Message from Katrina to America: Wetlands Matter

The Gainesville Sun examines a critical factor in what happened to New Orleans.

You can call what happened to New Orleans “devastating,” “unprecedented,” “calamitous” and “profoundly disturbing.”

What you cannot call it is “unpredictable.”

…Neither, strictly speaking, can you call what happened to that “city in a bowl” a “natural disaster.” While it’s true that Katrina was a monstrous hurricane, the damage she wrought was equally “man-made.”

…Message from Katrina to America: Wetlands matter.

…But the wetlands of Louisiana’s southeast coast are an endangered species. Because of extensive alterations to the Mississippi River and poorly planned coastal development, Louisiana has been losing 25 square miles of wetlands a year.

…”Because of continuing land loss, many of coastal Louisiana’s populated areas, including New Orleans, are almost completely exposed to the Gulf of Mexico,” Valsin A. Marmillion, spokesman for America’s Wetland: Campaign to Save Coastal Louisiana, said this week.

“The sad irony of the situation is that the Mississippi River levees, which were intended to protect lives in the 1930s have had the unintended consequence of laying waste to the very wetlands that are the state’s greatest natural protection,” he said.

There’s a lesson here for Florida as well, the editor says.

Florida, surrounded on three sides by the sea and situated in the middle of “hurricane alley,” is just as exposed. Florida has lost millions of acres of wetlands to bad development and ill-advised engineering schemes. Past attempts to “tame” the Everglades, and make coastal Florida more hospitable to high-rises and condos have resulted in widespread destruction of once productive, and protective, marshes, wet prairies, swamps and barrier islands.

“Before heavy development began a century ago, wetlands covered as much as 60 percent of its surface; now they occupy 15 to 20 percent,” author Mark Derr, noted in his excellent book “Some Kind of Paradise: A Chronicle of Man and the Land in Florida.”

Derr’s book was published in 1989. Since 1990, the U.S. Corps of Engineers have approved more than 12,000 permits to destroy 84,000 acres of Florida wetlands.

During that time span, the Corps rejected just one permit.

Nonetheless, developers complain that the Corps doesn’t approve their permits quickly enough. So this year, Gov. Jeb Bush signed a new law making it easier for developers to bypass the Corps and get state approval to destroy wetlands of 10 acres or less.

“Elimination of unnecessary, duplicative and over-burdensome regulations is an excellent goal,” Bush said upon signing the bill.

New Orleans may never recover from its loss of protective wetlands. And it is doubtful that government will be willing to spend the kind of money that will be needed to restore Louisiana’s life-saving coastal wetlands.

But Katrina has demonstrated the sheer insanity of destroying wetlands in the name of eliminating “unnecessary, duplicative and over-burdensome regulations.”


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