Nature's Revenge: Louisiana's Vanishing Wetlands
by Daniel Zwerdling
September 2002

From American RadioWorks®, the documentary project of Minnesota Public Radio and NPR NewsSM. On the Internet at

Part I: Sinking into the Sea

Right now, an entire region of the United States is crumbling and sinking into the sea. Scientists say it's causing one of the worst and least-publicized environmental disasters in America's history. As Daniel Zwerdling reports for NPR News and American Radio Works, there's a moral to this story: when humans try to outwit nature, it can strike back with a vengeance.

The Greatest Wetlands on Earth

It's hard to sense how vast this problem is, until you see it from the air. A group of government officials has just buckled up their life jackets, because they're going to see the crisis first-hand.

One official has just flown in from the Pentagon, a few come from the state capital of Louisiana. And now this bright yellow helicopter lifts off the banks of the Mississippi River, and it heads toward a landscape that's vanishing. A biologist named Bill Good is guiding this inspection. He works with the state's department of natural resources. He says every couple of years, Louisiana loses a chunk of land bigger than Manhattan.

"And," Good notes, "if a foreign country came in and took that much of our real estate every year, that would be grounds for war."

The helicopter heads south along the muddy Mississippi. We skirt the skyline of New Orleans. We buzz over oil refineries and shipyards and freighters loaded with grain. Suddenly, civilization seems to come to an end.

We're flying over Louisiana's wetlands. Coastal wetlands are lands that gets flooded by tides. They're bursting with life, like rainforests , and these are some of the greatest wetlands on Earth. They sprawl 300 miles along the Gulf of Mexico, and they go up to 50 miles inland. They're the heart of the Mississippi Delta; and this astonishing landscape is vanishing. Good says if we'd taken this helicopter trip 50 years ago, it would have looked like the Great Plains.

"Exactly. It would look just like the prairies in the Midwest," says Good. "They were very solid, vast expanses of grass, of beautiful area, of verdant green from horizon to horizon."

A Tragedy of Immense Proportions

But now, we're looking at a ragged patchwork. There are thousands of streams and lakes and canals: they're eating away at the grasslands like cancer.

Bill Good nods his head toward the window, "Look down there, see those fishing boats in that bay?" When he flew over this spot the first time, back in the 1980s, that "bay" was solid ground. Satellite images show that every day, a chunk of land the size of a football field crumbles and turns into water.

"That scale is monumental and the significance is really hard to put into words," says Good.

That's why the government officials are inspecting the coast from the helicopter on this day, They say if the country doesn't do something dramatic to save this region, it could hurt the American economy. Bill Good says it would cripple the state.

"It's very hard to get your mind wrapped around how large and important and productive and unique all of this is," says Good. "To see it simply dying is a tragedy. A tragedy of immense proportions."

It took nature thousands of years to create these wetlands. If you want to understand how Americans are destroying them, it helps to get back on Earth.

A hugely successful disaster

Oliver Houck runs the environment program at Tulane University's Law School, and on a recent evening, he leads the way to one of the spots that helped trigger the wetlands crisis in the first place.

"Well, we're on the banks of the Mississippi River and these are the levees we're about to cross ... .it's a monster system."

To get there, we park near some old wooden houses next to the railroad tracks in New Orleans, and we scramble up the grassy embankment that looks over the river.

"The banks here are about 20 feet high," explains Houck, "and when we cross the banks, you'll see on the other side [that] if these levees were not here, that water would be at about eaves' level across the houses behind us."

I always wondered what "levees" meant. A levee is a wall. A levee is a wall to keep the river out of your living room.

Houck says before people built these walls, the giant Mississippi helped build America. Every day, the river and its tributaries washed millions of pounds of soil from all over the country down to the Gulf of Mexico.

"You can imagine what it would take in dump trucks to bring half a million tons of silt to south Louisiana," says Houck. "Well, it would take about two hundred thousand, two-and-half ton dump trucks every day, driving from Minnesota, from Rapid City, from Pittsburgh, from Denver. And in so doing, it brings down these enormous, enormous loads of earth to the mouth of the Mississippi."

Every year or so, Houck says, it would rain so much that the river would gush out of its banks, and all that mud and goo would spread out along the coast.

"And that's what built south Louisiana," Houck says. "The Mississippi built five million acres of land. A huge amount of land was wetland."

But when French settlers showed up in the 1700s, they tried to stop the Mississippi from flooding: they started building these walls. Eventually, the U.S. Army took over the job, and every time they thought they'd conquered nature, the river proved them wrong. So the army built more walls and they built them higher, they've built two thousand miles of levees as of today along the Mississippi River and its branches. And Houck says, the army has finally won the war—they've tamed the Mississippi.

"And so," describes Houck, "the project was—from an engineering point of view— brilliant, brilliant. It was hugely successful. From an environmental standpoint, it was a disaster."

Dying Wetlands

Now scientists like Denise Reed are trying to figure out how that disaster is changing the state.

"Okay, let's get it started," says Reed, "we'll start the engine. OK, we're gonna take that line off first—off last."

We've just left the dock in a scruffy town called Cocodrie, right in the heart of the wetlands. Reed moved here from England, so she could study them, for the University of New Orleans. She steers the boat down a bayou—that's the Cajun word for a slow stream— and it looks like we're floating through fields of grass. White pelicans swoop over our heads, and we pass fishing boats draped in nets.

"This marsh that we're gonna look at now," explains Reed. "It's pretty typical of many, many acres, thousands of acres of marsh in southern Louisiana. It's really hanging on the edge."

Reed says here's one reason why: After the Mississippi River built these wetlands, thousands of years ago, this whole region began to subside. And it is still is: all that rich heavy soil that the river used to dump here keeps compressing under its own weight. But that was never a problem in the old days, because the river would keep flooding and dumping more soil on the wetlands, and that would build them right back up.

