“The islands had reconnected,” said Penland of UNO’s Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Studies. “They were a continuous chain. It was amazing to see how rebuilt the islands were since Georges.”
And then Ivan blasted by about 100 miles east of the spits of sand marking Louisiana’s eastern-most boundary.
“It was devastating,” Penland said. “Islands were there one day and gone the next. It was that dramatic.”
The chain was torn asunder again, with 35 to 40 percent of the visible islands disappearing. Curlew and Gosier islands were lost.
“It was a phenomenal storm,” Penland said. “If Ivan had come through (New Orleans), there’s no doubt that I would not be living in my house right now.
“If that eastern eye-wall would have come through Louisiana, we would have used body counts to measure its intensity.”
But the northern islands survived remarkably well, and this veteran of the wars to save Louisiana’s coast said that fact has changed his entire outlook on how coastal restoration should be approached.
“The plantings worked beautifully,” Penland said. “That showed that building that marsh behind that island was a cheap, effective alternative.”
That’s no big change in his philosophy: He’s always believed the key to stemming coastal erosion is maintaining the series of coastal barrier islands.
The real change is his belief that decades of planning for projects are a waste of time. “We can’t wait 10 years,” Penland said. “It just reinforces the urgency of the large-scale restoration taking place.
“We’ve got to move away from all these small, incremental projects.”
In the weeks since Ivan’s winds and storm surge ripped at the coast, Penland said he has looked at the restoration projects and experienced a revelation.
“If you look at the work at Timbalier Island, this is what we should be doing,” he said. “We need dredges moving sediments, building land.
“Ivan has just told us, ‘I wouldn’t worry about 10 years from now. Let’s worry about next year.’”
The priority should be on pumping sediments into the boundaries of the barrier islands all along the Louisiana coast.
“They’re kind of like a moving barricade,” Penland said. “Even when they’re under water, they’re still providing the first line of defense.”
But the effort to build land should go beyond that, he said.
“We should start on the barrier islands, on the framework of the coast, and build landward,” Penland said. “Build it in the barrier islands. Build it in the marshes. Build it behind Houma.
“I would just buy me a bunch of dredges and go to work making land. That’s the K-Mart plan.”
Penland recognized the need for ongoing studies, but said he wouldn’t even worry with ensuring that any rebuilt land is correctly engineered to exacting elevations. Such work, which many coastal experts say is necessary to ensure vegetation can grow to hold land together, takes a lot of planning and slows down work, Penland said.
“I would stop worrying about if it’s plus 1 (foot in elevation) or plus 2. We just have to get the land out there,” he said. “It’s going to be that land that protects us.”
Of course, Penland also recognized that such work is very expensive and can’t be funded solely by state coffers.
He also said the current federal commitments are laughable when considering the importance of the Louisiana coast.
“Coastal Louisiana has been such an important part of U.S. history,” Penland said. “I think we’ve been screwed by cheap everything: cheap oil, cheap transportation, cheap natural gas.”
So he proposes the state be aggressive in flexing its muscles to prove the value of its coastal resources.
“I think we should put an embargo on oil and natural gas. We should embargo shipments on the river,” Penland said. “They’re screwing us, and people in Florida (and elsewhere in the country) will be worried about saving the coast of Louisiana when the cost of gas is $3 a gallon.”
In the meantime, Penland said he is very worried about the viability of accomplishing much.
“My planning horizon has been adjusted from decades to years,” he said. “In some ways, I think we’re being pushed into a corner.
“We’re past Christmas trees and rocks on shorelines. They’re not doing anything.”
That leaves only one option that can make immediate impacts in favor of coastal restoration.
“What is the only tool available to use that works? I think it’s land building,” Penland said. “We have proven that we can do it in Terrebonne and Lafourche Parish.
“Now we need to do that on a larger scale.”
But even if dredges began working tomorrow, Penland said he has no illusions of a return of the thousands and thousands of acres lost in the past several decades.
“Do we think we can rebuild the coastline back to what it was in the 1950s? No,” he said. “We can’t stop New Orleans being on the coast in 2090, but I think we can make New Orleans a functioning city on the coast by 2090 if we act now.”
However, any real benefit in coastal restoration calls for immediate action.
“The single goal should be land building,” he said. “Let’s get the foundation built first.”
In the meantime, however, Penland said he worries about the communities in the areas most susceptible to erosion.
“I think people are kidding themselves when they’re building new subdivisions in Cocodrie,” he said. “Highway 57, Highway 55, Highway 56: These things don’t have 10 years.”
By Andy Crawford: Louisiana Sportsman Magazine
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