Long-term harm to marsh system
Katrina, Rita ripped Gulf Coast wildlife and wetland habitat
By Tom Stienstra, Chronicle Outdoors Writer
Sunday, August 27, 2006
(08-27) 04:00 PDT Lake Charles, La. -- After Hurricane Katrina plundered the Gulf Coast, Maria Tio returned to her flooded home in New Orleans and found deathlike silence. "There were no sounds at all," Tio said. "It was so eerie. There was no life of any kind from the salt water, not even mosquitoes. Nothing."
In Cameron Parish, Nicole Clark was returning to see what was left of her parents' home after Hurricane Rita roared through. She found an alligator carcass perched in a tree like a scarecrow and the town of Holly Beach scraped clean down to the foundations.
In the heart of the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, a wrecked house that looks as if it were dropped there in a scene out of "The Wizard of Oz" was carried for miles by storm surge.
It's been a year since Katrina and Rita -- and their 175 mph winds -- tore up the Gulf Coast, but in many areas, it looks as if only weeks have passed.
Towns and cities testify to the human and social toll exacted by the storms. But the environmental costs can best be understood in places like the refuge. Here, it can be seen how hurricanes launch a catastrophic chain reaction of events, including saltwater inundation, habitat destruction and displacement of wildlife.
All over the Gulf Coast, marshes are dying from salt water transported inland by hurricanes, according to scientists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies. As the plants die, the marsh is replaced by brown water that becomes a dead zone.
That is also why wildlife is being pushed to strange places, like the dozen deadly cottonmouths Terry Billiox found in the walls of his house in Johnson's Bayou when he ripped away flood-damaged Sheetrock.
The entire ecosystem is at risk, said Thomas Moorman, director of conservation planning for Ducks Unlimited.
"All this could be lost," said Val Marmillion, director of the America's Wetland Campaign.
Restoring the Sabine wetlands and those across eight states on the Gulf Coast, scientists say, is vital to the long-term ecology and economy of the region. If restored, they can dramatically slow advancing hurricanes because the trees, levees, ponds and natural high spots act as speed bumps.
"The marsh is the last line of defense against hurricanes," said Fred Roetker, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The mosaics of sloughs, shallow ponds, levees and cuts also allow road access to oil rigs and provide workstations for crews. Healthy marshes purify fresh water running through them and provide habitat for hundreds of species of waterfowl, songbirds and other wildlife.
Dale Hall, chief of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said it will cost $270 million to repair hurricane damage to 66 national wildlife refuges on the Gulf Coast.
So far, Congress has sent $30 million for facility repair and cleanup to hurricane-affected refuges. In late June, President Bush signed off on an additional $132.4 million.
Aerial view of hell
The morning was hot, humid and gray, with dark cumulus coating the sky, when Roetker, a biologist and a pilot, boarded his Cessna float plane at a dock on the Calcasieu River in Lake Charles. Roetker, a 10,000-hour pilot who conducts aerial waterfowl surveys in Canada, Alaska and the Arctic, powered up the 418-horsepower turbine engine and lifted off. He studied the weather radar screen: Huge red and yellow cells representing violent thunderstorms loomed off to the west.
As he climbed a few hundred feet, a panorama of the 125,000-acre Sabine National Wildlife Refuge came into view. Broken levees led to expanses of dead, brown water.
"It looks like the marsh was picked up and turned upside down," Roetker said. "You can be miles from anywhere, and you still see the stuff. You name it, it's all here. It needs to be removed, but there are no roads. There's no way to get here."
Roetker banked his plane in a 30-degree diving right turn over the interior of the refuge, once famous for its ducks and alligators. Below was a 6-mile debris line peppered with countless tanks, barrels, refrigerators, upside-down boats, trailers, containers from 18-wheelers, and broken-up pieces of homes and commercial buildings.
An orange cylinder appeared in the distance, so Roetker homed in and dropped down to 75 feet above the marsh for a closer look. The object was actually the shell of a school bus tipped at an angle, embedded in the mud.
"This was a healthy marsh before the hurricanes," Roetker said. "Now it's suffocating. It's a solid mass of garbage. For waterfowl and wildlife, it's like living in a landfill."