"So," continues Reed, "when we built the levees along the Mississippi River, that cut off a supply of fresh water and sediment to these marshes that they would have gotten every three to five years—when a big flood came down the river. And so what that means is that the land is sinking."

The wetlands are literally sinking into the sea: the Gulf of Mexico is essentially drowning them. The moment we get out of the boat, we can feel that this wetland is dying.

Reed says if this were a healthy marsh, we'd be able to walk through the grasses like it was a hayfield. But every time we take a step, we sink up to our calves in water.

"I don't know how many times you fell in over your knees, but I fell in several times. It's full of holes," describes Reed.

Now, if I were just here on my own, sloshing around in this water that we keep falling in, I'd think, "Oh, marsh! That's what it's supposed to be, land and water together. So why is this a sign that this marsh is dying?"

"Well, " explains Reed, "what it tells us is that there's not much holding it together, apart from the plant roots. There's nothing very firm down there. It's not anchored very well.

"That's bad! And of course we're standing here, right next to a pond. This is not a very big one. When you fly over Louisiana, you can see that there are myriads of ponds this size, and very, very much bigger. But what seems to have happened here is that the plants that were there have said, 'I give up.' The plants die, and when plants die, there's nothing to hold it together, and what you end up with is a pond like this. And that's land loss! This is what coastal land loss is in Louisiana. Something that's a marsh with grass—turning to open water.

And Reed says, there's another reason these wetlands are sick. She says look back at that waterway we just came down, to get into this marsh—notice how straight it is? Nature didn't build lines like that— the energy industry did. In the middle of the 1900s, companies like Shell and Texaco found huge amounts of energy below the wetlands.

"This is the kind of canal that the companies had to dredge through the marsh to actually drill holes to extract oil and gas," says Reed. "There are thousands and thousands and thousands of these across coastal Louisiana."

In fact, when you wind through the wetlands in a boat, you start to think, 'This is wilderness'—the landscape is hauntingly beautiful. Then, suddenly, there's a cluster of drilling rigs like a grove of metal trees. That's made energy the biggest industry in Louisiana, but Reed says there's a price: the wetlands are dying much faster where these canals have carved them up.

"This marsh cannot survive in this state much longer. It's like the edge of a blanket starting to fray. Once it starts, it goes very rapidly," warns Reed.

Satellite photos suggest that if the wetlands keep disappearing, the entire nation could be affected. Americans eat more shrimp and crabs and other seafood from Louisiana than from any state except Alaska; the creatures spend part of their lives in these wetlands. You buy more oil and gas from Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico than from almost any other state—and a lot of that fuel flows through pipelines under these wetlands. So, researchers say that as the wetlands vanish, some kinds of seafood might disappear, and you'll have to pay more money to drive your car and heat your home.

Sinking Louisiana towns

Here in Louisiana, people's lives are already changing.

In the cemetery, in the town of Leeville, Rick Eddy runs the bait and tackle shop. He's taking us out on his boat to show us where the townspeople are buried, because this is the only way you can see it.

"OK, see over here—here's one of the headstones sticking up out of the water," points out Eddy. "The tides a little high right now, but usually you can see anywhere from 25 to 30 headstones.

"It's definitely all under water," continues Eddy. "The cemetery's all under water. It's eroded right away. I've been in this area for 15 years. When I first came into this area, there was all land there. It's very heartbreaking. And to have something like this come along—and erosion. Some of the headstones are all busted up. The mausoleums, it's just a pile of rubble really. Kinda hard to put it in words. "

Part II: An Unlikely Activist

Scientists and environmentalists have been warning about the destruction of Louisiana's coast since the 1960s, but it's been hard to get anybody that "matters" to care until recently.

Roswell King Milling is probably one of the last people in Louisiana who you would expect to fight for the environment. People call him, "King." He's president of one of the oldest banks in the South. He's modest about it.

"We're a $7 billion bank," explains Milling, "which in today's world is not a large bank.

"Well, I mean, it's large for us."

When he walks across the marble floors at headquarters in New Orleans, Milling looks like a Hollywood version of old money. He's tall and gracious. He has a dazzling white mane.

"How you doin'?" he calls out. "Fine-thank-you-an-yourself."

King Milling is a friend of the governor. He was king of Mardi Gras. There's a whole town named after his family. And before he took over the Whitney National Bank, Milling was one of the most powerful lawyers for the oil and gas industry.

"Hey McMan, how ya doin'?" Milling asks.

A Banker's Crusade

But a few years ago, Milling had a revelation. And today, this banker is spearheading an environmental crusade. He takes me to his wood-paneled chambers to show what changed him.

"I think you begin to understand the magnitude when you look at this."

Milling unfurls a map of Louisiana on his conference table. The way he tells the story, an environmentalist stopped by a few years ago to talk about the wetlands. He told Milling that if they keep disappearing, it could wipe out some kinds of fish. It could wipe out millions of migratory birds that stop in the wetlands every year. Milling says as the activist kept talking, he started getting annoyed. But then something suddenly clicked. At this point in the story, Milling's voice drops almost to a whisper. When he talks, people lean forward to hear him.

"Finally I looked up at him in the middle of it and said, 'My friend, the heck with the birds and the fishes.' I think it jolted him a little bit and I said, 'This is not about the birds and the bees, it's about whether the economic prosperity of Louisiana can continue.'"

Milling says, here's what hit him: Banks like his have invested billions of dollars in businesses across the region. He points to the dots sprinkled across the map. He says you'll find a Whitney National Bank in the heart of every one of those towns.

"You know this whole area is composed of ship-building yards, fabrication yards, gas-processing plants, chemical installations.

"Those towns that are located up and down the various bayous and rivers form the cornerstone of wealth in south Louisiana."

