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White House Initiates Task Force to Restore Damaged Gulf Coast
WASHINGTON, DC, August 28, 2009 (ENS) - President Barack Obama is creating a new federal interagency task force to coordinate the "economic and environmental resiliency" of Louisiana and the rest of the Gulf Coast region. The White House Council on Environmental Quality announced the task force earlier this week on the eve of the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall at New Orleans on August 29, 2005.

The failure of levees that were supposed to protect the city resulted in a flood that inundated about 80 percent of New Orleans in the days following the hurricane.

New Orleans residents paddle past a submerged car and flooded homes after Hurricane Katrina. (Photo by Greenmanowar)

The entire city was under a mandatory evacuation order and whole neighborhoods were destroyed. The storm and subsequent floods killed at least 1,836 people and caused more than $40 billion in property damage in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Rebuilding has been slow and difficult, although officials say frustration under the Bush administration has eased with the incoming Obama team.

"The pace of restoration has not matched the urgency of the situation," said Steven Peyronnin, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. "We are hopeful that the administration will breathe new life into restoration efforts that are crucial to protecting the people of coastal Louisiana."

According to the Obama administration the new task force, "will enable federal agencies, working with state and local governments and other regional stakeholders, to come together and develop a strategy to increase both the economic and environmental resiliency of the region. This working group will serve as a pilot for addressing the effects of climate change in other coastal regions."

New Orleans 9th Ward resident, Eddie Lohr returns to his home for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. October 2005. (Photo by Andrea Booher courtesy FEMA)

Conservation groups have called for White House intervention in what is widely viewed as a stagnant process, now overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The groups say more must be done to restore coastal wetlands and other rapidly disappearing natural storm defenses.

"President Obama has taken a crucial step toward saving Louisiana's nationally important coastal wetlands that provide natural hurricane protection, essential economic benefits and vital habitat for birds and other wildlife," says Dr. Paul Kemp, vice president of the National Audubon Society's Louisiana Coastal Initiative.

Kemp is invited to meet with White House environmental leaders next week to discuss the task force, along with representatives of the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation and the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.

"Just as it requires a team of doctors with different expertise to perform major surgery, it will require a team of experts with different skills from multiple agencies to restore the coastal wetlands of Louisiana and Mississippi," said Mary Kelly, senior counsel of the Center for Rivers and Deltas at Environmental Defense Fund.

A Plaquemines Parish house floats in an irrigation ditch pushed off its foundation by Hurricane Katrina. October 2005. (Photo by Andrea Booher courtesy FEMA)

"We applaud the administration for renewing President Obama's commitment 'to restore nature's barriers - the wetlands, marshes and barrier islands that can take the first blows and protect the people of the Gulf Coast,'" she said.

"As things stand, coastal Louisiana is disappearing and faces increasing threats from climate change," said Susan Kaderka, director of the National Wildlife Federation's South Central Regional office. "The Obama administration has signaled that it is keeping its promises to the people of the Gulf Coast."

National and regional conservation groups are urging that the Mississippi River be reconnected to its delta in Louisiana. They say this would allow sediment and freshwater to maintain and rebuild coastal marshes that help lessen storm surges, provide critical wildlife habitat, protect oil and gas infrastructure, and serve as nurseries for shrimp and other valuable seafood species.

Kemp says that would take the installation of structures to divert a portion of river flows below New Orleans and the inclusion of the Atchafalaya River system, which receives nearly a third of the Mississippi River flow above New Orleans.

Primarily because of the separation of the Mississippi River from its delta by levees, Louisiana has lost more than 1.2 million acres of coastal land in the last 75 years, representing about 80 percent of coastal land loss in the United States, Kemp says. Louisiana continues to lose the equivalent of up to 32 football fields of coastal land each day.

"The situation in coastal Louisiana is one of national and international concern," said Brian Moore, director of budget and appropriations for the National Audubon Society. "This new announcement from the Obama administration recognizes the urgency under which we are operating and replaces what has been largely rhetoric with action. We are all very excited to get to work to restore this world class ecosystem."

Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.

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