Shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert wondered aloud whether the Federal Government should help rebuild a city much of which lies below sea level. The most tough-minded answer to that question demonstrates that rebuilding and protecting New Orleans is in the national interest. Reason: The very same geological forces that created that port are what make it vulnerable to Category 5 hurricanes and also what make it indispensable.
One such force is the Mississippi River. Once, the Gulf of Mexico extended north to Cape Girardeau, Mo., but the river gradually deposited enough sediment into a receding sea to create tens of thousands of square miles of land stretching south to the present mouth of the river. Long after New Orleans was first settled, the entire region remained above sea level and safe from hurricanes. Engineers prevented river floods by building levees and kept shipping channels open by constructing jetties two miles out into the ocean so that the river dropped its sediment into deep water. Before the jetties were built, 100 ships at a time often waited days for deep-enough water to pass over sandbars blocking the Mississippi's mouth. The levees and jetties stopped sediment from feeding the deltas; the land sank, and coastal Louisiana shrank. Similarly, other great ports on deltaic rivers, like Rotterdam, are also below sea level; the airport serving Amsterdam is 20 ft. below sea level, lower than any part of New Orleans.
If engineering the Mississippi made New Orleans vulnerable, it also created enormous value. New Orleans is the busiest port in the U.S.; 20% of all U.S. exports, and 60% of our grain exports, pass through it. Offshore Louisiana oil and gas wells supply 20% of domestic oil production. But to service that industry, canals and pipelines were dug through the land, greatly accelerating the washing away of coastal Louisiana. The state's land loss now totals 1,900 sq. mi. That land once protected the entire region from hurricanes by acting as a sponge to soak up storm surges. If nothing is done, in the foreseeable future an additional 700 sq. mi. will disappear, putting at risk port facilities and all the energy-producing infrastructure in the Gulf.
There is no debate about the reality of that land loss and its impact. On that the energy industry and environmentalists agree. There is also no doubt about the solution. Chip Groat, a former director of the U.S. Geological Survey, says, "This land loss can be managed, and New Orleans can be protected, even with projected sea-level rise." Category 5 hurricane protection for the region, including coastal restoration, storm-surge barriers and improved levees, would cost about $40 billion--over 30 years. Compare that with the cost to the economy of less international competitiveness (the result of increased freight charges stemming from loss of the efficiencies of the port of New Orleans), higher energy prices and more vulnerable energy supplies. Compare that with the cost of rebuilding the energy and port infrastructure elsewhere. Compare that with the fact that in the past two years, we have spent more to rebuild Iraq's wetlands than Louisiana's. National interest requires this restoration. Our energy needs alone require it. Yet the White House proposes spending only $100 million for coastal restoration.