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Save the Wetlands

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Wetlands: Nature's Speedbumps

Hurricane on the Bayou brings to the fore a silent catastrophe that started long before Hurricane Katrina, contributed to the hurricane’s relentless damage to the city of New Orleans, and continues to pose a serious threat to the nation.  That catastrophe is wetlands loss, which is currently causing the state of Louisiana to lose an incredible 16,000 acres of land each and every year.

Just imagine a chunk of land the size of a tennis court being submerged into the open water every 13 seconds (source: National Wetlands Research Center) and you get a picture of how quickly the coast of Louisiana is disappearing. It is this same marshy land – land that teems with widely varied wildlife, fertile agriculture, major industry and one-of-a-kind culture – that in the past served as a vital “speed bump” that helped to slow hurricane damage and protect Louisiana from the tragic flooding of storm surges.  Scientific studies by the Army Corps of Engineers suggest that every 2.7 miles of wetlands can reduce deadly storm surges by a foot (source: America’s Wetland).  Without wetlands restoration, recovery efforts in New Orleans may all be for naught because it is only a matter of time before another monster storm comes the city’s way. 

Hurricane on the Bayou director/producer Greg MacGillivray had long been worried about wetlands loss in the Gulf States and, by the summer of 2005, he knew it had reached perilous proportions. That’s why he originally set out to make a film about what might happen if a Category 5 hurricane approached the ravaged coastal areas surrounding New Orleans, only to witness Mother Nature prove in a devastating way just how well-founded that concern was.  “We always wanted to tell the story of how important the wetlands are, but when Katrina hit it became much more poignant than we ever could have imagined,” says MacGillivray.  “It really hit home that one of the most important cities and cultures in the United States was almost lost – and it demonstrated with a very raw power how vital it is that we protect our natural world.” 

The filmHurricane on the Bayou thus serves not only as a celebration of New Orleans and the beautiful bayous but as a call to action to save the wetlands upon whose survival the fate of Louisiana rests.  To find out more about the wetlands, the filmmakers consulted with the film’s executive producer, Audubon Nature Institute, as well as one of Louisiana’s most respected coastal geologists, Dr. Shea Penland, director of the Ponchartrain Institute for Environmental Studies, who has been studying wetlands loss for most of his career and considers it to be one of the most serious geological problems facing North America. 

They in turn helped to explain that Louisiana’s unique geography – placed as it is where the grand Mississippi River meets the sea – means that it contains some 40% (according to the National Wetlands Research Center) of the wetlands in the entire United States.  The richness of this area has been an economic boon to Louisiana and made it a major strand in the web of the U.S. economy.  The Mississippi River Delta is enormously profitable to the nation, featuring a bustling shipping port through which nearly 20% of U.S. exports and imports pass, according to the Wall Street Journal, and an off-shore oil industry through which 80% of the nation’s off shore oil travels (source: America’s Wetland) not to mention supplying a quarter of the country’s natural gas (source: Louisiana Sierra Club). The fisheries off Louisiana’s coast provide a whopping 26% of the nation’s seafood catch (U.S. Department of Commerce figure), with a sumptuous mix of shrimp, crabs, crayfish and oysters. Renowned for its beauty and cultural allure, the entire Mississippi River area also traditionally rakes in tourism dollars worth over $15 billion dollars a year (source: American Rivers.)

Yet the wealth of the wetlands goes well beyond money. They are also home to an incredible, irreplaceable array of life with some 400 different species, many of them endangered, represented there. The coast boasts nearly as many fish as Alaska, while 40% of the U.S.’s migratory bird population relies on the area to spend the winter. On the human side, the delta has long fed the roots of one of America’s most vibrant cultures where a rich stew of ethnic communities, including Cajun, Native American, African American and Europeans of all types, have created an exuberant, story-telling, musical way of life that could never be recreated. 