And on this map, those towns are surrounded by splotches of red and pink— which signifies that the wetlands around them are vanishing. Milling says the more he looked at the map, the more he realized that if the wetlands wash away, his bank's investments could wash away. The state's whole economy could be crippled.

"It has everything to do with whether or not Louisiana as we know it will survive in the future."

Barnstorming the State

So this powerful banker has decided to help lead a campaign to try to save the wetlands. King Milling is barnstorming around the state. He's preaching to power-brokers who'd think twice about letting an environmentalist through their doors. He's giving speeches to the Chamber of Commerce and the Top 50 Businessmen's Club. He's lobbying fellow bankers and lawyers. And Milling keeps telling them, 'If you still don't understand why the wetlands are crucial, please drive to a spot on Louisiana's coast and talk to a man named Ted Falgout."

"This little dot on the map, this small place in Cajun southeastern Louisiana, on the Gulf of Mexico," Falgout will tell you, "plays a strategic role in furnishing this country with somewhere between 16 and 18 percent of its entire hydrocarbon supply— that's oil and gas."

The Oil and Gas Industry's Command Center

They call this place Port Fourchon. This is the base, the command center, which supports the huge oil and gas industry out in the Gulf of Mexico. It's like a giant scar in the middle of the wetlands. There's a jumble of ships and docks and helicopters, and oil refineries and barbed wire. And then just beyond them you can see the beginnings of miles of grassy marsh. Ted Falgout runs Port Fourchon for the state. He says, "You think the Alaska pipeline's important? This place handles twice as much oil and gas.

"There's no other place in this country," continues Falgout, "that plays such a great role in providing this nation's oil and gas supply."

There are thousands of offshore drilling rigs out in the Gulf of Mexico. They send a lot of their oil and gas to the mainland through this port. The U.S. buys millions of barrels of oil from the Middle East. Much of that fuel comes to America through this port. And here's the problem: The industry distributes most of that fuel through pipelines, which are buried under the wetlands, all along this coast.

"We look just to my right here and we have the Mars pipeline. This is a pipeline from the deep-water Gulf of Mexico. This single pipeline is carrying 400,000 barrels of crude oil a day through it. And as the marsh deteriorates, these pipelines are vulnerable," Falgout says.

The energy companies dug trenches deep in the soil, on the assumption that would keep the pipelines safe. But now the land around them is crumbling.

Exposed Pipes

At the moment, we're standing on the shoulder of the highway that leads into the port. The telephone poles beside it are sinking in water. There are little waves lapping near our shoes.

"Twenty years ago this was dry land," describes Falgout. "You could go out 500 or 600 feet and not wet your shoes."

Now it's basically a lake.

"In two weeks from now," says Falgout, "you'll have shrimpers, when the in-shore season opens and there will be vessels right up against this roadway catching shrimp. We're seeing thousands upon thousands of acres of land just disappear."

So now, pipes that used to be deep in the ground are getting exposed in this open water— in fact, there was a nasty oil spill earlier this year when a boat apparently sliced one of British Petroleum's lines. Ted Falgout says the company has reburied seven miles of pipeline, right near where we're standing, and it cost them millions of dollars. Consider the fact that there are 20 thousand miles of pipelines under this vanishing coast.

"So we're taking billions of dollars to come in and repair and hopefully fix these things before we have a major disaster where we have pipeline ruptures and we have huge oil spills as a result of the coastal land loss."

A National Problem

That's just one reason why business and political leaders in Louisiana say the whole country must try to save their wetlands. Scientists say it'll take one of the biggest construction projects in America's history: they'll need to change the flow of the Mississippi River. They'll need to build entire islands in the Gulf of Mexico, to shield the wetlands from waves. The project could easily cost tens of billions of dollars. And it doesn't take a banker like King Milling to realize that Louisiana can't afford it. So Milling and other power-brokers are designing a national advertising campaign to persuade you, the nation's taxpayers, that you should foot the bill.

On a recent morning, Milling and the governor's staff huddle in the state capitol, to put the finishing touches on their campaign. They've hired a consultant to craft the message.

"The first objective of the campaign is the designing of the message itself, the themes that define the problem and the impact of the erosion of Louisiana's wetlands," the consultants says. "Any thoughts on this?"

Business leaders like Milling don't know much environmental science, but they do know the power of marketing. So they've hired the veteran political consultant to help them "sell" the wetlands issue to voters and to Congress. The consultant's name is Val Marmillion. He looks very Los Angeles— buzz cut, bright blue glasses. He stands in front of a flipchart and briefs Milling and the others on his marketing strategy:

"To do it right, we're gonna have to make it an issue of national concern," Marmillion says. "We need to get a big, broad slice of the public in here some kind of way."

America's Wetland

He knows it's going to be tough to get Congress to vote for billions of dollars for wetlands in Louisiana, especially when everyone's worried about the economy and terrorism. So Marmillion has been test-marketing patriotic slogans to "brand" the campaign.

" 'America's Wetland' was the outright choice in the Pennsylvania focus group," Marmillion explains, "actually a unanimous choice. All said that if this is of national importance, we've got to make this America's issue, not Louisiana's, and so the brand has got to talk about how Louisiana benefits the nation in economic terms and others if we're going to get to those themes. Any thoughts on this?"

After the meeting, I sit down with Marmillion. The governor's lobbyist, a woman named Sidney Coffee, joins us too. The marketing meeting has sounded almost like they're selling soap or cereal or cars. Some people might wonder, 'Is this a seemly way to educate the public about vanishing wetlands?'

Marmillion says, "Yeah, I think it's an honest way. We are in a media age that many people decry all the time, but we are in competition with a lot of other stories out there. And you use the mechanisms of the day to tell your story."

