National Guard troops and authorities saved over 1500 people Wednesday and continue searching St. John Parish for people possibly trapped by up to six feet of water, an unabated wetland erosion disaster scientists have warned about for decades.
“We’re continuing to rescue people from different areas throughout the parish,” Paige Falgoust, communications director for St. John Parish, said early Thursday.
Approximately 1,500 people were rescued and evacuated by late Wednesday in St. John Parish and another 1,500 were expected to leave their homes, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office said.
Disappearing Louisiana landscape, disappearing people
Almost 100 had been rescued further south Wednesday before the National Guard headed north to assist areas where Isaac’s storm surge pushed water, that naturally drains south, that instead has been pushed north.
Officials speculate that fortifying levees in other parishes along Lake Pontchartrain after Katrina forced storm surge into new areas that had escaped flooding in past storms.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s top coastal adviser, Garret Graves, said he thought that theory was unlikely to have caused the extensive flooding and said years of wetland erosion is a likely reason.
Wetlands erosion has lessened the resistance to wave energy, allowing stronger storm surge to push farther inland. Although previous storms like Katrina didn’t inundate St. John the Baptist Parish, every hurricane has its own impact in areas surrounded by water, he said.
“This one traveled slower, it had different wind, it had different surge. It was a different storm,” Graves said.
The floodwaters “were shockingly fast-rising, from what I understand from talking to people. It caught everybody by surprise,” Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne said.
Louisiana is one-third water. As much as 80% of the nation’s coastal wetland loss is in Louisiana. Isaac has shown how a disappearing Louisiana landscape leads to disappearing Louisiana people.
Scientists warned about dangerous flooding in Louisiana for decades
“Hurricane Katrina’s disastrous flooding of the Gulf Coast confirmed three decades of warnings by scientists.,” John Tibbets states in a 2006 report, Louisiana’s Wetlands: A Lesson in Nature Appreciation.
“Most of New Orleans is below sea level, and South Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, which once helped buffer the city from giant storms, have been disappearing at a spectacularly swift pace. Now some researchers are calling for restoration of wetlands and barrier islands to help protect New Orleans the next time a hurricane strikes.
Another factor is that the Gulf of Mexico is subject to general sea level rise observed worldwide, with potential ramifications for people of south Louisiana.
“Over the past century, the warming climate has pushed up mean sea level four to eight inches worldwide, and computer models suggest that this rise will probably accelerate, according to a 2001 report of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, Climate Change Impacts on the United States: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change.
“By 2100, global sea level is projected to rise an additional 19 inches along most of the U.S. coastline,” Tibetts says.
“Some of the inner marshes have actually eroded faster than some of the extreme coastal areas,” says Gary Fine, manager of the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Golden Meadow Plant Materials Center in Galliano, Louisiana.
“By 2050, the city [New Orleans] will be closer to and more exposed to the Gulf of Mexico,” noted authors of a restoration proposal, Coast 2050: Toward a Sustainable Coastal Louisiana.
Katrina, making landfall in lower Plaquemines Parish, had an almost 30 feet storm surge that caused extensive erosion at the coastal edge.
Gregory W. Stone, a coastal geologist at LSU, had stated that if wetland loss and barrier island erosion continued, it would worsen effects of future hurricane surges in South Louisiana.
“Before Katrina, the islands were five meters high; now there’s a less than half a meter left,” said Asbury Sallenger, an oceanographer with the USGS Center for Coastal and Watershed Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida.
“Storm surge and storm waves will increase if we lose more wetlands and our barrier coast,” Stone said. “Wetlands and barrier islands are the first line of defense. That means areas such as New Orleans would become more vulnerable to inundation.”
Those scientists’ predictions have seemingly been fulfilled this week.
Dozens of buses were used to move residents out of flooded portions of the parish, while authorities worked to rescue others trapped by up to six feet of water.
Forecasters warn “life threatening hazards from storm surge and inland flooding are still occurring,” the weather service said Thursday.
Isaac made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane, seven years to the day Hurricane Katrina pounded Louisiana and killed approximately 1,800 people, mostly in New Orleans, after the levee system failed and the city flooded, leaving more oil there than the Exxon Valdez dumped.
Land loss in South Louisiana, says Stone, “is not a local problem—it’s a national problem.”
It has taken another hurricane to show the nation that it’s necessary to rebuild Louisiana’s wetlands and barrier islands.
Tibbets concludes in his report that “it seems clear that the nation must find a way to fund the largest ecological rehabilitation project in U.S. history, a comprehensive effort to rebuild South Louisiana’s disappearing landscape.”
“Our main focus right now is getting people out of their homes.” Falgoust said.
Sources: Associated Press, CNN News, John Tibbets, Environmental Health Perspectives courtesy of National Institute of Environmental Health Science