Dive In with NOAA Fisheries

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NOAA Fisheries conducts world-class science to support sustainable marine life and habitats. We manage millions of square miles of ocean (almost 100,000 miles of coastline), support a $244 billion fishing industry, and protect and rebuild endangered marine species and habitats. It’s a huge job. Our podcast, “Dive In with NOAA Fisheries,” is about the work we do and the people behind it.

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New federal funding will advance environmental justice in the Lower Ninth Ward and kickstart efforts to restore wetlands along the coast of New Orleans.
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0:00:06.1 John Sheehan: New Orleans wetlands and Bayous are more than features of the region. They are intrinsic to the identity of the city, which was effectively built on a swamp. Besides being places to fish and forage, the wetlands historically provided crucial protection from storm surge. And anyone over 30, and everyone in the Gulf region remembers or has heard about the horror of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The category five storm that flooded the city, in particular, the Lower Ninth Ward, resulting in more than 1800 deaths and massive damage. And to this day, there is this refrain that the levees failed.

0:00:36.3 Speaker 2: New Orleans levee system could not protect the city.

0:00:39.5 Speaker 3: Levees failed.

0:00:40.5 Speaker 4: Poorly designed, poorly built.

0:00:43.1 Speaker 5: This levee failed, flooding the entire Lower Ninth Ward.

0:00:49.7 Speaker 6: At least two of the levees around the city have failed.

0:00:51.9 JS: And they did. But that failure and the resulting catastrophic damage can be traced back at least partly decades earlier to the degradation of the city's wetlands. This is Dive In with NOAA Fisheries. I'm John Sheehan. And today we'll hear about efforts to reverse the damage to a portion of the wetlands made possible by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act.

0:01:12.4 Arthur Johnson: This opportunity allows not only our organization as a community-based nonprofit to expand the work, but also truly benefits our coastal communities and coastal neighborhoods that many times have been kind of left on the shore, shall we say, of not getting the resources.

0:01:27.3 JS: This is Arthur Johnson, the CEO of the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development based in the Lower Ninth Ward.

0:01:42.0 Mike Biros: This project enables us to connect with communities and help those communities then connect to the wetlands and to have a meaningful impact on designing and changing these ecosystems to have significant benefit felt for generations to come.

0:01:49.6 JS: And this is Mike Biros, the Restoration Program Director for the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. Both groups are part of the Central Wetlands Reforestation Collective, which received $1.2 million in federal funding to restore the wetlands, specifically in this case, the Bayou Bienvenue which borders the Lower Ninth and is part of the greater 30,000 acres Central Wetlands unit of New Orleans.

0:02:10.0 JS: The Bayou and wetlands were fundamentally changed beginning in 1957 with the construction of the Mississippi River Gulf outlet, a 76 mile shipping lane carved through the wetlands so that ships could bypass the twisty Mississippi to get to the Port of New Orleans. The MRGO channel was known locally as MR-GO.

0:02:32.7 AJ: MR-GO, basically cut off our community here in the Lower Ninth Ward. We were surrounded three quarters of the way by a Cypress Swamp, which protected us from hurricanes coming up. And so with MR-GO that channel cut it in it, it destroyed our Cypress swamp, which destroyed these buffers that protected us, or at least gave us a buffer from wind and water.

0:02:54.7 JS: The shipping channel was intended to be an economic windfall for the city and surrounding neighborhoods, but.

0:03:10.3 MB: Those benefits never really became realized. This was a mistake of a project that had severe impacts on the community and the ecosystems that those communities rely on.

0:03:13.4 AJ: At the time that MR-GO was built, society was different. We didn't have these terms such as environmental injustices. This was a black community and they didn't really care that it might be destroyed. And I think the other issue and really pathetic aspect of MR-GO is that once they built it, the maritime industry didn't use it, all this was done, destroyed a neighborhood or community or coastal community, destroyed our ecosystem and our habitats, made a fresh water venue, salt water, letting the gulf water in, all of this in the stool wasn't used. So here we go.

0:03:53.3 MB: I also think, I mean, in addition to the community impacts, the ecological impacts, there's also an impact just on trust. The communities have a major distrust of large government projects like MR-GO where the government came in and said this was going to be great for everyone. And it ended up being a disaster.

0:04:09.9 JS: Before MR-GO Bayou Bienvenue was a thriving ecosystem.

0:04:20.3 AJ: It was a very vibrant swamp. It was a Cypress swamp with these big cypress trees and trunks. And for many of the people that grew up here, they loved it because it actually helped them to kind of get away from, should we say, all the noise out there. It was for those who love nature, those who didn't mind, as I say, things that crawl, things that swim and things that fly. So it's a lot different now than it was then, where it was natural and it was adventurous, but it was also peaceful because it's where people fished, it's where they were able to do crawfishing and possibly even crabbing, and it was plentiful because it was their natural habitat. So after MR-GO then all that changed, 'cause also it changed from fresh water to salt water, and that made a big difference in relation of habitats and vegetation and all of that that was there.

