Mr. Chairman, Senator Vitter, members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, I am Carlton Dufrechou, the Executive Director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation (LPBF). On behalf of the Pontchartrain Basin Foundation and the citizens of south east Louisiana, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you about sustainable hurricane protection for our region.
The LPBF is a private, non-profit organization created by the Louisiana State Legislature in 1989, to coordinate the restoration and preservation of the water quality and habitats of the 10,000 square mile Pontchartrain Basin. Our primary role is to act as a spokesperson for Basin citizens and as a catalyst to develop and initiate restoration programs and activities.
Personally, I am a native of New Orleans. My education is in engineering. Earlier in my career, I worked with the Corps of Engineers (COE) as a planner and project manager. Since 1992, I have been with the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.
Some events and dates like September 11, 2001, are etched in our lives. One of those for me is Hurricane Betsy and 1965. In 1965, I was 9 years old. We lived on Bellaire Drive, just a few blocks from what 40 years later would become the infamous breach of the 17th Street Canal floodwall. In 1965, the floodwall did not exist. Only a small levee, one barely above my height then, paralleling the canal, protected our home. Our lakefront levees were not much higher. Betsy left me with many memories. I recall how, as the storm approached my father and uncle, an architect and engineer respectively, discussed the possibility of the levees being overtopped and flooding. I remember how we left our home and went to ride out the storm with my godfather who lived in an older and higher section of the city. I recall the darkness and howling winds and rains as we huddled in the center hallway that night. I remember the next morning when my dad returned from checking on our house and said that we could go home – that the levees had held in our neighborhood. I remember learning that others were not as fortunate - that much of St. Bernard and the 9th Ward had flooded – that the destruction and losses were tremendous.
Over the next decades, to prevent a reoccurrence of Betsy’s devastation, levees are raised and floodwalls are built. Some were raised as high as 17’ on the lakefront. This became the hurricane protection system for metro New Orleans.
For the next forty years, almost to the day, it seemed to work.
Then another event like September 11 or the death of President Kennedy was etched in our lives - Hurricane Katrina. It directly impacted one million plus and indirectly impacted the economy of America.
Although while in the Gulf, Katrina was a geographically larger and more powerful storm than Betsy, much about the two storms was alike. Both crossed just east of New Orleans and both were Category 3 hurricanes as they passed the latitude of the city. But Katrina’s devastation was orders of magnitude greater than Betsy. There was one other very significant difference - our coast. Forty years ago it was still strong.
Louisiana’s coast has always been the New Orleans region’s first line of defense against hurricanes. In recent years, we’ve recognized that more. Unfortunately, almost 40 years ago when our present hurricane protection system was designed, many did not.
For our region to be sustainable, hurricane protection for the future must change. A major hurtle will be changing the way our agencies operate. Navigation and transportation projects have traditionally been developed and implemented independently from hurricane projection and coastal restoration. The result of this independent project development has been tragic for our region. The most conspicuous example in the Pontchartrain Basin is the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO). This deep draft navigation channel has drastically altered our coast. It cut a channel 40 miles long perpendicular to the coast breaching our natural lines of defense against hurricanes. The MRGO was completed in 1965, the same year as Hurricane Betsy. Many attribute flooding from Betsy to the MRGO. The MRGO did more. It changed the coastal hydrology and ecology. These changes acted like a cancer, progressively eating away at coastal wetlands. After 40 years of coastal disintegration, it is no coincidence that the impacts of Katrina were horrific to our region. The MRGO must go.
Yet, our lead hurricane protection agency, the COE, is unable is act. The MRGO is a federally authorized project that Congress has directed the COE to maintain for deep draft ship operations. They have their orders and their hands are tied. Congress can change those orders by deauthoriziing the MRGO. The MRGO is a clear and present danger to our region. Please deauthorize it immediately.
We must consider the big picture for all future hurricane protection. We need stronger levees and floodwalls but they are not enough. Coastal restoration, our first line of defense, must be integrated into hurricane protection. Recognizing this, the Multiple Lines of Defense Strategy was developed. In the simplest terms, this strategy shows how natural features of our coast like barrier islands, marshes, and ridges compliment engineered features like levees to protect the greater New Orleans region from hurricanes. Applying this strategy, 10 coastal restoration project areas were identified. These are the 10 Pontchartrain Coastal Lines of Defense (attached). They include restoring the Chandeluer barrier islands, maintaining marsh land bridges, restoring natural ridges like Bayou La Loutre, reintroductions of Mississippi River water, and others. Our goal is to mimic nature by restoring the plumbing of the coast. The outcome is a self-sustaining coast. The total coast is $1 billion. The investment is significant but it will secure the future of our region and secure continued economic benefits to America for perpetuity.
We know what to do and we have the expertise. Stronger levees plus a stronger coast will provide the hurricane protection we desperately needed.
Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation