the Gulf and into the Lake Pontchartrain,” Professor Stone told Michael P. Tremoglie during an interview on September 6. The professor concluded, “[T]hese floodgates would have alleviated the flooding of New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina.”
The New Orleans Army Corps of Engineers and Professor Stone were not the only people cognizant of the consequences that could and did result because of the environmental activists. While speaking with Sean Hannity on his radio show on Labor Day, former Louisiana Congressman and Speaker of the House Bob Livingston also referred to environmentalists whose litigation prevented hurricane prevention projects.
In other words, unlike other programs – including the ones leftists like Sid Blumenthal excoriated the president for not funding – these constructions might have prevented the loss of life experienced in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Why was this project aborted? As the Times-Picayune wrote, “Those plans were abandoned after environmental advocates successfully sued to stop the projects as too damaging to the wetlands and the lake's eco-system.” (Emphasis added.) Specifically, in 1977, a state environmentalist group known as Save Our Wetlands (SOWL) sued to have it stopped. SOWL stated the proposed Rigolets and Chef Menteur floodgates of the Lake Pontchartrain Hurricane Prevention Project would have a negative effect on the area surrounding Lake Pontchartrain. Further, SOWL’s recollection of this case demonstrates they considered this move the first step in a perfidious design to drain Lake Pontchartrain entirely and open the area to dreaded capitalist investment.
On December 30, 1977, U.S. District Judge Charles Schwartz Jr. issued an injunction against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lake Pontchartrain hurricane protection project, demanding the engineers draw up a second environmental impact statement, three years after the corps submitted the first one. In one of the most ironic pronouncements of all time, Judge Schwartz wrote, “it is the opinion of the Court that plaintiffs herein have demonstrated that they, and in fact all persons in this area, will be irreparably harmed if the barrier project based upon the August, 1974 FEIS [federal environmental impact statement] is allowed to continue.”
If the Greens prevailed, it was not because the forces of common sense did not make a compelling case. SOWL’s account reveals that during the course of the trial the defense counsel, Gerald Gallinghouse – a Republican U.S. Attorney who acted as a special prosecutor during the Carter administration – felt so strongly that the project should continue that he told the judge he would “go before the United States Congress with [Democratic Louisiana Congressman] F. Edward Hebert to pass a resolution, exempting the Hurricane Barrier Project from the rules and regulations of the National Environmental Policy Act because, in his opinion, [this plan] is necessary to protect the citizens of New Orleans from a hurricane.” Despite this, the judge ruled in favor of the environmentalists. Ultimately, the project was aborted in favor of building up existing levees.
However, the old plan lived on in the minds of those who put human beings first. The Army Corps of Engineers as recently as last year had publicly discussed resuming the practice. The September-October 2004 edition of Riverside (the magazine of the New Orleans District Army Corps of Engineers Public Affairs Office) referred to this lawsuit and project. Eric Lincoln’s article titled, “Old Plans Revived for Category 5 Hurricane Protection,” stated:
In 1977, plans for hurricane protection structures at the Rigolets and Chef Menteur Pass were sunk when environmental groups sued the district. They believed that the environmental impact statement did not adequately address several potential problems, including impacts on Lake Pontchartrain’s ecosystem and damage to wetlands.
Ultimately, an agreement between the parties resulted in a consent decree to forego the structures at the Rigolets and Chef Menteur Pass…The new initial feasibility study will look at protecting the area between the Pearl River and Mississippi River from a Category 5 storm…. (Emphasis added.)
The article added, “[A]lternatives that would be studied in the initial feasibility report are: Construction of floodgate structures, with environmental modifications, at Rigolets and Chef Pass.” (Emphasis added.) The Times-Picayune recorded last May, “the corps wants to take another look [at building the floodgates] using more environmentally sensitive construction than was previously available.” This time the Army Corps of Engineers would modify the original plans because of the environmentalists. However, the project was already delayed more than two decades because of the environmentalists’ lawsuit. If begun immediately it would take another two decades to complete: a 40-year delay caused by the Green Left.
Planning for a category five hurricane was, indeed, visionary thinking. Few people believed such a storm would take place more often than once every few centuries, and no one had the political will to fight for the funding such a project would necessitate. However, scientists had long warned about New Orleans’ vulnerability to the potential for massive loss of life caused by such things as the environmentalists’ lawsuit. A National Geographic article, written after a smaller hurricane last year, captured the sentiments of one such expert:
“The killer for Louisiana is a Category Three storm at 72 hours before landfall that becomes a Category Four at 48 hours and a Category Five at 24 hours – coming from the worst direction,” says Joe Suhayda, a retired coastal engineer at Louisiana State University who has spent 30 years studying the coast…“I don’t think people realize how precarious we are.”
As it turned out, this is exactly how events played out during the next hurricane, one year later. USA Today noted, the levees the government had constructed were no match for the vortex of this force of nature. Soon Katrina pushed inland:
Hurricane Katrina pushed Lake Pontchartrain over the flood walls...The spilling water then undermined the walls, and they toppled…Lake Pontchartrain, a body half the size of Rhode Island, was losing about a foot of water every 10 hours into New Orleans.
The rushing lake soon overwhelmed the city’s pumps. The ever-rising water soon mixed with sewage, creating a toxic liquid mixture that burned the skin on contact. When the flood levels grounded the city buses Mayor Ray Nagin never deployed, it denied thousands of New Orleans’ poorest and feeblest an escape.
Despite the mayor’s apparent incompetence, these floodgates environmental activists sued to prevent from being constructed may have kept a flood from consuming the city to the extent it did in the first place. The current programs aimed at reinforcing existing levees but would only prove effective against a level three hurricane; they were not adequate for a level five storm like Katrina. Moreover, they did not fortify the specific areas the government sought to protect, to keep Lake Pontchartrain from flooding the entire city, which everyone knew posed a danger to a city below sea level. In other words, this plan would have saved thousands of lives and kept one of the nation’s greatest cities from lying in ruins for a decade.
At a minimum, such a plan would have staved off a significant portion of the disaster that’s unfolded before our eyes.
Worse yet, the environmentalists’ ultimate decision to reinforce existing levees may have actually further harmed the Big Easy. There is at least one expert who claims the New Orleans levees made no difference – in fact, they contributed to the problem. Deputy Director of the LSU Hurricane Center and Director of the Center for the Study Public Health Impacts by Hurricanes Ivor van Heerden said, “The levees ‘have literally starved our wetlands to death’ by directing all of that precious silt out into the Gulf of Mexico.”
Thirty years after its legal action, Save Our Wetlands boasts, “SOWL's legacy lives on and on within the heart and spirit of every man, woman, child, bird, red fish, speckle trout, croakers, etc.”
Despite its pious rhetoric, the environmental Left’s true legacy will be on display in New Orleans for years to come.
Ben Johnson contributed substantial factual and stylistic assistance to this article.
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