How (Not) to Prevent the Next Hurricane Katrina

cypress trees

Image courtesy of Gary J. Wood via flickr

One of Louisiana's last remaining natural relics - the majestic cypress forest - is rapidly being whittled away, at the rate of 20,000 acres a year, despite presenting the state's best defense against future hurricanes. In a fascinating piece of environmental investigative journalism for the latest issue of Mother Jones, Michael Behar takes us on a tour of the Atchafalaya Basin, the state's (and nation's) largest swamp, whose rich wildlife and 100-foot tall giant cypress trees are being decimated at an alarming rate; as he elegantly lays out, the cypress' impressive height and extensive root system provide the state's best natural bulwark against hurricanes - much more so than any well-conceived levee system. In addition, they also serve a crucial function for the ecosystem, preventing invasive plants from overrunning the swamp and providing shelter for a diverse wildlife. Yet despite providing these essential ecosystem services, the cypress are being mercilessly cut down and pulverized to make mulch - ironic, given that the very houses they decorate might end up being swept away by the next major hurricane (at the rate the loggers are going).

Dean Wilson, the man whom Behar befriends on his trip, is one of the few individuals standing between the remaining forests and the private interests bent on scrapping them for mulch. Appointed to be the Waterkeeper Alliance's "Atchafalaya Basinkeeper," he regularly patrols the swamps and organizes tours to cast light on this wholesale destruction. He worries that all the cypress could be gone within the next 20 - 30 years.

The changing swamp ecosystem hasn't exactly helped improve matters either: seeping saltwater has poisoned and killed off many of the trees that once formed a buffer around New Orleans; planting seedlings in all but the driest, most shallow areas has proven to be a losing proposition. Yet even while dead, the cypress can stay in place for up two 2 centuries, thus still representing a strong defense against hurricanes; when combined with the loggers' zeal, the increased salinity of the swamp has all but eliminated the cypress' chances to make a full, let alone partial, recovery.

Enacting a moratorium on the clear-cutting of the cypress may be the state's only hope of salvaging what once was a vibrant ecosystem and - perhaps more importantly for its citizens' longterm interests - a strong buffer. As Behar puts it, however, the odds aren't too good.

Via ::Mother Jones: Louisiana's Mulch Madness (magazine)

See also: ::Katrina and Rita Responsible for Nation's Worst Ever Forestry Disaster, ::Number of Natural Disasters Up Four-Fold over Last Two Decades: Global Warming to Blame?