How Hurricane Katrina Affected the Marshes of Louisiana

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the northern Gulf Coast, I had a flashback.

On a crisp, clear September afternoon about 15 years ago, Otis Guichet, a man who had spent much of his nearly 70 years hunting and fishing the south Louisiana marshes, stopped his boat near Coupa Bel Pass, just north of Grand Terre Island, where Barataria Bay meets the Gulf of Mexico. We'd been chasing the last of the season's specks, having pretty good luck in perfect conditions. It was a moment worth savoring.

But as Guichet lowered the anchor near some wooden pilings that marked the ruins of an old fishing camp, he pointed to the shoreline a good quarter mile away and shook his head in disgust.

We had been talking on and off throughout the day about Louisiana's coastal erosion problem--about the 30,000 miles of oil, gas, and shipping canals that had been dredged across the most productive wetlands in the nation; about the sinking deltas; about the minimum of 25 square miles of marshland being converted to open water every year; about how it all threatened the future of hunting and fishing here because it was destroying the habitat that gives us fish and ducks; about how it also put New Orleans, our city, in dire jeopardy because that blanket of marsh had been the shock absorber for storm surges; and, most heatedly, about how so very few people seemed to give a damn.

Now the subject came up again.

"When I was young, this camp was on the marsh," Guichet said, pointing at the water. "What we're fishing over was all marsh. Now it's all gone, and what we got left is going just as fast."

He thrust his arm out and began marking a circle around our location.

"That used to be an island, a big one with a bayou," he said, his anger rising. "Over there was the main Cat Island. Over there was a row of camps with duck ponds behind them. Back there was a pelican rookery. There was another big island and oyster reefs over there. Now it's all gone.

"When are they going to realize what's happening here? When are they going to realize what we're losing?"

Guichet died a few years later, too late to hear the answer to his questions, which was delivered last August by Hurricane Katrina.

STORM OF NO RETURN? The terrible human toll Katrina claimed has been well documented: more than 1,000 killed, hundreds of thousands left homeless, and a rebuilding effort with a $200 billion price tag--the costliest in the nation's history.

Homes, roads, and stadiums can be reconstructed. New power plants can put economic life back into human communities. But local hunting and fishing, such a vital part of the region's unique culture, may have lost the raw materials to rebuild, to turn its lights back on.

Katrina erased some of the most storied fishing communities in the nation, including Venice, Shell Beach, Hopedale, Delacroix Island, Port Sulphur, Buras, and Empire. The marinas, boat hoists, bait shops, and guide services that served anglers for many years were destroyed. In some places the only things left were the building foundations. Many of the roads and all the fuel stations were damaged. And tens of thousands of fishermen in the region had nothing to come home to and were forced to think about relocating.

After the hurricane, fisheries managers with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries talked about "losing the complete fishing infrastructure." Ken Campo, whose family's Shell Beach hoist and marina had been in operation since 1931 on Lake Borgne, south of New Orleans, had a simple one-word description of the state of his business: "Gone."

"Sure, we'd like to begin rebuilding right now," said Campo, while working on a hurricane cleanup crew a week after the storm hit to help pay bills. "But even if we did open for business, where would we get customers? There are no houses left in the surrounding areas. And even if someone had a boat, where would he get gas? Where would he find bait? What roads would he use to get to us?"

Even those ready to start anew admitted it would be a long, hard haul over a very precarious financial road.

"We're dependent on New Orleans and the tourism industry for a lot of our business," said guide Theophile Bourgeois, who runs Bourgeois Charters in nearby Lafitte. "We can't come back until New Orleans comes back. They say the city should be back by January, but January through March are our lean months. We depend on what we make through the fall to hold us over to the spring.

"For most of the charter industry and plenty of marinas, it's going to be a race against time and the bank."

WOMB OF THE FISHERY Anglers and guides have an even larger worry--the one Guichet had fumed about so long ago: How much marshland did Katrina leave in place?

"That's really the ultimate concern," said John Roussell, assistant secretary of the LDWF. "Those marshes are the platform that supports the ecosystem. Without them, we have less fish production, we winter fewer ducks and geese, we have less protection from hurricanes. And we knew we were in a precarious situation before Katrina."

That situation has been developing since the Great Flood of 1927 convinced the nation to constrain the Mississippi River with levees along its entire length. The earthen walls protected human settlements but also ended the annual floods that allowed the river to spread its load of land-building silt over the deltas that make up southeast Louisiana.

As a result, the coastal wetlands began to slowly sink. That process was greatly accelerated by the dredging of canals across the coastal zone for oil and gas exploration, pipelines, and shipping lanes. By 2001, some 1,900 square miles of marshland--an area the size of Delaware and fully half of what there was in 1927--had been lost. Last year the remains were washing away at the rate of 25 square miles a year, the equivalent of a football field of marshland every 45 minutes.

Since the 1970s, fish and wildlife advocates have been trying to tell the nation that this wasn't just a local problem. Those marshes drive one of the world's most productive wetland ecosystems, the incubator for the continent's second-largest commercial fishery, one that produced fully 35 percent of the oysters, 46 percent of the shrimp, and 28 percent of the blue crabs consumed in the nation. They are also the nursery waters for many species important to anglers from Florida to Texas, as well as the wintering grounds for as many as 5 million migratory waterfowl. Finally, they were the safety net for as many as 3 million people: According to the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, every 2 miles of marsh equaled a foot of flood protection for New Orleans.

But the nation didn't seem to care. A joint state-U.S. Army Corps of Engineers $14 billion long-term plan to stabilize the coast was scaled down last year to $1.9 billion.

In the wake of the storm, the state was pushing for emergency authorization of a combined $32 billion hurricane-protection and coastal-restoration plan. It has asked for fast-track permitting that would allow much of the time-consuming cost-benefit analysis to be suspended.

"We told them for years what a bargain this would be," said Sidney Coffee, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco's executive assistant for coastal activities. "Now I think that they can see our plans were pretty darn cost-effective compared to what the costs are now. And we can't wait. Every day we wait, we lose."

ENDGAME Certainly sportsmen on the Gulf Coast suffered other losses as well. The damage to cypress-tupelo stands in swamps, as well as to upland forests, was estimated to be $3 billion. But those wildlife habitats will come back of their own accord because hurricanes are a naturally occurring part of this ecosystem.

Louisiana's coastal marshes, too, have absorbed many a hurricane over the centuries and have been able to bounce back--but that was before the levees and the canals. Now they don't have that ability, and the prospect of long-term damage to fish and wildlife is real.

"It will take years, but we'll finally rebuild the fishing-industry infrastructure," Roussell said. "The question now is, Can we restore that marsh? We have some of the technologies, but we haven't had the funding. It never seemed to be a priority before.

"But if we can't restore it and we keep losing the marsh, there's no doubt these fisheries eventually will collapse. That isn't shocking news around here. We've known that for a long time."

Old Otis Guichet knew what was at risk 15 years ago, and now Katrina might finally have made the nation realize what it's losing. Hopefully, it's not too late. If you'd like to get involved in the efforts to save the marshes, go to the websites of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (crcl.org) and America's Wetland (americaswetland.com).

"Local hunting and fishing may have lost the raw materials to rebuild."

Bob Marshall has been filing weekly website reports detailing the damage to game and fish habitat on the Louisiana coast caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as the reactions of local sportsmen. See the stories and photos at fieldandstream.com/exclusives.

STEADY DECLINE: Less than half of southeast Louisiana's marshland that existed nearly 80 years ago remains today. BEFORE AND AFTER: Marshes would have curbed the extent of the hurricane's surge.