The hurricanes deposited on the refuge 1,700 acres of debris piles, 1,400 items defined as hazardous materials, and roughly 200,000 gallons of hazardous liquids and gases, according to aerial surveys by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Even if Congress fully funded a cleanup, the Fish and Wildlife Service isn't sure how it would get the job done because roads are flooded and boat routes are blocked by debris. The only way in is by float plane, helicopter or airboat.
Along the Gulf Coast, Roetker banked the plane left and pointed down at a 2-mile strip of bare land consisting of roads and concrete foundations, without a single building. "That used to be the town of Holly Beach," Roetker said. "Ten thousand people would come here for Fourth of July."
In the earliest efforts to rebuild the town, power poles have been erected along the streets, but with no structures it looks like a giant drive-in theater without the screen.
"Everything that was in that town is gone," Roetker said. "It is now scattered in pieces across 10 miles in Sabine National Wildlife Refuge."
Nearby Cameron is another of the six towns completely destroyed by Rita. Shrimp boats are still marooned on their sides in the marsh, in ditches and on roads.
"See that wood frame?'' Roetker said. "That was once a church. It's totally gutted."
Most trees were snapped off and carried away. On a rare tree that still was upright, a boater's life jacket was lodged on a high branch. Three miles inland, Roetker spotted a house that had been lifted off its foundation by floodwaters and then carried to its last resting spot in the refuge, like a dead whale washed up on a remote beach.
In one pocket, where shallow emerald water was edged by green vegetation, flocks of spoonbills, egrets and blue herons were jammed together as they tried to share a small portion of freshwater wetlands where the marsh is clinging to life.
Elsewhere, Roetker pointed out the matrix of flooded fields, ponds, sloughs and canals, many linked by storm-punched breaks where saltwater has charged into the marshes. He banked the plane to the left and waved a hand at the massive expanses of open, brown water.
"You see what's happened? What the hurricanes did? There's nothing green down there anymore."
"The plumbing has been altered," said Moorman of Ducks Unlimited. "We lost 1 million acres of marsh."
Based on aerial surveys, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates Katrina and Rita transformed 100 square miles of coastal wetlands from marsh to open water.
"Another hurricane would put the nail in the coffin," said Dave Moreland, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries for 30 years. "We need to be spared."
Hurricanes' battering of ecosystem has far-reaching implications
The damage to wildlife and the recreation industry from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is so vast, according to state and federal reports, that many wildlife areas will not be restored in a generation, even with no more killer hurricanes. Consider some statistics and anecdotes:
-- Home for ducks: 5 million waterfowl on two North American flyways use the region's wintering habitat. As wetlands disappear, the waterfowl are crowded and cannot survive in large numbers.
-- Marine industry: In the fishing and marine industries, 40,000 boats are missing, 3,500 commercial vessels are gone, and in the vicinity of New Orleans, a charter sportfishing industry that had grown from 60 to 600 boats in a 10-year span was wiped out.
-- Hardwoods: Louisiana lost 60 percent of its tree cover. At Pearl River Wildlife Area, the oak, hickory and fruit trees, which provide food for wildlife, "were pretty much wiped out," said Dave Moreland, a biologist for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "I saw a squirrel trying to eat a pine cone from a tree on its side."
-- Deer: Because of forest-wide tree blowdowns in Cameron Parish, Nicole Clark said that deer wandered about as if they were lost, and then in the next month disappeared. "Because everything blew down, they had no place to hide," Clark said. "I live out in the woods -- well, it used to be the woods -- and it's all gone. No more deer, either."
-- Breton Wildlife Refuge: 50 to 70 percent of wildlife habitat was destroyed at Breton National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana.
-- Gators on the loose: Alligators can be anywhere, warned Moreland, because many have roamed inland to avoid salt water, and hundreds of others escaped from alligator farms (alligators are sold for their meat and hides, with some required to be returned to the wild).
-- Ground-level plants: New growth of thick ground-level vegetation is choking off habitat for many species. Wild turkeys will take the biggest hit. "It's catastrophic damage to habitat," Moreland said. "Nonnative weeds are choking out newly sprouted trees."
-- Feral hogs: The wild pig population is exploding, and the animals are turning up in herds wherever they might find food, such as at an RV park set up for emergency housing.
-- Crazy cows: "Watch out for the cows,'' Clark said. "They've gone crazy from drinking salt water.''
E-mail Tom Stienstra at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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