Federal Funding for Louisiana’s “Hurricane Highway” Likely on the Way

Louisiana’s “Hurricane Highway” might finally be next in line to receive federal funds to repair a collection of widespread ecological damage from the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MRGO) shipping channel, according to this article from NOLA.com. The Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet shipping channel is a 76-mile channel constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the mid 20th century that provides a shorter route between ships traveling from the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans’ inner harbor Industrial Canal via the Intracoastal Waterway, and ever since Hurricane Katrina struck the area in 2005, New Orleans residents have cursed the area, and state officials and activists have labeled it a “hurricane highway.”

It’s expected that Congress will soon approve legislation that will indicate that the federal government is responsible for financing a plan to restore wetlands eroded by the Mississippi River-Gulf outlet, or “Mr. Go,” as it’s often referred to. Despite the fact that the money would still need to be appropriated, the fact is that this years-long dispute over determining who should pay to restore the wetlands will finally come to a close. This note of legislative closure will be seen as a major victory for Louisiana officials, once passed.

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, who has worked closely on the issue in Congress, commented on this issue by saying, “overall in terms of ecological productivity and buffer, this is an important project that needs to happen, and it is mitigating the adverse impacts of the federal project that was the MRGO.” Rep. Graves was formerly the state’s point man on coastal restoration.

The provision of funds is only a part of broader legislation that will authorize water-related projects nationwide, and Nola.com provided a list of the other Louisiana levee and flood protection projects that would be included in that authorization. The U.S. House of Representatives approved the legislation recently, and the Senate is expected to do the same in the coming days.

The shipping channel, which is 76-miles, was originally built as a shortcut from the Gulf of Mexico to the “doorstep” of New Orleans.  It has since been labeled a “hurricane highway” by Louisiana officials due to the fact that many storm surges were funneled through the MRGO during Hurricane Katrina, contributing to the devastating levee failure that allowed for the city to be inundated. While the Army Corps of Engineers has since reportedly downplayed the channel’s role during Katrina, MRGO’s long-term effects are still considered to run much deeper.

Since the channel fully opened in 1968, it has helped erode vast areas of marsh and wetlands in the passing decades. This has resulted in the damaging of the New Orleans area’s natural storm buffer and the alteration of the ecosystem at large. Additionally, saltwater intrusion through the MRGO, which was originally not used as heavily as was originally intended by the shipping industry, has aided in the destruction of cypress and tupelo swamp that once bordered the city of New Orleans.

Whenever the channel was closed in 2009 with the construction of a rock dam at Bayou La Loutre, it was disputed who should pay for the damage the channel left behind in its wake and where the funds should have originated from, making this recent indication of a nearby victory all-the-more encouraging.

Amanda Moore, the director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Gulf Program, is also the coordinator of the MRGO Must Go Coalition. She spoke about the issue by saying that this new legislation “marks a crucial milestone for addressing the disastrous legacy of the MRGO. More than 17 years after Hurricane Katrina, Congress has clarified its original intent – to fully and federally fund implementation of the MRGO ecosystem restoration plan.”

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Researchers To Study Mississippi Delta Mudslides

In 2004, an underwater mudslide collapsed a Taylor Energy oil platform after Hurricane Ivan struck the coast of Alabama; this mudslide caused the longest oil spill in U.S. history. According to this article from The Advocate, a team of LSU researchers is tasked with studying hurricanes and mapping the Mississippi River Delta in order to gain a better understanding of mudslides’ effects on offshore energy production.

The team of LSU researchers will be studying mudslides in the Gulf of Mexico, which will eventually lead to a better understanding of the effects of mudslides on offshore oil operations. In a statement, the marine geologist leading the team, Sam Bentley, pointed out the need for such an intensive study by saying, “the last major study like this was in the 1970s, and was also led by LSU.  Much has changed since then, from the seabed conditions to the tools used to map the seabed and the need for offshore energy infrastructure. The knowledge gaps and possible liabilities are huge.”

The team will produce a comprehensive map of the Mississippi River Delta in order to gauge and better understand when and where mudslides occur, which can help predict risk. The seabed that surrounds the portion of the Mississippi River Delta that splits into Southwest Pass, South Pass, and Pass a Loutre, which is colloquially referred to as “Louisiana’s bird’s foot” is the primary seabed area that will be mapped by the team. According to officials, this work will be the first comprehensive map of the delta front in over 40 years, showcasing just how necessary this project is.

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) will be providing about $3.8 million in funding for the project. This organization issues offshore space leases that allow the production of conventional and renewable energy. Along with BOEM, the other organizations involved are the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), the Water Institute of the Gulf, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Bentley also revealed that BOEM had asked his team 10 years prior to begin laying the groundwork for the study.

Kehui Xu, the LSU Coastal Studies Institute director and a professor in LSU’s Department of Oceanography & Coastal Science, spoke about the study by saying, “in the past, many surveys were done either before or after landslides, but not during landslides, which often happen when there are hurricanes and river floods. While regular sensors deployed before such events can be displaced, buried, or damaged, we will be working with the NRL to test and deploy some rugged and new sensors that can ‘travel with’ landslides.”

In order for an underwater mudslide to occur, loose sediment that’s set on an incline begins to slide downward all at once. This is often caused by waves and other shifting parts; however, larger mudslides often form due to the larger waves generated by storms and hurricanes. Marine Geologist Sam Bentley put this concept into practical perspective by saying, “imagine a kitchen board with pancake batter; if you want it to flow downslope, down a low angle… you can jiggle [the kitchen board]. When the Mississippi River dumps sediment out of the mouth, mud piles up right offshore. Sometimes, it piles up so steeply that it slides down of its own accord.”

Marine geologist Sam Bentley hopes that his team’s research will be able to assist energy companies in building their offshore projects in a safer way. Researchers hope to stock their equipment with necessary tracking capabilities so that smaller, slower changes in the seabed will also be detected–changes past surveys of the bird’s foot missed.

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