Gulf eats away at coast outside levee-protected New Orleans

10 Years After Katrina, Gulf Eats Away at Coast


DELACROIX, La. (AP) — Rocky Morales is watching his small Louisiana town of Delacroix slowly melt into the water. The woods where he played hide-and-seek as a boy are gone. It's all water and mud back there now. So, too, is the nearby marsh where townsfolk once trapped for muskrat, otter and mink.

Many of the fishermen who once lived here — his friends and relatives — have disappeared as well, fleeing behind the levees protecting New Orleans out of fear one more hurricane will send the rest of Delacroix into the sea.

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast — killing more than 1,830 people and causing more than $150 billion in damage in the nation's costliest disaster — New Orleans has been fortified by a new $14.5 billion flood protection system. But outside the iconic city, efforts have lagged to protect small towns and villages losing land every year to erosion. And as that land buffer disappears, New Orleans itself becomes more vulnerable.

In the past century, more than 1,880 square miles of Louisiana land has turned into open water — an area nearly the size of Delaware. And the loss continues, with an average 17 square miles disappearing annually, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

See photos of the Gulf's rising seas:

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Gulf eats away at coast outside levee-protected New Orleans
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Cemeteries are disappearing into the Gulf. Entire barrier island chains, Andrew Jackson-era brick forts, Jean Lafitte's pirate colony, lighthouses, bridges, roads, schools and entire towns have been washed away.

"We're losing the cultural fabric of south Louisiana," said Jessica Schexnayder, a researcher with the Louisiana State University Sea Grant program. "It's not just whether the land will disappear, it's about when it's going to be gone."

Hurricanes speed that up and Morales, one of the few remaining fisherman living here, knows another Katrina could be the end of Delacroix.

"It will run us all inside the protection levees," the 51-year-old crabber and shrimper said from his perch on his 16-foot-high front porch.

Neighboring homes stand either on massive stilts that lift them two stories above ground or sit on wheels that would let them flee before a new storm.

Mud flats and open water extend into the horizon.

"All that was solid land. There weren't all these lakes," Morales said. "Katrina tore it all up."

Loss has been a dominant theme since Hurricane Betsy clobbered New Orleans on Sept. 9, 1965, flooding many of the same places Katrina did 40 years later. Scientists say many factors — most of them man-made — have caused the rapid loss of wetlands.

There's sea-level rise (estimates of 3 feet or more in the next century), the natural sinking of the delta (about 1 inch a year in places), ongoing damage from oil drilling (more than 10,000 miles of oil canals crisscross the coast), and repeated hurricane damage (six hurricanes have ravaged Louisiana's coast in the past decade).

Add to that: clear-cut logging that wiped out the swamp forests at the end of the 1800s, oyster dredging that ruined a delta-wide reef world, the spaghetti-like network of gas pipelines and wetlands loss due to urban development.

"The best hope for these communities, and this includes New Orleans, is getting behind a very aggressive delta restoration program," said Jim Tripp, a senior counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund who sits on panels exploring coastal restoration plans.

Since the early 1990s, the government has spent billions on coastal works to slow land loss, but the Gulf inexorably advances.

Katrina itself caused about 190 square miles of land erosion in just days, the loss of an area bigger than New Orleans itself.

Since then, Louisiana has sought to ramp up efforts to save the coast. It established new agencies focused on coastal restoration, launched pilot projects to reclaim open water by pumping in mud and developed a 50-year, $50 billion master plan to reverse land loss.

None of it has worked so far.

Related: See the ongoing construction in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina:

