On Katrina Anniversary Week, coalition urges Army Corps to honor Obama's priority to restore wetlands

NEW ORLEANS, LA, Aug. 26, 2009 -- Days before the 4th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a coalition of 17 advocacy groups today urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to honor President Obama's priority of restoring Gulf Coast wetlands...

• Groups cite slow progress in restoring natural hurricane buffer four years after Katrina devastated Gulf Coast, U.S. economy

NEW ORLEANS, LA, Aug. 26, 2009 -- Three days before the 4th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (August 29), a coalition of 17 advocacy groups today urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to honor President Obama's priority in his budget and campaign "to restore nature's barriers - the wetlands, marshes and barrier islands that can take the first blows and protect the people of the Gulf Coast."

Members of the MRGO Must Go Coalition delivered this message during a news conference and media tour to show the slow progress in restoring wetlands east of New Orleans along the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) to protect the Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish. Those are two coastal communities where Katrina did the most damage.

"The more vulnerable coastal communities are to hurricane damage, the more it costs the federal government -- and taxpayers -- to help those communities recover after a storm," said Pam Dashiell, co-director of the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development. "Katrina devastated both the Gulf Coast and the U.S. economy, causing nearly $90 billion in property damage alone."

Coastal Louisiana is home to critical energy production infrastructure, the busiest port in North America by volume, and huge commercial and recreational fisheries. Disruption of these industries because of storm damage could severely disrupt the national economy. Katrina destroyed infrastructure and damaged critical refineries so severely that some of them were out of service for a year, leading to a spike in the price of gasoline.

"Given the fragility of our nation's economy, restoring the wetlands to protect the Gulf Coast must remain at the forefront of the many congressionally-approved Corps projects nationwide," said Craig Taffaro, president of St. Bernard Parish. "It must be priority number one. The Corps should do everything it possibly can to expedite design and construction of critical restoration projects. We have a responsibility to keep coastal restoration projects as a top priority. The importance of keeping the Corps engaged in our protection cannot be underestimated."

The severity of Katrina's damage in Louisiana was caused, in part, by the fact that the state has lost 1/3 of its original wetlands -- about 2,000 square miles -- an area larger than Delaware.

"Scientists agree that these lost wetlands could have helped reduce Katrina's storm surge," said Charles Allen, assistant director of the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane and Xavier Universities and co-director of the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development. "Wetlands are 'horizontal levees' that in many cases are more economical and effective at damage prevention than man-made vertical levees because they absorb storm energy, slow incoming waves, wind, and surge waters. It is widely recognized that we urgently need to restore these wetlands and coastal forests to prevent similar or worse storm damage in the future."

Despite these facts, four years after Katrina, Congress has been unable to fund major coastal restoration projects it authorized in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has not completed the projects' design and engineering.

While the Corps now has closed the MRGO, its MRGO Ecosystem Restoration Plan-- which must be completed before it seeks funding from Congress to rebuild the wetlands and cypress forests that will help protect New Orleans -- won't be completed until March 2011. This timeline is nearly three years after the congressionally-mandated deadline of May 2008.

"The ongoing Corps projects are significant, but there must be a continued sense of urgency to rebuild the natural deltaic ecosystem, infrastructure and the Mississippi River navigation system," said Colonel David Dysart, chief administrative officer for St. Bernard Parish. "There are good people at the Corps and at other relevant federal agencies who are trying to get their job done and quickly move these projects forward, but we need an unequivocal commitment from the Corps, Congress and other responsible agencies that they won't let outdated bureaucratic procedures stand in the way of necessary action. It's going to take creativity and breaking away from some long-standing ways of doing business, but the stakes call for nothing less."

"There is new hope in New Orleans thanks to a new president," said John Koeferl, a member of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, a subdivision of the Lower 9th Ward. "President Obama has pledged his dedication to urgently restore the Louisiana coast, noting that every four miles of wetlands can absorb about a foot of a hurricane's storm surge. The Army Corps of Engineers should honor the president's priority."

The MRGO Must Go Coalition is a group of 17 environmental, community, and social justice organizations working together to restore and protect Coastal Louisiana and the people who reside there.

The coalition members include: American Rivers, CAWIC, Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, Environmental Defense Fund, Global Green, Gulf Restoration Network, Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, Levees.org, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Louisiana Wildlife Federation, Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, Lower Ninth Center for Sustainable Economic Development, MQVN Community Development Corporation, National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club - Delta Chapter. For more information, visit www.mrgomustgo.org.

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