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Why a Gulf wetlands may become a city

Hurricane Katrina battered Bay St. Louis, Miss. Now, developers plan a condo city nearby.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 21, 2008

Bayou Caddy: The inlets and marshes of this bayou near Bay St. Louis, Miss., have long been a fishing area, but since hurricane Katrina part of the area has been marked for commercial and residential expansion.

Mark Thomson

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Bayou Caddy, Miss.

If America learned one thing from hurricane Katrina, hydrologists argue, it should be this: Don't fill in tideland marshes and build on them. Such human activity, they insist, diminishes the marshes' ability to absorb some of the wallop of storms as they strike coastal communities.

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Here on the westernmost reaches of Mississippi's marshes - the very place where Katrina rushed ashore on its path to becoming one of the worst natural disasters in US history - that lesson is being tested, with broad implications for US taxpayers who pay most of the bills for storm repairs.

Bob Metz, a crab dealer who plies the tidelands of Bayou Caddy, has only to look out from his boathouse to see, in the distance, the future: the new Silver Slipper Casino, its bright sign twinkling beneath a dark cumulous cloud stack.

To Mr. Metz, plans to augment the casino with a new condo city built on top of a tidal marsh is the prototype of a boondoggle waiting for a bailout. But local and state governments so far are backing the plan, and the US Army Corps of Engineers is considering a permit application to fill the spongy ground so the development will have firm footing. If approved, the permit would, quite literally, lay the groundwork for a project that could create the fourth-largest city on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

"The big guys get what they want; that's the lesson I take from this," says Metz.

Another lesson might be that the dream of living on the ocean's edge dies hard. Some $80 billion in damages from Katrina apparently have not dampened it, nor have scientists' warnings that a $500 billion storm is possible in the US by 2020 and that the sea level may rise as much as three feet in the next century. So long as people gravitate to coastal living, political and economic pressures to allow it will rub up hard against the cautionary notes of scientists and environmentalists.

"The tough part is where the science leaves off and management and policy pick up," says Bryan Harper, senior economist at the Army Corps' Institute for Water Resources in Alexandria, Va. "We collectively use and enjoy the coast, but we have to understand what the balance is between what we get out of it and what is the real cost of occupying those areas. What we don't want is to induce development to areas that are not currently developed in these high-risk areas."

If history is any guide, developers and politicians who envision the revenue benefits of growth usually prevail – sometimes even in areas that most scientists would call "high risk." America's coastal counties have added 7 million people in the past five years, absorbing a little more than half the total US population growth in an area that makes up 17 percent of the US land surface, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Congress has contributed to the trend by assigning much of the risk of coastal living to the US government. The lawmaker-approved National Flood Insurance Program augments private insurance, and the Corps-administered Shore Protection Program in effect subsidizes construction of high-value structures on the beach by guaranteeing that fresh sand will be trucked in whenever storms carve into the headland.