Louisiana May Armor Coast Against Dangerous Future

Why not lay hundreds of miles of pipeline and pump sand along the coast to create speed bumps against hurricanes? How about building barriers out of barges? How feasible would it be to grow new cypress swamp forests to fend off storm surge?

Better still, why not build one, huge wall — a kind of "Great Wall of Louisiana" — along the coast that would be the levee of all levees and protect Louisiana from the Big One, the kind of storm that would wash over all of New Orleans?

Engineers, scientists, builders and others talked about big, bold and perhaps impractical public works projects Tuesday at a conference on how to defend Louisiana's low-lying coast against the worst storms the Gulf of Mexico can throw at it.

The participants took up a problem that other parts of the American coast might be looking at in the future: angrier oceans getting closer and closer.

"We're all in the same boat, but New Orleans is in the boat first," said Al Naomi, a senior project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers, which sponsored the event.

Scientists said the future is happening sooner in Louisiana because the southern part of the state is built on land made from relatively new deposits of the Mississippi River, and is sinking relatively fast. Also, the Gulf of Mexico has been eating away for years at the wetlands and barrier islands that serve as a storm buffer.

Congress asked the Corps of Engineers to craft a plan for Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina slammed the state, killing about 1,100 people. A preliminary draft is due out by June and a final document is expected by early 2007.

Besides building a massive $33 billion levee system, engineers talked about erecting floodgates, weirs and other structures around New Orleans similar to those that keep the low-lying Netherlands dry.

The obstacles, needless to say, are formidable. Much of the funding depends on Congress, and in this era of tight budgets getting money for coastal projects in Louisiana has proven difficult.