10 years after Katrina: We're in a race against time

Natalie Peyronnin

Ten years ago, I was thrown into the clean-up of a devastated New Orleans, the most grueling experience of my life.

During the months that followed, I experienced the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina close-up. The images remain so emotional that I rarely talk about them to this day. I witnessed evidence of human suffering that would change the course of my career and the person I’d become.

Scientists and engineers had warned for decades that New Orleans was increasingly vulnerable to storms and had proposed ways to prevent massive flooding. Yet, our protective coastal wetlands continued to disappear at an alarming rate and our levees remained tragically flawed.

After the city’s levees broke that fateful Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, I spent weeks dressed in a full hazmat suit or a respirator, inspecting and overseeing the clean-up of the most contaminated sites in the city – including the Convention Center, the Superdome, public housing, hospices and hospitals.

Much of the contamination came from the people who had been trapped at these locations, living in squalor with no bathrooms, or from people suffering in a hospital with no power or care.

At one hospice, a mark on the door and blood on the floor was the only indication left that someone had died there. And then there were the thousands and thousands of flooded homes – each representing a family in crisis.

All that time, I was consumed by one thought: This should never happen again. There must be a better way to protect this beautiful city.

Hurricane Katrina was a wake-up call and today we’re seeing signs of progress:

  • A $1 billion, 26-foot-tall surge barrier, the largest design-build project ever constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, stretches for nearly 2 miles through the marsh landscape. It gives New Orleans protection is didn’t have a decade ago.
  • Under Louisiana’s landmark 2012 Coastal Master Plan, a major effort is under way to rebuild healthy coastal wetlands. More than $1 billion has been spent to rebuild barrier islands, our first line of defense.
  • The pending BP settlement will provide even more funding for essential restoration, including using the natural power of Mississippi River and its sediment to rebuild wetlands that provide a buffer to storm surge.
  • New flood standards require federally funded structures to be built at least two feet higher than previously required – and direct agencies to use wetlands, dunes and other natural defense to make coastal communities more resilient.
  • And just last week, winners were announced in the international Changing Course design competition held to develop a 100-year vision for the Mississippi River Delta and the local economies that depend on it. The solutions need more study, but the message was clear: The future delta needs to be smaller than it is today, but it can be sustained if we effectively use the river’s sediment and freshwater resources.

But more needs to happen, and we’re in a race against time. We know another storm will come and that risks continue to increase with more land loss and rising oceans.

Louisiana loses one football field worth of wetlands every hour. Since the 1930s, the state has lost a land area equivalent to the state of Delaware. Without major intervention, scientists predict Louisiana will loss a land mass larger than Rhode Island by 2060, and the football-field rate of loss will double to every 30 minutes.

We also know the journey forward will be hard.

People in the delta worry about their livelihoods and culture disappearing as the coast land is re-engineered. Industry worry their operations may be curtailed. And New Orleanians worry the new levee and surge barriers may not be able to withstand another super storm without the protective wetlands outside this system.

None of the actions we take now or in the future will happen without causing pain, fear – and sometimes tears – for someone else.  But we must act now or the pain and suffering of inaction will be much worse.