WASHINGTON – Part of the United States is being overtaken this election season,but not by a political candidate.
The conqueror is a watery grave,and coastal Louisiana is falling in. Coastal erosion is no secret in the state,but wetlands loss – a football field about every half hour,or 25 square miles a year – does not seem to be an issue for voters in the presidential election.
While President Bush and Sen. John Kerry use political jargon to chip away at each other's credibility,the Gulf of Mexico literally washes away one of the nation's most valuable resources. But the candidates,national media and even Louisianans have done little to address the national hazard.
John Tinkler,a 65-year-old retired resident of Grand Isle,La. – on a barrier island directly affected by coastal erosion – said his town's vulnerable position is important to him,but not when it comes to electing a president.
He lists “consistency” and the “ability to stand up and be counted when the chips are down” among his concerns.
The coast's demise – the result of natural subsistence,canals dredged for oil and gas barges and manmade levees to prevent Mississippi River flooding – is a hot topic in state elections,but more than just Louisiana is affected.
Louisiana marshes supply 30 percent of U.S. seafood and produce or transport 18 percent of U.S. oil. Marshes used to protect 20,000 miles of oil pipeline and serve as a hurricane buffer for New Orleans. But erosion has destroyed much of the protective ground,leaving pipelines and the city exposed.
Many pipelines,once underground,are now in open water. Hurricane Ivan broke or moved enough of them in September to cut off 400,000 barrels of oil,which along with damage to gulf drilling rigs,caused crude oil prices to rise to $55 a barrel from $43.
Greg Stone,director of the Louisiana State University Coastal Studies Institute,said Louisiana's “alarming” problem should be the No. 1 national issue.
Stone toured Florida and Alabama's Ivan-ravaged coastlines by helicopter. The $4 billion to $10 billion in damages include a collapsed section of elevated Interstate 10 near Pensacola,Fla.,and nine deaths.
New Orleans,about 50 miles inland,and the Louisiana coast would be in even worse shape if a similarly strong storm hit the area directly,he said. He fears the Crescent City faces 50,000 fatalities in such a natural disaster.
But Stone has not met enough Louisianans who understand.
“If I had my wish,I'd take everybody in Louisiana on a field trip to downtown Pensacola,” he said.
Many Louisianans experience disaster amnesia,Stone suggested,by forgetting the damage inflicted by monster storms such as 1965's Betsy,a 600-mile wide Category 4 hurricane with 135-mph winds. Betsy caused nearly 80 deaths in Louisiana and inundated much of New Orleans.
He compared this amnesia to the way many Americans who initially were cautious following the Sept. 11,2001,attacks but now give little thought to changes in the terror alert level.
“If people in our state don't even know about this,how will people throughout the country react?” Stone asked.
America's WETLAND is a national public awareness campaign to save the coast by ending what many consider ignorance of the federal government and public.
Mike Tidwell,a Washington-area environmental writer and radio host,supports the group and has worked to further depict what he called “the greatest untold story in America” in his book,“BAYOU FAREWELL: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast.”
Tidwell said he hopes the work of America's WETLAND will pay off but said there are drawbacks – time and funding.
Scientists predict the Cajun Coast could be gone by 2050 if action is not taken soon.
“One day,downtown Houma could be gulf-front property,” Stone said. Houma,La.,is some 30 miles from the Gulf of Mexico.
Tidwell is baffled by the U.S. government's low funding for Louisiana wetlands – budgeted at $375 million for 2005 – when $100 million has been pledged to save Iraq's Mesopotamian wetlands,the so-called Garden of Eden.
Louisiana Sens. John Breaux and Mary Landrieu and Gov. Kathleen Blanco,all Democrats,have requested $14 billion in federal funding for the combination of diversion projects needed to re-direct parts of the Mississippi River into marshes. The fresh river water would lower salinity and build up land through the deposit of river silt. Some similar small projects seem to be working,according to scientists.
Robert Hogan,an LSU political science professor,said presidential candidates are not addressing coastal erosion because Louisiana is not a battleground state – the most recent statewide poll has Bush ahead by about 20 points.
One way the issue could quickly be nationalized,Hogan said,is if Bush wins and Republican Senate candidate David Vitter advances to a predicted December run-off. The two top vote getters among seven on the November ballot would face each other to replace Breaux,who is retiring. Bush could visit the state to support him,and Vitter has been focusing on coastal erosion.
Another irony about Louisiana coastal erosion's absence from the presidential election is that many residents have taken part in efforts to save the coast.
Louisiana's Christmas Tree Program has recycled the centerpiece of many families' holiday décor to hold sediment in the marshes.
Since 1989,“brush fences” – sunken pens stuffed with conifers – have been placed in shallow bodies of water. The fences are tied down and improve marshes by breaking waves,filtering water to make it more livable for aquatic plants and providing reefs for fish to live in.
The brush fences are in stark contrast to the nearby skeleton trees killed by saltwater intrusion that allow soil to slip out to the gulf through their dead roots.
Ken Bahlinger,chief landscape architect for the state Department of Natural Resources,oversees the Christmas tree program,which has built eight miles of brush fences with nearly 1.3 million trees over 15 years. Most of the trees have come from residents of coastal parishes.
“It's one of the tools in the toolbox” for non-scientists to fix the coast,he said.
Robin Bridges,LSU Agricultural Center county agent in Webster Parish in northwest Louisiana,said many people,particularly hunters and fishermen,in his part of the state care about coastal erosion but that making it an important political issue will take a few generations. People who do not actually see the yearly damage the way naturalists and conservationists do,he said,are not likely to worry about the long-term effects.
Bridges and Stone somberly agreed,however,that political attention is unlikely to come without a major catastrophe.
“I think it's going to have to impact a major metropolitan area before it's going to take effect on a national level,” Bridges said,which would give New Orleans' nickname,“The City That Care Forgot,” an all too eerie irony.