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Gulf eats away at coast outside levee-protected New Orleans
NEW ORLEANS, LA - AUGUST 24: Esther Joseph (R) stands in her home which is being rebuilt with the help of volunteers from lowernine.org in the Lower Ninth Ward on August 24, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The area was one of the most heavily devastated areas of the city following a levee breach during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which killed at least 1836 and is considered the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, is August 29. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Volunteer coordinator Darren McKinney looks out the window of a hurricane damaged home, being rebuilt in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans August 17, 2015. McKinney works for lowernine.org, an organization aiding residents rebuild their homes. Ten years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, the scars left behind are fading in a city that is forever changed. Brass bands still parade through neighborhoods, pulling dancing locals and tourists in their wake. But the flavor of this southern coastal city that was once more Afro-Caribbean and Creole than American has been altered. AFP PHOTO / LEE CELANO (Photo credit should read LEE CELANO/AFP/Getty Images)
Volunteer coordinator Darren McKinney works on a hurricane damaged home in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans August 17, 2015. McKinney works for lowernine.org, an organization aiding residents rebuild their homes. Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina swept buildings off their foundations and deluged nearly all of New Orleans with floodwaters which rose so fast some people drowned in their homes. Those who made it to their rooftops or the relative safety of dry land waited days to be rescued as the Big Easy descended into chaos. Today, colorful homes on stilts have replaced many of the rotting hulks left behind after the low-lying coastal city in the southern United States was finally drained. AFP PHOTO / LEE CELANO (Photo credit should read LEE CELANO/AFP/Getty Images)
Workers repair a damaged footing on the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Surge Barrier on lake Borgne in New Orleans on August 17, 2015. Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina swept buildings off their foundations and deluged nearly all of New Orleans with floodwaters which rose so fast some people drowned in their homes. Those who made it to their rooftops or the relative safety of dry land waited days to be rescued as the Big Easy descended into chaos. Today, colorful homes on stilts have replaced many of the rotting hulks left behind after the low-lying coastal city in the southern United States was finally drained. AFP PHOTO / LEE CELANO (Photo credit should read LEE CELANO/AFP/Getty Images)
Volunteer coordinator Darren McKinney (foreground) takes a break as he works on a hurricane damaged home in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans on August 17, 2015. McKinney works for lowernine.org, an organization aiding residents rebuild their homes. Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina swept buildings off their foundations and deluged nearly all of New Orleans with floodwaters which rose so fast some people drowned in their homes. Those who made it to their rooftops or the relative safety of dry land waited days to be rescued as the Big Easy descended into chaos. Today, colorful homes on stilts have replaced many of the rotting hulks left behind after the low-lying coastal city in the southern United States was finally drained. AFP PHOTO / LEE CELANO (Photo credit should read LEE CELANO/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - JULY 22: A new high school is being built in the Lower Ninth Ward, on July 22, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. It's been ten years since hurricane Katrina devastated neighborhoods throughout the city. This area was wiped out when this levee broke after the storm. Schools are just one of many things being improved post Katrina. While many homes have been rebuilt, there are still many empty lots where homes used to stand. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images
NEW ORLEANS, LA - JULY 22: A new high school is being built in the Lower Ninth Ward, on July 22, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. It's been ten years since hurricane Katrina devastated neighborhoods throughout the city. This area was wiped out when this levee broke after the storm. Schools are just one of many things being improved post Katrina. While many homes have been rebuilt, there are still many empty lots where homes used to stand. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images
NEW ORLEANS, LA - MAY 28: Construction workers from Honduras and Mexico work on new houses in the Lower Ninth Ward, on May 28, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. This neighborhood was destroyed when the nearby industrial canal levy broke during hurricane Katrina. Brad Pitt's Make it Right Foundation has been building many homes in this area - including these. The foundation builds sustainable homes for people in need. It has been almost 10 years since Katrina hit New Orleans, devastating many neighborhoods. Rebuilding has been slow and controversial. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - MAY 28: Construction workers from Honduras and Mexico work on new houses in the Lower Ninth Ward, on May 28, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. This neighborhood was destroyed when the nearby industrial canal levy broke during hurricane Katrina. Brad Pitt's Make it Right Foundation has been building many homes in this area - including these. The foundation builds sustainable homes for people in need. It has been almost 10 years since Katrina hit New Orleans, devastating many neighborhoods. Rebuilding has been slow and controversial. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - MAY 18: A storm gate stands as construction continues on the 17th Street Canal pump station on May 18, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The 17th Street Canal levee was breached during Hurricane Katrina and the Army Corps of Engineers are engaged in the ongoing efforts to rebuild and fortify the regional levee system. The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which killed at least 1836 and is considered the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, is August 29. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - MAY 18: Workers construct a new 'Make it Right Foundation' home along the rebuilt Industrial Canal levee wall in the Lower Ninth Ward on May 18, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The levee was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina and people have been slowly moving back to the formerly devastated neighborhood ever since. The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which killed at least 1836 and is considered the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, is August 29. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - MAY 12: Partially demolished buildings of the B.W. Cooper housing projects are shown on May 12, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The projects were damaged by Hurricane Katrina flooding but sections are only now being town down. The low-income housing development has finally been replaced by two-story, townhouse-style buildings nearby. The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which killed at least 1,836 people and is considered the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, is August 29. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - MAY 15: Esther Joseph sweeps in her flood damaged home which is still being rebuilt in the Lower Ninth Ward on May 15, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. She hopes to move into the house when completed by the end of the year. The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which killed at least 1836 and is considered the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, is August 29. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - MAY 15: French volunteers with lowernine.org help rebuild a home heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina flooding in the Lower Ninth Ward on May 15, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Residents continue to slowly return to the Lower Ninth Ward although much of the area remains uninhabited. The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which killed at least 1836 and is considered the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, is August 29. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - MAY 15: Ohio State student volunteers with lowernine.org help rebuild a home heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina flooding in the Lower Ninth Ward on May 15, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Residents continue to slowly return to the Lower Ninth Ward although much of the area remains uninhabited. The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which killed at least 1836 and is considered the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, is August 29. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - MAY 12: A home destroyed by Hurricane Katrina flooding waits to be demolished in the Lower Ninth Ward on May 12, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The area was heavily damaged during Hurricane Katrina and people have been slowly moving back to the formerly devastated neighborhood ever since. The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which killed at least 1836 and is considered the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, is August 29. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - MAY 12: A work crew demolishes buildings at the B.W. Cooper housing projects on May 12, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The projects were damaged by Hurricane Katrina flooding but sections are only now being town down. The low-income housing development has finally been replaced by two-story, townhouse-style buildings nearby. The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which killed at least 1836 and is considered the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, is August 29. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
One of the modular houses built by the Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation is seen in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans on February 5, 2013. Pitt rasied $30 million for the project that consists of hurricane-proof homes. The Ninth Ward area suffered the worst damage from Hurricane Katrina that occured in 2005 after multiple breaches in the levees of at least four canals. As of March 2009, hundreds of houses have been rebuilt, and dozens of new homes have been constructed. AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
A vacant house sits in front of One of the modular houses built by the Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans on February 5, 2013. Pitt rasied $30 million for the project that consists of hurricane-proof homes. This area suffered the worst damage from Hurricane Katrina that occured in 2005 after multiple breaches in the levees of at least four canals. As of March 2009, hundreds of houses have been rebuilt, and dozens of new homes have been constructed. AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 13: New Orleans home owner Ms. Mary Rush (C) walks through her house that is being completely rebuilt after being devastated by Hurricane Katrina at the IrvingMorris/United Way/NFL Saints: Hope For The Holiday Rebuild at Private Residence on December 13, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Skip Bolen/WireImage for United Way)
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Along the 150-mile-wide delta, people are leaving generations-old homesteads and moving behind the newly fortified levees.