But like all the world’s most beautiful things, the Mississippi Delta has also proved fragile.  Its deterioration began over a century ago when ambitious engineers first began to tinker with altering the Mississippi’s flow, constructing levees and jetties that stopped crucial sediments from feeding the deltas.  Without those nutrient-filled deposits, the land began to sink away.  As development further progressed in the area, other assaults continued on the marshes.  Swamps were drained to make way for housing and farms; and channels were dug into the wetlands, allowing salt-water to invade fresh-water marshes in doses deadly enough to kill off life-sustaining trees and grasses, while further increasing erosion.  Meanwhile, the more vulnerable the coast of Louisiana has become to hurricanes, the more damage they have wreaked.  Indeed, Katrina along with Hurricane Rita further destroyed more than 100 square miles of coastal wetlands and barrier islands according to the U.S. Geological Survey.   

In the last few years land loss off the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts has accelerated beyond the worst fears of scientists and locals. Fifty years ago, Louisiana was losing about ten square miles of land per year: now that number is up to 25 square miles (source: National Wetlands Research Center), and little hamlets, peaceful citrus groves and unknown corners of the bayou have been excised right off the maps.

For Hurricane on the Bayou writer and Louisiana native Glen Pitre, the incalculable costs of these losses are more than just economic and environmental – they are human as well.  Pitre laments the fact that whole worlds, rife with stories that will never be shared again, have also disappeared into the deep waters.  “There are places my grandparents told me about that no longer exist, there are prairies I walked as a kid that are gone, there are orange groves where no trees will grow,” says Pitre.  “It’s very hard to watch that happen to a place you love.” 

Experts predict that, without any action, the Gulf of Mexico will have moved 30 miles inland by the year 2050 and that the millions of people who make the area their home will be completely vulnerable to any storms that might hit. The list of what needs to be done is lengthy but includes barrier island restoration; the establishment and preservation of grassbeds; re-evaluation of levees; redirecting the Mississippi River’s silt to replenish the wetlands; the creation of potential diversion plans; experimentation with new dredge materials; and educating a new batch of young scientists whose life work will be to restore and preserve these vital areas of the U.S. coast. 

So what can the average American concerned for the coastal wetlands of Louisiana do?  Director Greg MacGillivray emphasizes that a problem of this magnitude needs to be addressed at the highest levels of the U.S. government – and hopes that Congressional leadership, under pressure from ordinary citizens, will help fund the projects that desperately need to be put under way in short order.

Says MacGillivray:  “It’s going to require a lot of money, a lot of dedication and a lot of volunteers.  Already, school kids are starting to go out and plant mangroves, but it’s a big problem and it’s not an easy fix.  There are dozens of different programs that are going to be needed and there needs to be a coordinated effort in order to have success.” 

It won’t be easy, but there is little doubt that if nothing is done, the costs to the world will be unbearable – and the city that care forgot could itself be lost to the folly of humankind.

Save the Wetlands

To find out more about the wetlands crisis or to take action you can visit the following websites:

Profile by a Hurricane

Behind Hurricane on the Bayou music-fueled tale about the triumph of the spirit lies one of nature’s most fearsome and powerful phenomena: the extreme tropical storms known as hurricanes.  With their roof-ripping winds, torrential rains and crashing surf, hurricanes pose a major threat to millions of Americans every summer. This reality was driven home in August 2005 when Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast with her 140 MPH gusts, causing the seas to rise with record-shattering storm surges and the levees to burst in New Orleans.  The result was the most costly and perhaps the most spiritually overwhelming natural disaster in American history. A currently estimated 1,836 lives were lost across the Gulf.  Millions were uprooted. And the damages will run upwards of a staggering $115 billion dollars.  Amidst the human tragedy, Katrina was also wake-up call, a reminder of just how vulnerable even the greatest cities can be to weather’s ruthless forces. 

For as devastating as Katrina was to the United States, it was neither the strongest hurricane nor the deadliest to hit the nation. In 1900, a Category Four storm shattered Galveston, Texas. Without any media forewarning, few people evacuated and 8,000 died.  Fortunately, today’s meteorological advances allow the National Weather Service to track the paths and intensities of big storms, often saving lives.  Yet even with sophisticated satellite technology, the ever-shifting nature of hurricanes makes it nearly impossible to predict exactly when, where and how hard they’ll hit. 

