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The End of an Error?

Between 1958 and 1968 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dug the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO)—pronounced as Mister Go. The outlet was a huge canal with an original bottom width of 500' and a depth of 36'. It was designed to bring shipping into the heart of New Orleans from the southeast, bypassing the Mississippi River. The construction required the excavation of more dirt than for the Panama Canal. Port officials and local elites had sought the canal since the completion of the Industrial Canal in the early 1920s. The Industrial Canal connects the Mississippi River with Lake Pontchartrain and unlike the Mississippi River (the Mississippi fluctuates with the precipitation in its drainage basin), it is a sea-level canal. Its backers promoted MRGO as bringing enormous economic benefits to New Orleans as this shipping "super highway" connected the Industrial Canal directly to the Gulf of Mexico allowing new development to blossom in the heart of the city. Unfortunately, because it was a half of century in planning and construction it was not built for ships of the late 1900s, was too shallow, and was largely obsolete when it was finished. mrgoMRGO never brought the intended economic development benefits, but it did do one thing well. MRGO became one of the most environmentally destructive projects in U.S. history. The large cross-section of the canal allowed salt water from the Gulf into the cypress swamps and fresh-water marsh south and east of New Orleans. For centuries those swamps and marshes had provided protection for the growing city of New Orleans from the storm surges associated with tropical storms and hurricanes that frequently visit the Louisiana coast. Unlike tsunamis, storm surges are like super high tides pushed against the gradually rising shoreline and up onto land and into communities. On top of these flooding waters are waves driven by hurricane force winds. It is the storm surge not the winds that destroy and kill. Cypress and marshlands slow the rise of water and give the rotating winds of the storms time to move on. The salt water from MRGO killed these protective wetlands. Between the start of construction on MRGO and the time that Katrina hit the Louisiana coast over 100 square miles of marsh and cypress swamp were lost in the very direction that the city was most vulnerable, the southeast. When Katrina struck it was across this damaged environment that the storm drove the surge through the MRGO channel into the Industrial Canal and when the floodwalls on the canal failed, into the lower 9th ward, St. Bernard Parish and New Orleans East. floodwallThe Corps produced detailed and convoluted analyses attempting to prove that MRGO was not a factor in the flooding of the city, but the evidence against them was overwhelming. Although never conceding defeat they did eventually propose an enormous floodwall that would, in theory, replace the protection of the lost swamps and marshes. That floodwall has now reached its first milestone; the last of the 1,271, 140-foot-long concrete "soldier" pilings, which will constitute the foundation of the floodwall, has been driven. Steel structures and thousands of tons of rocks will complete the 2 mile long, 26' high barrier by 2011. Because human safety must come first we haven't even dared to imagine what changes such a huge barrier will do to the ecosystems on either side of it. The solution to a very big blow to the environment caused by a massive, ill-advised, economic development project is potentially another very big blow. For more information: Catastrophe in the Making: The Engineering of Katrina and the Disasters of Tomorrow. By William R. Freudenburg, Robert Gramling, Shirley Laska, and Kia T. Erikson. Washington D.C.: Island Press. 2009. ——— Robert Gramling is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Socioeconomic Research at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and co-author of Catastrophe in the Making: The Engineering of Katrina and the Disasters of Tomorrow with William Freudenburg, Shirley Laska, and Kai Erikson.