By Douglas Meffert, National Audubon Society, Audubon Louisiana
For those of us living on the Gulf of Mexico and east coast of the United States, we are entering our annual season of trepidation and preparedness — the annual hurricane season, which officially begins this Friday, June 1.
Last Thursday, Robert Detrick, Director of NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, announced that NOAA expects an “average” hurricane season, based on a 30-year seasonal average. They estimate 9 to 15 named tropical storms with sustained winds faster than 39 mph to form during the season. Four to eight of these are predicted to have sustained winds of 74 mph or stronger (Category One or higher), with one to three becoming major hurricanes with winds faster than 111 mph (Category Three or higher). By contrast, 2005, the year that brought Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, represented the most active Atlantic season in recorded history. 2008, the year of Gustav and Ike, was considered a more active than average season.
The extent to which we can predict an “average” hurricane season often depends on whether an El Nino Southern Oscillation event occurs that season. With an El Nino, a reversal of the Pacific trade winds, switching from a more typical easterly direction to a westerly one, can produce high-altitude winds from the Pacific that can shear the tops of storms that are forming in the gulf and Atlantic and, thus, potentially minimize their intensity.
Though an El Nino is predicted for this year — unfortunately for us, meteorologists predict it occurring sometime in the latter half of hurricane season — an El Nino event in no way diminishes our need to be prepared for an intense hurricane in any given year. At the same time, acting now to implement large-scale natural delta-building processes in concert with other marsh creation and barrier island restoration projects will help buffer us from future storms.
Because of the catastrophic flooding they brought, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, in particular, served as acute wakeup calls for those throughout the coast regarding the value of our wetland and deltaic ecosystems in providing a natural storm surge buffer to our cities, towns, critical infrastructure and the cultures and ecological species that depend on them. Louisiana has lost so much land over the past several decades — including vital marshes and barrier islands — that we’ve lost our natural buffer against powerful hurricanes.
Just as the “levees only” policy originally adopted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proved unsuccessful in terms of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, a “levees only” policy for Louisiana coastal ecosystems in terms of storm protection would ultimately prove disastrous. The Multiple Lines of Defense Strategy (MLODS) is widely cited as the most practical integrated approach for long-term storm surge protection, and MLODS necessitates long-term maintenance of natural coastal buffers.
Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan, which recently unanimously passed the state Legislature, calls for a bold yet realistic $50 billion, 50-year plan to create and protect as much of our natural coastal buffer as possible while implementing other structural and nonstructural actions that will minimize flood and storm damage and associated costs.
The coalition formed by the Mississippi River Delta Restoration Campaign, working with the State, Corps of Engineers, coastal communities and other critical stakeholders, seeks to ensure that generations living in the latter half of this century will have a new cadre of pioneers ensuring the sustainability of the ecology, economy and cultures that have evolved with this dynamic system for centuries.