If there were a Nobel Prize for “I told you so” it might go to Louisiana State University Professor Ivor van Heerden. He warned of the catastrophic consequences a major hurricane would have on New Orleans long before Hurricane Katrina.
And as Hurricane Gustav approaches, he says there were many lost opportunities to strengthen the region’s defenses in the three years since Katrina and Rita.
*state and federal officials could have done a lot more to assess the weak links in the levee system, from New Orleans to Morgan City, Louisiana.
*more of an effort should have been made to repair damaged areas on levees. In many places, he said, there is bare soil, no grass at all on the levees.
*both before and after Katrina, he said the Army Corps of Engineers has not allowed enough outside experts to work with them to make improvements
But perhaps the greatest neglect has been restoration of the wetlands off the Louisiana coast. It’s estimated that the cypress swamps and barrier islands are disappearing at the rate of a football field every half hour.
“For 14 years we’ve been trying to get the state to start a more large scale effort to rebuild the barrier islands,” said van Heerden.
These islands act as speed bumps with an approaching storm.
“If the existing barrier islands were a little higher and wider, it could knock two to three feet off the storm surge. It would have been about a $200 million dollar project, it could have been finished by now,” he said.
While coastal authorities in Louisiana did complete some restoration projects, van Heerden said bureaucratic snags kept many others from ever being started: everything from a limit of what companies could dredge in the Gulf, to the cutting and selling of cypress trees for garden mulch.
“This storm has the potential of being a huge economic blow to Louisiana, the United States and it will be felt internationally,” said van Heerden.
He predicted the price of gasoline could go through the roof because of the enormous oil and natural gas interests in the Gulf of Mexico.
But he said the human toll would be greater.
“Who is going to suffer? Not the decision-makers. It is the poor Louisianans. If the [weather] models are correct, Gustav will destroy what Katrina and Rita did not. This is going to be flooding of a much larger area than Katrina,” said van Heerden.
Marsha Walton Science and Technology Producer in New Orleans