Louisiana Working to Rebuild Flood-Preventing Barrier Islands, Swamps

Last year's hurricanes showed that nearly every part of Louisiana's long, circuitous and sinking coast is vulnerable to catastrophic flooding similar to what happened here last summer.

Engineers are already working on the earthen levees and floodgates around New Orleans, but officials say there is also an urgent need to pour money into a second line of defense: The natural world of barrier islands and marshlands that stand between towns and the Gulf of Mexico.

On Friday, state and federal officials embarked on a tour of several multimillion-dollar projects started before Katrina and Rita. The work involved building sand dunes, planting marsh grasses and dumping mud on shorelines.

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The tour of islands where pirates once held court and plantations flourished highlights the desperate, and seemingly futile, war Louisiana is fighting against Mother Nature while it tries to patch up the human mistakes of the past.

The tour was to culminate with a ribbon-cutting party for the projects on Grand Isle, a resort town routinely battered by hurricane storm surges that break over the barrier island 60 miles south of New Orleans.

"This ceremony is to celebrate the progress we've made with these projects in saving the coast," said Gabrielle Bodin, a spokeswoman for the task force that oversees coastal restoration work in the state.

Louisiana is still losing its battle against the Gulf, despite the tens of thousands of man-hours, the hundreds of scientists, the sundry forums and conferences, the slew of doctoral papers and $500 million in federal and state dollars spent since the early 1990s on saving the coast.

For nearly a century, Louisiana has been losing land at astonishing rates. So far, about 2,000 square miles have disappeared, or an area roughly the size of Delaware. And the state continues to lose on average more than 20 square miles a year.

There are many culprits behind the vanishing land. Much goes back to a 19th century levees-only theory on how to manage the Mississippi River.

Levees were great for keep shipping lanes open and water out of fields and homes. But the ramped-up river channelized the delta and left the swamps to die. By keeping the Mississippi from overflowing its banks, much-needed sediment and freshwater did not reach the swamps.

Louisiana's wetlands loss was exasperated by oil and natural gas drilling, natural subsidence, clear cutting of cypress forests and sea level rise. Hurricanes also did damage: Katrina and Rita destroyed or seriously damaged 200 square miles of marsh last year.

"It brings it home to people and the threat feels a lot more real," Tim Matte, the mayor of Morgan City, which sits along a second branch of the Mississippi, said about last year's hurricanes.