Coffee adds, "You know people basically know the truth when they hear it. And when I saw the faces on some of the people in the Philadelphia focus group when Val read the situational analysis that talks about the incredible amount of loss that we're experiencing, they were horrified. And they were angry that no one had told them about it, they couldn't believe it was happening, and in their opinion, it was like, 'This is a major disaster happening here on our shores, and we need to do something about it.'"

But these political and business leaders don't have illusions— they're going to face lots of hurdles when they get to Congress. For instance: Louisiana's corrupt political past could haunt them.

"That is correct, we have a very checkered history, " acknowledges Jack Caldwell, who runs the state's department of natural resources. He just took part in the marketing session. Now he's strolling under the magnolias on the capitol grounds. Caldwell says he realizes that some members of Congress might hesitate to send money to a state where everybody from Governors to sheriffs has gone on trial.

"For example, our insurance commissioner," Caldwell says. "You're not gonna believe this— the last three in a row have been convicted of felonies. Three in a row of elected insurance commissioners."

Caldwell laughs, but adds, "I'm telling you, it's changing." He says the governor is trying to stamp out corruption.

The Industry's Share

And there's another touchy issue: Louisiana's leaders want the nation's taxpayers to pay to fix the wetlands, but they're not demanding money from the industry that helped destroy them.

"It's ludicrous and it's unjust, " says Oliver Houck, who runs the environment program at Tulane University's law school. Houck says major studies show that the wetlands are crumbling partly because the oil and gas companies tore them up. Over the last fifty years, the companies dredged thousands of canals across the wetlands to make it easier to drill wells and lay pipelines.

"Everybody knows the oil and gas industry is a huge actor in all of this, but nobody goes the next step and says since they're big part of the problem, why don't they help clean it up?" Houck explains, "It's unjust— because they happen to be the richest kid on the block— they happen to be walking away from a scene of destruction they have caused. And they should be paying their bill."

The leaders of the campaign to save the wetlands say it's true, the oil and gas companies have played a big role in destroying them. But King Milling says it's not fair to punish the companies today, for something they did decades ago, especially since government officials encouraged the industry to tear up the wetlands. Everybody wanted their oil and gas.

Milling explains, "I don't remember anyone at that time suggesting that they didn't want the petroleum products. Everybody was doing what they thought was the right thing at the time."

Oliver Houck says that's not why they're tiptoeing around the energy industry.

"Oil and gas is the dominant industry in this state," he says. "It's like cattle in Nevada. Sugar in Florida. It's the tail that wags the dog. It would be very, very difficult for a public official to back an initiative that was not to the oil companies' liking— and that includes making them help pay to fix the mess in the wetlands that they've created."

An energy industry spokesman told me that they'll think about helping to finance the wetlands projects— if and when they see a firm plan.

But the nation can debate all that in the future. First, business leaders like King Milling need to convince you and your legislators that a national treasure is dying in their backyard, and you have the power to save it. A lot of debates in this country have pit the economy against the environment. But back at his headquarters at the Whitney National Bank, Milling says he's learned a lesson: When it comes to the wetlands of southern Louisiana, the environment is the economy.

"And if it's allowed to fail, the economy will fail, and then we've lost everything."

Part III: Can the Plan to Save the Coast Really Work?

An unlikely coalition of scientists, business leaders, and politicians is trying to launch one of the most complicated construction projects in U.S. history. They want to unleash the Mississippi River, to undo the damage that the government has caused by spending the last century taming it. They say that's the only way to stop the vast wetlands that form Louisiana's coast from vanishing. Every year, a chunk of Louisiana's coast the size of Manhattan crumbles and sinks into the sea. Studies suggest that if the trend continues, major industries could be disrupted, from oil-and-gas, to seafood, to shipping. But scientists acknowledge that as they try to repair nature, they might trigger a new round of side effects.

You'd think that a fisherman like George Barisich would be thrilled that officials want to save the wetlands in Louisiana. But he says wait until you hear his story. As he begins to tell it, the setting sun is turning the sky pink, he's dropping his shrimp nets—like giant spider webs—into a bay on Louisiana's coast. And Barisich says, he's living proof that when the government tries to solve one problem, they just create another.

"Do these scientists really know everything they're talkin' about?" asks Barisich. "Cause a lot of predictions they made, were so far from reality—it's funny."

Barisich looks like Groucho Marx in blue jeans. He says, don't get him wrong, he knows that the shrimp and crabs and redfish down here spend a lot of their lives in the wetlands, so if the wetlands keep crumbling, fishermen could be doomed. But, he says, he's been catching shrimp in this bay since he was a kid. He worked on this white and orange boat with his father. And over the years, Barisich learned where the shrimp like to feed and he learned the best cycles of the moon. He was sort of like an angler who outwits his trout. Then a few years ago, the shrimp stopped showing up.

"They never came in, they never came in," explains Barisich. "So you lost the production from that particular area, and you just had to get up and leave."

The Corps Rebuilds

Every fisherman knows that some years are better than others. But Barisich says he knew instantly what was wrong: It was the government. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had just built a pilot project to try to rebuild the wetlands.

"They made a change without exploring all the potential hazards of doing something of this nature," describes Barisich. "Now, I know for a fact that nothing has ever been done on this scale before. That's what bothers us. They're gonna hurt me and it's just like nobody cares."

They call the pilot project Caernarvon. It's a long concrete structure that sits on the banks of the Mississippi, and at first, it doesn't look like something that can help transform the region and cause a legal uproar. It looks like a small dam.

Jack Fredine supervises the project for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The official name is the Caernarvon Water Diversion Project.

"We're downstream of New Orleans—about 20 miles," Fredine says. "We have a structure that's built here into the levee of the Mississippi River, which is here for flood control. It's like five square holes going underneath the river from 500 feet and each hole is 15 feet square."

