Corps told to close ship channel dubbed ‘hurricane superhighway’

Published 7:21 pm Wednesday, December 6, 2006

A coalition of scientists, environmentalists and politicians on Tuesday told the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to close — once and for all — a shipping channel that scientists say contributed to the devastating deluge of parts of eastern New Orleans, including the Lower 9th Ward, the home of Fats Domino.

The Corps is expected to release a report next Wednesday to outline what should be done with the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a channel built in the 1960s that has destroyed hundreds of square miles of wetlands. It was built as a shortcut to New Orleans and a way to kick start the development of reclaimed swampland east of New Orleans that wound up drowned by Hurricane Katrina.

The coalition also issued a report, which said in part, “The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, known locally as Mister Go, was a bad idea when constructed and has become a worse one every year.”

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The document, unambiguously called “Mister Go Must Go,” was handed out to members of Congress, who will have a say on what direction the Corps takes.

Roger Cawley, a Corps spokesman, said the agency would “keep a distance from what this group has said.” He declined to discuss what the Corps plans to present next week.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La., said there are indications that the Corps report will leave several options on the table. “I’m tired of them spending time to look at options, it’s time to act,” Melancon said.

The channel’s problems are well-documented. It’s caused widespread environmental degradation as it eroded and ate the surrounding wetlands and funneled the Gulf of Mexico’s salt water inland, thereby killing stands of cypress forests.

In all, the channel is blamed for about 922 square miles of damage to the wetlands southeast of New Orleans, the report said.

That’s not all it’s done. Scientists and residents say the channel acted as a conduit for Katrina’s storm surge, causing water to stack up and overwhelm levees ringing the low-lying neighborhoods that developed in the past century east of the French Quarter.

After Katrina the movement to close the MRGO has picked up and Louisiana’s politicians nearly unanimously say the channel poses a menace to New Orleans. The channel now routinely gets called a “hurricane superhighway.”

Shortly before Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005, Hassan Mashriqui, a Louisiana State University engineer and one of several scientists who presented the report in Washington on Tuesday, had called the channel “a Trojan horse” that could undermine the Corps’ flood defenses.

In June, a Corps official dismissed that argument as a “popular myth” that has been rebutted in other studies.

There are some opponents to closing the channel, most notably shipping companies and industries that rely on it to get deep-draft oceangoing vessels to their facilities.

The report, which was sponsored by Environmental Defense and other groups, laid out several options for what should be done. Besides stopping its use as a shipping channel and building some barriers to fill it in, freshwater should be diverted from the Mississippi River to push the salt water zone out, the report said.

John Lopez, a scientist with the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation who was involved in putting the report together, said the City of New Orleans also ought to look into pumping wastewater into the areas damaged by the MRGO to restore the ecosystem and help rebuild lost wetlands.