Geologist: Katrina ripped up Louisiana coastline

Contaminated Waters Being Pumped Into Lake Ponchartrain, Which Will Pollute Coastal Areas, Wetlands

By Mark Schleifstein
Staff writer

September 6, 2005

Louisiana coastal restoration officials began brainstorming with officials from the Army Corps of Engineers on Friday about how to protect the New Orleans area and other communities in southeastern Louisiana from another catastrophic hurricane and restore its coastal wetlands at the same time.

They're trying to quickly hammer together a plan that could be thrown into an expected supplemental congressional appropriation that's needed to pay the cost of Katrina rescue and recovery efforts, said Randy Hanchey, deputy secretary of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources.

Sidney Coffee, coastal adviser to Gov. Kathleen Blanco, confirmed that the talks began Friday.

Late Friday, corps officials announced they are beginning to breach levees to drain water from Chalmette, flooded because of failures of levees along the Industrial Canal.

Backhoes mounted on marsh buggies and draglines mounted on barges will cut breaches in the levees, including one along the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet between the Bayou Bienville and Bayou Dupree floodgates and another near the Caernarvon Freshwater Diversion Canal.

Breaches of two ring levees in Plaquemines Parish, one on each bank of the river, will soon follow, the corps announcement said.

Corps officials already have said that protecting New Orleans from a Category 5 storm would cost at least $2.5 billion.

The proposed Morganza-to-Gulf hurricane protection levee being considered for authorization during this term of Congress, is estimated to cost $670 million, but would only protect parts of Terrebonne, Lafourche and Jefferson parishes from a Category 3 storm, just like the existing levees around the New Orleans area.

Congress also is considering a $1.2 billion proposal to begin restoring the coastline, a process estimated to eventually cost $15 billion.

"We're trying to put together a package recommending a comprehensive hurricane protection and costal restoration program that will provide a much higher level of protection, with the restoration of critical land features in the coastal zone that provide surge protection," Hanchey said.

"How this will be received, we just don't know," he said. "But you can't look at hurricane protection any more from the microeconomic, one-city point of view any more. If one is concerned about economic justification about a project like this, that question has been answered."

Hanchey said the preliminary plan is to ask Congress to allow the corps to skip the preliminary cost-justification steps of these projects that often take as long as five to 10 years.

"We need to accelerate the way the funds are provided and move directly to design and construction," he said. "We need to be starting today."

State and federal officials have been delayed in determining how much damage the Category 4 Katrina has done to coastal areas because manpower, boats, planes and helicopters all have been pressed into service to rescue people in New Orleans.

A flight by Coffee and other coastal officials at dusk Thursday, however, indicated that as much as half of Plaquemines Parish was still underwater.

While it's still unclear whether the wetlands there have been destroyed, Coffee said the view was similar to maps drawn by the state to show what the coastline would look like in 2050 without a restoration program.

Asbury Sallenger, a coastal geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's St. Petersburg, Fla., laboratory, has been able to fly photographic missions over the eastern Louisiana coastline and the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama during the past few days to measure Katrina's damage.

He said the Chandeleur Islands have been ripped asunder, and look worse than they did after Hurricane Georges in 1998 and Tropical Storm Isidore and Hurricane Ivan in 2002.

Meanwhile, state Department of Environmental Quality and the Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator's Office are trying to determine the extent of a major oil spill at mile marker 22 on the Mississippi River near Venice.

DEQ spokesman Darren Mann said it's still unclear whether the oil is leaking from a pair of holding tanks that have been described as holding either 800,000 barrels of oil each or 2 million barrels of oil each, he said.

Coffee said there were a number of smaller oil spills near platforms all along southern Plaquemines Parish.
How much oil is in the water, and exactly where it comes from will have to wait until officials can get to the area by boat, he said.

Meanwhile, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals officials say floodwaters inside levees in St. Bernard and Jefferson parishes and New Orleans are a toxic mix of bacteria contamination and hazardous chemicals.

Exactly what chemicals might be in the water is not yet known, said Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson in a phone interview from Washington.

"It's too early to speculate," Johnson said. "We haven't even gotten to the point where we're able to assess what's there or not there."

Emergency preparedness experts have long warned that floodwaters in New Orleans could be contaminated with everything from the household chemicals beneath kitchen and bathroom sinks to hazardous chemicals in businesses and factories to gasoline and diesel fuel leaking from underground storage tanks. Above-ground tanks also were expected to add
to the mix as they floated free from their supports, breaking piping as floodwaters rose.

Contaminated water already is being pumped into Lake Pontchartrain, where it will make its way along the south shore, out the Chef Menteur and Rigolets passes and into the Gulf of Mexico. Equally contaminated floodwaters from St. Bernard Parish also will end up in coastal wetlands, all of which are home to the state's lucrative oyster industry and other fisheries.

Johnson said the Federal Drug Administration and Department of Health and Human Services will assist in making sure no contaminated seafood reaches the public in the months to come. The state Health Department also will assist in that effort.
Health Department spokesman Bob Johannessen said triage units treating evacuees haven't seen tell-tale rashes on legs or other bare skin that would result from exposure to toxic chemicals. He said bacteria in the water could have gotten into wounds, and the problems that might cause could take some time to show up.

Federal and state officials continue to search from the air for chemical and oil leaks, but a detailed inspection also has been delayed by the diversion of personnel to rescue efforts.

"Our first priority is to assist and make sure people are safe and we are actually saving lives," Johnson said.

"We have 69 watercraft on the scene and thus far, emergency response personnel have rescued 500 people," he said.

The EPA also is providing 50 workers to conduct environmental assessments of construction sites for temporary housing that will be built during the next few weeks for displaced residents, he said.

An EPA plane equipped with sensing instruments flew over a warehouse fire on a Mississippi River wharf in New Orleans Friday and found no evidence of toxic materials, Mann said.

The agency also is working with the corps in preparing a plan to deal with the vast quantity of storm debris left in Katrina's wake.

"We will be assessing the debris material to see if it is indeed hazardous," Johnson said.

Johnson said he was unaware of the unique problems that debris would present if it is infested with Formosan termites, but said that would be added to the list.

When South Carolina officials stored debris from Charleston's older neighborhoods in empty lots on the outskirt of town after Hurricane Hugo hit the Formosan termite-infested area, the termites were spread to new areas, officials there said.

Entomologist Kenneth Grace of the University of Hawaii said it's likely that floodwater may result in a reduction of termite nests in the New Orleans area, but that even long-standing stormwater won't kill all of the damaging insects. That's because their underground nests are likely to contain pockets of air, and they also have nests in the upper trunks of trees above the floodwaters.

And he warned that moving building debris around was likely to spread the insects to areas not yet infested, just like in Charleston.

Mark Schleifstein can be reached at