Scientists say that the vast wetlands in Louisiana are vanishing partly because the U.S. Army tamed this river too much. The Army built two thousand miles of levees all along the Mississippi, so the river would stop flooding. But studies over the last few decades show that these wetlands need to be flooded. They need regular doses of river-water and mud to thrive—the levees are starving them to death. So the government has launched the Caernarvon project to see if it can revive the wetlands—without flooding people's homes. When Fredine gives the word, a workman presses some buttons.

And suddenly, the placid surface of the Mississippi River begins bubbling and roiling. Huge gates are opening under water, and uncovering the giant holes, and the river is pouring through the levee into a marsh on the other side.

"The original concept of this was to mimic the spring floods," explains Fredine, "to replenish the marshes with freshwater that would have been coming through if the levees weren't here in the way to block out the floods."

So, in a way, technology hurt nature in the first place, and now they're using nature to repair nature, to mimic it.

"It's a start," says Fredine.

Wetlands Need to be Flooded

Some scientists say it's an exciting "start". We take a boat to see the results. At the moment, we're whizzing down a channel a few miles downstream from Caernarvon.

Denise Reed spends a lot of her life in these wetlands: she studies them for Louisiana State University. Reed would make a great scout leader—she's got no-nonsense hair, an infectious smile, and she forges through the grasses on this wetland like she's leading an expedition.

"We're going to go over to see some marsh over there—by those trees," Reed says. "And that's where we're going to see how the freshwater, the nutrients and the sediments coming out of the diversion structure are revitalizing the marsh. So we're gonna go see. It's right over on the other side there ...Look at all this wonderful green, you know, there's nice big growth on these plants."

Reed says if we had walked here before they started the Caernarvon project, it would have felt completely different. This wetland was sick back then, and when wetlands are sick, the soil gets all mushy and turns into open water. But now we're walking on solid ground.

"You look at those ponds over there in the distance," Reed explains, "you see how the grass is gradually moving in and filling in. You can see that just here, you can see that grass growing out into the middle of this area. This would have all been bare. What is land loss? Land loss is marsh turning to open water. Here we've got open water in ponds filling in and becoming marsh. A lot of people think it's hopeless down here in coastal Louisiana, but just coming down here and looking at this makes us believe that we can do this."

But these changes have disrupted some people's lives. The problem is, the minute you put your finger on a map and say, 'Let's tinker with nature here, let's mimic the old floods there,' chances are that you might flood somebody's backyard. Or you'll disrupt the bays and inlets where George Barisich does his fishing.

A Plague of Killer Mussells

The way he tells the story, the shrimp gave just the first sign that Caernarvon was changing his world. Then, something strange started happening to his oysters. Barisich and his family had been producing oysters in this area for years. Fishermen like Barisich leased thousands of acres—from the state government— on the bottom of the bay, and they built oyster farms.

"These were the best things that's on the market," asserts Barisich. "I mean you could stack these against any other oyster, any part of the country, and they was always in demand."

But suddenly, a plague of killer mussels swarmed into the bay. You can't eat this kind of mussel—they're a nuisance. They attach to the oyster shells.

Within three years, his oysters were worthless. State studies suggest that it was mainly because of Caernarvon. When the government unleashed the Mississippi and sent river-water and mud gushing into this area, they lowered the salt content of the bay. Those changes were good for the marsh, but they pushed out the shrimp that like salty environments, and they attracted the killer mussels that don't.

"And that's what gets fisherman hot. It would be just like if you had a piece of property and you farmed tomatoes on it and they wanted to build an interstate," explains Barisich. "And they just took it and said, 'Too bad!'"

A $14 Billion Project

Fishermen aren't the only ones who say projects like Caernarvon can backfire. A few scientists are worrying, too. State and federal officials are planning to ask Congress to launch a massive project to help rescue the wetlands: they want to build more projects like Caernarvon, bigger projects like Caernarvon, up and down the Mississippi River. The group figures they'll need at least $14 billion to start, and one government official told me the project could cost two or three times that much. But a few voices are saying 'Not so fast.'

"I do not believe that we are ready to scale to a $14 billion effort at this time," says Joe Suhayda, who just retired as director of a water research center at Louisiana State University. Suhayda says Louisiana's wetlands are a national treasure, and the country should urgently try to protect them. But he says construction projects like Caernarvon won't work magic, no matter how much money they cost. The damage in the wetlands is too vast.

Suhayda explains, "I was in fact talking with the governor, and he actually asked a question, 'Can we actually save the coast?' 'No, ' I said, from the standpoint of returning it to a former condition, I don't think we can save the coast. They'll be small areas that may be improved."

And Suhayda says they need more studies to pinpoint which areas could improve, and which strategies will work best. Nobody's ever tried to restore nature on such a massive scale.

In Louisiana, this is not a popular view. The state's leaders say it's going to be hard enough to convince Congress to spend billions on wetlands when they're scrounging for money to fight terrorists. The last thing they need is dissent. Suhayda says some of his colleagues have warned him to back off.

"The phrase that's been used is that 'you're too honest,'" says Suhayda. "I've not really had anybody say, 'Don't say this,' but I have had people say that in the wrong light, the things that you say could hurt the effort that everybody thinks should go forward."

Back in the wetlands, Denise Reed is tromping through the new mud and grasses that she says Caernarvon helped create. She and most other researchers say there's no time left for doubts. The country has to do something dramatic, to try to save wetlands, now.

"We can't wait another ten years," says Reed. "There won't be much marsh left to save. We can't afford to go slower. The problem is so serious that action is clearly needed. This isn't just about marshes, it's about the future of coastal Louisiana."

She says it's true, scientists don't know yet exactly how they'll do it; they'll learn from projects like Caernarvon as they go along. Reed says everybody should have learned something from all those centuries of battling the Mississippi River. There's no quick fix when you try to fix nature.

Some Win, Some Lose

"No it's not going to be easy," says Reed. "We're gonna alter the way things are gonna look down here. They're not gonna be the same anymore. I meant they're not gonna be the same if we don't do anything, because it's all gonna go to hell in a hand basket. People's lives are going to change."

