spea magazine

Speaking Out: Learning from Katrina—What Our Experts Say

Revisiting the Wetlands

Christopher Craft

Charles Wise Hurricane Katrina came ashore just east of New Orleans and the damage to the city and surrounding region was devastating. If not for the 40 miles of marshes between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, the impact would have been much worse.

Fifty-three percent of Americans live along the coast among natural disasters like Katrina, and tidal wetlands are critical buffers that protect coastal communities. In addition to shoreline protection, wetlands provide other important functions such as supporting commercial and recreational fisheries, which are especially important in Louisiana, filtering pollutants, and providing habitat for many plant and animal species.

But in Louisiana and elsewhere, we are losing wetlands at an alarming rate. In Louisiana, an average of 75 km2 (more than 18,000 acres) of wetlands are lost every year. The causes vary, but include (1) construction of levees along the Mississippi River that starve the marshes of sediment, (2) canals and pipelines constructed for oil and natural gas fields, (3) natural subsidence in the Mississippi delta, and (4) climate change, especially when it contributes to an increase in the sea level.

A $14 billion plan, “Coast 2050”, aims to restore and protect more than 10,000 km2 (nearly 2.5 million acres) of Louisiana’s marsh and swamp during the next 50 years. But the plan is stymied by lack of support from Congress and the White House. It’s time to rethink how we manage and protect our coastal resources so the outcome will not be worse the next time Katrina, or something else, comes along.


Christopher Craft is an associate professor at SPEA, IUB. His research focuses on biogeochemical linkages among vegetation, soils, and soil fauna, and the effects of human activities on these linkages. He particularly uses wetlands as a model for these links. Professor Craft received his Ph.D. from North Carolina State University in 1987.