Will a storm of the future create another major disaster?  As “hurricane season” rolls around again this year, the nation waits anxiously, hoping for a reprieve.  But the possibility of another massive hurricane eventually hitting the Gulf region – whether 2 or 20 years from now – is all too real. It is this continuing menace that inspired director Greg MacGillivray to focus the story of Hurricane on the Bayou around musicians’ heartfelt calls to rebuild America’s life-preserving coastal wetlands, which can hold back a hurricane’s killer storm surges.  Says MacGillivray:  “Nature has provided us with a vital first line of defense against hurricanes, but unless we start rebuilding the lost wetlands, New Orleans and other American cities will remain in peril.”   

The power of hurricanes has long plagued and fascinated humanity.  The word hurricane originally derived from the Mayan God of winds and storms, Hurakan, who, perhaps not surprisingly, in turn became the Carib god of evil, Hurican.  Today, the term is used to refer only to the most severe storms that form in the North Atlantic Ocean. Similar storms that arise in the West Pacific are called typhoons, while those in the Indian Ocean are known as tropical cyclones.

Hurricanes require very special conditions to form.  They spring into existence far from where they cause so much damage, in the open ocean, when warm water (at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit), soaring humidity and converging winds all collide.  Under these circumstances, a group of smaller rainstorms can be blown together into a single, swirling mass.  As this new “monster storm” starts to rotate, it stirs the seas into raging waves, pulling even more water into the air as vapor and further feeding the wind’s spinning fury. If the storm grows in intensity it first becomes a “tropical depression,” then a “tropical storm,” and is declared a hurricane when the winds reach 74 MPH.

As soon as a hurricane is spotted in the ocean, meteorologists jump into action, hoping to avert disaster wherever it is heading. Using satellites, hurricanes are easy to find, especially because they can be as big as 400 miles wide and last as long as two weeks over open waters.

Once discovered, a hurricane is named in order to keep better track of it.  People have been naming hurricanes for centuries– a tradition that started in the West Indies, where storms were first identified with Saint’s Days.  When the National Weather Service began naming hurricanes in 1953, they initially used only female names (the first official hurricane name was “Alice”), but that was changed in 1979.  Today, hurricanes are named from a list issued by the World Meteorological Organization, which rotates names over and over.  However when a hurricane is especially catastrophic, such as Katrina, the name is retired, like a sports player’s jersey, never to be used again. 

Each hurricane is rated according to the Saffir-Simpson Scale, which predicts how hazardous a hurricane might be upon landfall.  Although hurricane winds can demolish homes and overturn cars, the most lethal element of a hurricane is usually the “storm surge” – a sudden rise in sea level that can flood low-lying areas, or even breech levees in a city such as New Orleans. 

The hurricane rating scale starts at Category One, which is defined as a storm producing 74-95 MPH winds and eight-foot storm surges but likely to cause little structural damage. The scale climbs to Category Five, the most brutal of storms, with cataclysmic winds over 155 MPH, storm surges of more than 18 feet, and expected to result in razed buildings and widespread flooding.  At its peak, Katrina was rated Category Five (with 175 MPH winds) but by the time she hit Louisiana, the storm had weakened to a Category Three.  Though the winds were fierce, it was Katrina’s storm surge – estimated to range from 8 to 30 feet – that proved too much for New Orleans’ ailing levees, leading to the flood that submerged 80% of the city and changed so many lives. 

Many factors account for the high toll Katrina took, but there is little doubt among scientists that the decay of the crucial “buffer zone” once provided by coastal wetlands left New Orleans wide open to Gulf waters.  So now, even as New Orleans’ citizens come together to rebuild the city, they are watching the skies for clouds – and hoping there is enough time to replenish the wetlands and refurbish the levees before another storm forms far away in the ocean only to wreak havoc on land.
Educator's Guide

The large format film Hurricane on the Bayou is appropriate for all intermediate grades (4-8).  This Educator’s Guide will be most useful when accompanying the film, but it is a valuable resource on its own.  Teachers are strongly encouraged to adapt the activities in this guide to meet the specific needs of the grades they teach and their students. Download Hurricane on the Bayou Educator's Guide (PDF)

Educator's Guide Table of Contents:

  • Introduction
  • Hurricanes
  • Wetland in a Pan
  • Dress an Alligator
  • Mapping the Loss
  • Hurricane Tracker
  • Toussaint’s Trunk
  • Town Hall Meeting
  • Wetland Blues
  • Glossary
  • Wetland Resource List