When fishermen like George Barisich sell their seafood to the local dealer, they understand that lesson better than anybody. Barisich pulls up to the dock next to a shed on the banks of a narrow channel, a workman jumps into the hold of his boat and starts shoveling shrimp on a rusty conveyor.

Barisich and other fishermen have sued the state government of Louisiana for hurting their oysters, not the shrimp. And the courts have ordered the state to pay them staggering amounts of damages. The cases are tied up in appeals, but the oystermen could theoretically win more than $700 million—they would bankrupt the state budget. Barisich says he'd get more than $4 million himself.

"You know the kind of money that I would get—I would be able to retire," says Barisich.

Do you think you deserve it?

"Me, personally —I deserve all the breaks I can get. I think I deserve it in principle, because it would show the government that you just can't jack people over. You know, people have rights."

Some people might say, sometimes when you have a crisis, a few people have to suffer for the public good.

"I don't want to be a part of the few that suffer," says Barisich. "There's got to be another way."

State officials say they've learned their lesson: they're starting another pilot project like Caernarvon at another spot on the Mississippi, and they're already compensating fishermen who might get hurt. Scientists say they'll probably face other problems along the way that they never expected.

Part IV: Hurricane Risk to New Orleans

When emergency management officials think about the worst natural disasters that might befall America, San Francisco is always on the list. They say there's a 70 percent chance that a major earthquake will hit that city in the next 30 years and potentially cause thousands of deaths. But they say there's another disaster that could be far worse—and many people don't know about it. The chances that this tragedy will happen are much lower, but the death toll would be staggering. Government officials are trying to figure out if there's any way to prevent it.

Think about the great cities in this country, and one of them will be New Orleans. On a recent evening, a scientist pulls up in the French Quarter. Joe Suhayda takes a plastic rod out of his trunk and he proceeds to show us what could happen the next time a hurricane hits New Orleans.

"OK, this is tool that I have a range rod," explains Suyhayda. "It will show us how high the water would be if we were hit with a Category Five Hurricane."

Which would mean what?

"Twenty feet of water above where we are standing now," says Suyhayda.


A Category Five Hurricane is the most powerful storm on a scientific scale. Suhayda plants the rod on the sidewalk next to a 200-year-old building that's all wrought iron balconies and faded brick and wooden shutters. Every click marks another foot that the flood would rise up this building.

I can't believe you're still going.

"Yeah, still going," says Suyhayda.

Until a couple months ago, Suhayda ran a prominent research center at Louisiana State University. They've developed the most detailed computer models that anybody's ever used to predict how hurricanes could affect this region. Studies suggest that there's roughly a one in six chance that a killer hurricane will strike New Orleans over the next 50 years.

Suhayda is still extending his stick as he describes what he is doing, "It's well above the second floor, just about to the rooftop."

It's hard to comprehend.

"Yes," agrees Suyahada, "it is really, to think that that much water would occur in this city during a catastrophic storm."

Do you expect this kind of hurricane—this kind of flooding—will hit New Orleans in our lifetime?

"Well I would say the probability is yes," says Suyahada. "In terms of past experience, we've had three storms that were near misses—that could have done at least something close to this."

Basically, the part of New Orleans that most Americans—most people around the world—think is New Orleans, would disappear.

Suyhayda agrees, "It would, that's right."

A Risky Spot

And just across the Mississippi River, Walter Maestri is struggling to help New Orleans prepare. Maestri is the czar of public emergencies in Jefferson Parish (that's the county that sprawls across a third of the metropolitan area). He points to a map of the region on the wall of his command post.

"A couple of days ago," explains Maestri, "We actually had an exercise where we brought a fictitious Category Five Hurricane into the metropolitan area."

The map is covered with arrows and swirls in erasable marker. They show how the fictitious hurricane crossed Key West and then smacked into New Orleans.

When the computer models showed Maestri what would happen next, he wrote big letters on the map, all in capitals.

"KYAGB—kiss your ass good bye," reads Maestri.

"Because," says Maestri, "anyone who was here when that storm came across was gone—it was body-bag time. We think 40,000 people could lose their lives in the metropolitan area."

And some scientists say that figure is conservative. People have known for centuries that New Orleans is a risky spot — the biggest river in North America wraps around it; and most of the land is below sea level. But researchers say they've been learning just how grave the problem is, only in the last few years. And they say the city and the nation aren't prepared to handle it.

To begin to understand why, we clamber up the levees along the Mississippi River. Our guide is Oliver Houck, who runs the environment program at Tulane University Law School.

Houck describes it, "There's no place in the world that has a levee system that is as extensive as this one—it's a monster system."

The U.S. Army built this monster system we're standing on. Since the late 1800s, the Army Corps of Engineers has built more than 2,000 miles of high, grassy embankments, along the Mississippi and its branches.

"This levee system is to levees around the world, the way that the Great Wall of China is to walls around the world," continues Houck. "There are other walls and then there is The Wall. There are other levees and then there is The Levee system.

The Army built it because storms over the Mississippi used to cause massive floods. Back in the 1920s, the river gushed over its banks and killed thousands of people and forced a million to abandon their homes.

"It was always thought that the big threat of flooding in New Orleans was the river—and it was—because it flooded regularly," explains Houck. "So we beat flooding by taming the river. The irony of history has been that we—like one of those old citadels in an adventure story— defended ourselves against the enemy that we knew, which was the river, but to the rear and to the flank was this other threat, which we are only now beginning to appreciate, and it may be too late to prevent.

Preparing for Category Five

The first warning shot came in 1969.

