Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, was one of the worst human and environmental tragedies to occur in the U.S. in the last several decades. As such, it became a chief exhibit for radical environmentalists in their attack on the allegedly destructive policies of the George W. Bush administration. Yet the hurricane was a fickle example that also illustrated quite the opposite of what radical environmentalists intended: their movement’s own complicity in this tragedy as a result of its having derailed plans in prior decades for the construction of levees that might have spared New Orleans its disastrous fate in 2005.
In 1977, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) was slated to launch its Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Barrier Project, which called for the construction of levees at two strategic locations -- the Rigolets and Chef Menteur passes -- to prevent massive storms on the Gulf of Mexico from causing Lake Pontchartrain to flood the city of New Orleans (which is below sea level). A state environmentalist group known as Save Our WetLands (SOWL) believed that these proposed levees would negatively affect the area surrounding Lake Pontchartrain. Further, the organization was convinced that the construction of the levees would be merely the first step in a malicious plan to drain Lake Pontchartrain entirely and open the area to capitalist investment, which it regarded as a de facto evil. Thus SOWL filed a lawsuit to prevent the ACE from building the fortifications.
On December 30, 1977, U.S. District Judge Charles Schwartz, Jr. ruled in behalf of SOWL by issuing an injunction demanding that the Corps of Engineers draw up a second environmental-impact statement, three years after the Corps had submitted the first one. Ultimately, the project was aborted in favor of a campaign whereby the government would merely build up existing levees.
During the decades following the court case, many scientists warned about New Orleans’ lack of preparedness for dealing with a Category 5 hurricane. When Katrina finally struck, the levees the government had expanded proved to be inadequate. The hurricane pushed Lake Pontchartrain over the flood walls, and the spilling water then undermined those walls, causing them to topple, flooding the city.
In the aftermath of Katrina, Louisiana State University professor Gregory Stone said:
“The floodgates [which ACE was preparing to build in 1977] would have blocked the flow of water from the Gulf of Mexico…into Lake Pontchartrain. This would likely have reduced storm surge coming from the Gulf and into the Lake Pontchartrain … [and] would have alleviated the flooding of New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina.”
The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet also breached its levees in approximately 20 places during Katrina, flooding much of eastern New Orleans. This calamity, too, might have been avoided if not for the fact that in 1996 several environmental groups had filed lawsuits demanding that the ACE stop its plan to raise and fortify the levees along a 303-mile stretch of the Mississippi River (in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas). The plaintiffs in this case included the Sierra Club, American Rivers, the Mississippi River Basin Alliance, the Louisiana Wildlife Federation, the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and the Mississippi Wildlife Federation.
These organizations claimed that the ACE had not adequately considered “the impact [the levees would have] on bottomland hardwood wetlands” and “bottomland hardwood forests” that “must be protected and restored if the Louisiana black bear is to survive as a species, and if we are to ensure continued support for source population of all birds breeding in the lower Mississippi River valley.”
When the lawsuit was settled in 1997, the ACE agreed to conduct an additional two-year environmental-impact study on the possible ramifications of its proposed project.
During the years that followed this settlement, a host of environmental groups and activists continued to lobby against proposals for the construction (and expansion) of levees along the Mississippi River. Jeffrey Stein of American Rivers told a congressional hearing that the Mississippi's existing levees had already “reduced the frequency, extent and magnitude of high flows, robbing the river of its ability … to sustain itself.” The left-leaning Charles Stewart Mott Foundation (a major funder of radical environmental groups) lamented that “the numerous levees and canals built on the lower Mississippi River … disrupt the natural flows of the … River’s sediments.” The National Audubon Society said that the Mississippi River levees had “cut off freshwater flows, harming fishing and creating salt water intrusion.” Audubon official Dan McGuiness told an ACE meeting in 2002 that he wished to explore possible “opportunities to lower or remove levees” from the river.