Since Katrina, Henry Martin, a 71-year-old dock and boat owner in the fishing town of Hopedale, has been running his seafood business out of 18-wheeler trailers where he stores tools, piles of oyster sacks and paperwork. When a hurricane threatens, he drives his business out of danger.

"This is dead for sure," he said of his bayou town, which has been largely abandoned by its residents.

Some say Louisiana can't win its fight with the sea.

"You have got to retreat," said Edward P. Richards, a law scholar at Louisiana State University who specializes in disasters.

Scientists say Katrina was especially destructive because of the disappearance of all the buffer land, which helped keep a deadly hurricane that landed a century ago from flooding New Orleans.

Out beyond New Orleans' new flood protection system, the fight for survival is a daily reality.

Lester Ansardi, a 66-year-old crabber who moved behind the floodwalls, points to the rising height of the stilts that Delacroix houses sit on to avoid flooding.

"When we grew up, there were no houses higher than 10 feet off the ground," Ansardi said. "After Betsy houses went up 12 foot. Now, they're 20 feet high."

Morales and his family aren't giving up.

"Only one way he's going to leave, is when they force him to leave," Suzie Guidroz, his longtime companion, said as the couple went for a spin in his white shrimp boat.

Morales smiled as he steered past docks, nets, boats and fish splashing in the bayou, darkening to an emerald green in the sunset. "I guess the water's in the blood," he said.

He waved to an uncle living in one of the 12 houses left in Delacroix, a town settled by Canary Islanders in the late 1700s.

When he was a kid, about 500 people lived in Delacroix. Each evening, people would gather to talk, he said.

"You don't have that anymore. Now they're all up the road more," he said.

Behind the levees.


SEE MORE: Special coverage on the 10th anniversary Hurricane Katrina
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