Sound from an old newscast with Walter Cronkite on CBS:

"The remnants of killer Hurricane Camille continue to spread death and destruction today, triggering flash floods in Virginia…"

Hurricane Camille shook the country, it was one of those rare Category Five storms, and here's the problem: When the government built the levees to protect New Orleans, they designed them to handle much smaller storms. Government officials did not expect that such a massive hurricane would hit the city in our lifetimes.

Sound from old newscast:

"The country's chief hurricane experts declared today that Hurricane Camille was the greatest storm of any kind ever to hit the nation..."

It missed New Orleans, but only by a hundred miles, which suggested that officials had been short sighted.

Then another Category Five storm hit the country in the early 1990s - remember Hurricane Andrew? Now officials in Louisiana started to worry more about New Orleans.

They got still another warning just a few years ago.

Sound from newscast:

"Forecasters are saying that Hurricane Georges could hit New Orleans with 115 mile an hour winds. Thousands packed up and moved out, clogging evacuation routes."

And that taught everybody a troubling lesson. Joe Suhayda, the scientist with the big stick, drives me through the city to explain.

"Well, Hurricane Georges was one for which the track had the potential of flooding the city. So the people were given a mandatory order to evacuate the city," says Suhayda.

And government officials had made elaborate plans so the population could evacuate smoothly. We keep passing blue street signs marked Hurricane Evacuation Route. The government had organized fleets of busses, to rescue tens-of-thousands of people who didn't have cars. At the last minute, Hurricane Georges faded to a weaker storm and it veered away, which was lucky. Because the evacuation was a fiasco.

"And what happened to the people that did evacuate is that they got into massive traffic jams and many of them spent the worst part of the hurricane either on the highway—stopped— or had pulled off to the side of the road," remembers Suhayda.

Now supposing the hurricane had really walloped New Orleans? Here are all of these thousands and thousands of people in their cars trapped on the side of the road. What would happen to them?

"Many of our evacuation routes are subject to flooding," says Suhayda. "And they would be washed away, and there would be really no way for help—that is the emergency services people—to get to them to help them."

The Natural Buffer Disappears

And there's another reason why scientists worry more about hurricanes every single year. There's always been a huge natural buffer that helps protect New Orleans from storms. There are miles of wetlands between here and the Gulf of Mexico: they slow hurricanes down as they blow in from the sea. But that buffer is disappearing. Every year, a chunk of wetlands the size of Manhattan crumbles and turns into open water.

Joe Suhayda explains, "So the hurricane can move closer to the city before it starts to decrease. So in effect, the city is moving closer to the Gulf as each year goes by."

And he says, it's partly because of those levees along the Mississippi River. When they stopped the river from flooding, they also prevented the wetlands from getting the regular doses of floodwater and mud that they need to survive. Studies show that if the wetlands keep vanishing over the next few decades, then you won't need a giant storm to devastate New Orleans — a much weaker, more common kind of hurricane could destroy the city too.

A Metropolitan Soup Bowl

That's why Walter Maestri and his colleagues are getting ready at the emergency command center in Jefferson Parish. He says if the hurricane comes, they'll seal themselves inside.

"This is the communications center here—at every station we've got fire, we've got emergency medical, National Guard…" explains Maestri.

Maestri says imagine what happens if a huge storm hits just to the east of the city.

"The hurricane is spinning counter-clockwise, it's now got a wall of water in front of it some 30 to 40 feet high, as it approaches the levees that surround the city, it tops those levees," describes Maestri. "The water comes over the top - and first the communities on the west side of the Mississippi river go under. Now Lake Ponchetrain— which is on the eastern side of the community—now that water from Lake Ponchetrain is now pushed on the population that is fleeing from the western side, and everybody's caught in the middle. The bowl now completely fills and we've got the entire community under water, some 20 to 30 feet under water."

Remember all those levees that the U.S. Army built around New Orleans, to hold smaller floods out of the bowl? Maestri says now those levees would doom the city, because they'll trap the water in.

"It's going to look like a massive shipwreck," says Maestri. "Everything that the water has carried in is going to be there. It's going to have to be cleaned out— alligators, moccasins and god knows what that lives in the surrounding swamps, has now been flushed -literally—into the metropolitan area. And they can't get out, because they're inside the bowl now. No water to drink, no water to use for sanitation purposes. All of the sanitation plants are under water and of course, the material is floating free in the community. The petrochemicals that are produced up and down the Mississippi river—much of that has floated into this bowl... The biggest toxic waste dump in the world now is the city of New Orleans because of what has happened."

Planning for Disaster

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers runs its own command post right on the banks of the river. And federal officials have ordered them to figure out, 'What would it take after a disaster to get New Orleans back in shape?'

You'll find the Army Corps's chief researcher Jay Combe behind a warren of gray cubicles; he's assembling his findings in a three-ring notebook.

"Each of these maps shows a different area," says Combe. "This shows where you flew in ... "

Combe says nobody in America has confronted these issues across an entire city. Not after an earthquake. Not after floods. Not after September 11.

"Street signs will be gone," he explains, "things that you know like, 'I'm going to go down to the corner of Broadway and St. Charles'—that place won't be there anymore."

So he's mapping the crucial structures in the city with longitude and latitude, because he says emergency crews will have to use navigation devices just to find where they are.

Combe looks like Santa Claus with a tie. It's especially unnerving to hear him talk about disaster. He's trying to figure out, for instance, how will emergency workers start working in a city that's drowned in an 80-mile lake? New Orleans has protected itself from past floods partly with the levees, but the city also operates one of the biggest pumping systems on earth. There are giant turbines all across town, and every time there's a major rain, they suck up the water and pump it out. Combes says that system won't work after a huge hurricane.

"The problem," says Combe, "is that the city's been underwater. And the whole city has to be drained by the pumps, and since the pumps have been under the water, the pumps are flooded. They don't operate now— we have to get the pumps back in operation and in order to get the pumps back in order, we have to get the water out of the city."

Sounds like a Catch 22.

"That's correct."

Terrible Devastation

Researcher Jay Combe has reached a troubling conclusion. He's told his supervisors at the Army Corps of Engineers that if The Hurricane hits New Orleans, most of the buildings in the city would probably be destroyed. If the water didn't demolish them, the hurricane's horrific winds would. And Combe says that raises a question: How many people would die?

Some researchers say 40,000. Some say 20,000. This Army Corps researcher says those figures are probably too low.

Combe worries, "I think of a terrible disaster. I think of 100,000."

Do you dream sometimes about a hurricane?

"It's strange you should ask that," answers Combe. "I had a dream the other night about flooding, and it's unusual because I don't usually have bad dreams. I can't really remember the dream except that water was coming down a slope. I don't remember much of it, fortunately. I don't want to remember."

Federal officials are so stunned by these sorts of findings that they're rethinking their assumptions about New Orleans. Officials in the U.S. Army say, 'There's got to be a way to prevent some of that devastation.' So they'll study whether they should build more levees and build them higher. They'll study whether the region needs new highways, so people can evacuate faster.

Critics say, 'We don't need more construction, we need less.'

Oliver Houck from Tulane University says, "Stop the foolishness of permitting yet more residential development. We are granting permits every week for new subdivisions right in the path of where this stuff is going to go. We're still covering those people with flood insurance, Daniel."

And state and federal officials are asking Congress to launch a massive project to restore the region's natural defenses. They want billions of dollars to try to rebuild some of the crumbling wetlands, which buffer New Orleans from hurricanes raging up from the Gulf. Scientists say that's the best way to save the city: make that ancient shield of wetlands strong again.

But even if the country started those projects tomorrow, it would take decades to see results. Scientists like Joe Suhayda say they can't wait that long to protect New Orleans. So he's pushing a stopgap idea. Some people say it's sort of nutty.

The Haven

"It's a lifeboat," explains Suhayda. "And the lifeboat is there because it anticipates, at some point, possibly, the main ship is going to sink."

Some scientists believe that if a huge storm hits New Orleans, the city would have to be abandoned. Bulldoze the rubble, rebuild someplace else. But Suhayda thinks they could save a piece of it. He wants the nation to build a massive wall around the downtown heart of New Orleans. It would be like the giant walls that protected medieval cities. It'd be almost three stories high, and miles around. It would enclose the French Quarter and government buildings, and a hospital and housing. If a monster hurricane comes, at least that part of the city could survive. Suhayda calls it 'the community haven.' He shows me a small example.

"What we're on now is a concrete wall that is of the type that I was suggesting as a community haven," explains Suhayda.

This one's about 20 feet high, with grassy slopes. It shields the nearby houses from the lake, sort of like a gated community. There's a pair of huge solid-steel gates—like a bank vault—at the entrance to the neighborhood.

"So," says Suhayda, "we would have a wall of this type, maybe a little bit higher, that would enclose the community haven. "

Suhayda pictures the scenario unfolding like a disaster movie: the forecast comes in, a giant hurricane's approaching, and government officials sound the alarm: 'Get to the haven, if you can.'

"And so through gates like this, people would come in buses, walking or automobiles and get behind the wall," describes Suhayda.

Is there a siren saying, 'Everybody get inside the gate! Two minutes left! One minute left! '?

"You're exactly right," says Suhayda. "It would come down to a critical last few minutes. I can imagine people trying to carry their dogs and their prized possessions and fighting winds, that at this point would be very very strong. Some people probably falling down and needing help and maybe there'd be crews that would actually go out and try to assist these people. But there'd come a time when a decision would have to be made to stop any entrance to the haven."


We've tried to find scientists who'd say that the predictions you've heard in this story will probably never come true. We haven't been able to find them.

The main debate seems to be: Should the government spend billions of dollars to try to protect a city from a disaster that might not happen?

Remember, scientists say the odds are something like one in six that a hurricane will hit New Orleans over the next 50 years.

Walter Maestri says, maybe the city will be lucky. He says on the other hand, if a killer hurricane does strike New Orleans, then you and the rest of the nation's taxpayers will have to pay the mind-boggling costs of dealing with the carnage and destruction.

"One of the things that's frustrating now for all of us in my business," explains Maestri, "is that if that Category Five Hurricane comes to New Orleans, 50,000 people could lose their lives. Now that is significantly larger than any estimates that we would have of individuals who might lose their lives from a terrorist attack. When you start to do that kind of calculus - and it's horrendous that you have to do that kind of calculus - it appears to those of us in emergency management, that the risk is much more real and much more significant, when you talk about hurricanes. I don't know that anybody, though, psychologically, has come to grip with that: that the French Quarter of New Orleans could be gone."

As you stroll through New Orleans, it seems like people who live here have come to grips, in a way. Their TV stations and newspapers run big stories about how their world might disappear. Most say they wouldn't live anyplace else.

Residents of New Orleans, Louisiana:

"My name is Patricia. I came here from Texas, set one foot in the French Quarter, and said, Oh yes, this is where I want to be."

"If you like drive through New Orleans, you have like this really great smell. Instantly you're hungry - it's like good barbecue, good gumbo, good Cajun food."

"It's like living in another country."

"Bourbon Street is wild. It's wild."

"If you walk in the night or during a fog, it's 17th century."

"That's my jazz band."

"Of course, if we ever get a hurricane—that's it."

"If there were a hurricane here, a real one, the city would be underwater in a moment."

"But I wouldn't evacuate the city!"

"Seems like every time you look at a hurricane coming, you think, it's going to hit you, then it don't."

"They'd never be able to get this place evacuated. I'd stay right here. The worst I could do is die."

"When god says something's going to happen to you, it's going to happen anyway."

"I was here when they thought Georges was coming through. I thought—well, I'll live and die in New Orleans. It's better than living and dying in Dallas."