0:05:10.5 MB: Yeah, it used to be a swamp that was so thick, they said you could take a pirogue, which is like a canoe from one side all the way to the other side without a paddle, just by kind of pulling yourself along from tree to tree to tree. This is also the site of maroon colonies. These are settlements that were escaped slaves and indigenous people would live in these swamps because they were so thick and inaccessible that they could live there freely without fear of being caught and re-enslaved. So it has a really rich cultural ecological history. And all of that changed when the saltwater came in.

0:05:46.2 JS: Yeah. And as you mentioned, fast forward to 2005, so the saltwater had already been infiltrating the area and Katrina hit, and we all remember Katrina, but I think what's less repeated is how much worse it was because that channel of salt water was opened up right to the Lower Ninth Ward.

0:06:12.8 AJ: Absolutely. So the community changed as well after Katrina. There was another big storm before Hurricane Katrina, hurricane Betsy. My mother and grandmother would talk to me about when Hurricane Betsy happened, where people were on their roofs and it was a lot of flooding. But they also opened the flood gates. And again, we go back to the issue of environmental justice or injustice, particularly the people of color. In the Lower Ninth Ward is a community on the central wetland side. And Bayou Bienvenue is the lowest, is below sea level. But if you go to the other side of the community, where the Mississippi River is located, it is above sea level.

0:07:04.3 AJ: More white people, more affluent people lived closer to the river, less affluent people of color were allowed to build houses closer to the central wetlands and Bayou Bienvenue which was the least desirable of the area, and had all the ills such as flooding and other types of issues and more vulnerable to hurricanes. And so again, it has a lot of history, sometimes that history is not known, particularly in the 21st century. Many of the people who knew the history are no longer around. But significantly, it is important because it is our coastal wetlands, it is a coastal wetlands and a coastal community here in the city of New Orleans. And like I said, it's three quarters surrounded by water, it would be an island if it wasn't for St. Bernard Parish.

0:08:01.4 JS: Yeah. And obviously it has direct impact on the health of the entire city, and it's another one of those really cruel ironies that it took this tragedy to ultimately affect change, but didn't happen until years later when the channel was finally closed, and I understand that that's been allowing salinity levels to drop.

0:08:17.5 MB: Yeah, that's right. Since MR-GO has been closed, I believe it was 2009, yeah, the salinity has dropped to a level where it can once again support cypress trees. And so that's kind of the, at the heart of this project, is it's responding to this change in salinity levels that we can take advantage of and try and restore the swamp back to what it once was.

0:08:46.3 JS: The occasion we're talking today is this 1.2 million in federal funding for Bayou Bienvenue, could you each describe kind of what your organizations do?

0:08:53.5 AJ: Well, the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development here in the Lower Ninth Ward is a community based nonprofit which was created after Hurricane Katrina to be a voice and a funnel to help the residents who are displaced to get back into their homes, but also to be a buffer between those who were looking at the Lower Ninth Ward as maybe being a wasteland, turning into a green space and not allowing people who lost their homes to come back. It became a vehicle also to funnel resources such as grants designated to help the community for the community by the community.

0:09:37.3 MB: CRCL or the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, we're a statewide nonprofit in Louisiana, we're established primarily to address coastal land loss. These issues of wetland loss are affecting the entire coast of Louisiana and what's happening in Bayou Bienvenue and the central wetlands unit is just one instance of a massive problem. We've lost over 2,000 square miles of wetlands. I mean, that's like the size of the state of Delaware. There's many contributing factors, the levying of the Mississippi River, so it doesn't flood and deposit sediment every year. Canals that lead to salt water intrusion such as MR-GO as well as subside and sea level rise, and a whole host of other issues. We are primarily an advocacy organization, so we advocate for policies that will benefit the coast and that are grounded in science.

0:10:35.4 MB: We also have restoration. We've got two main program areas, our native plants program, which is about planting trees and grasses along the coast, and then our oyster shell recycling program where we take oyster shells and then recycle them for use in living shoreline installations and oyster reefs. So our restoration programs allow the general public a way to engage with these large coastal issues and do something about them.

0:10:54.6 AJ: Yeah, and I'll add, as a community-based organization, we also look at how do we create the next generation of environmentalists, scientists. And so we created an environmental internship for high school students into our fourth year where they're actually doing environmental research, looking at air and soil and water and the impact that it has in their communities. Just this year, our internship will focus on flood water, flood and water management. We've now, moving more towards, instead of just trying to pump all the water out and regurgitating it back to put it in holding cells where it can go into the ground and where from there it naturally goes into back into the soil and makes our soil not as brittle. The community's understanding, getting to know about the science, and it's not like it's academic.

0:11:55.6 JS: And so with this new federal funding, do you see it going towards resources in terms of helping with outreach? Is it going to be bringing in more staff? Is it going to be towards the raw materials for replanting? How do you foresee the funding getting distributed?

0:12:09.7 AJ: Well, I think it does a little bit of all of that. It allows a community engagement and having some of those resources to do things like workshops and pre-disaster preparation, and to talk about those things, why those are important, and to be able to have some of the materials that we need for supplies and tools. And we created a nursery basically before this grant to just grow more cypress trees. And so we had small resources to do to do that. But now with this grant, it allows us to enhance our efforts and in our nursery, for example, and to, not only employ more, but to do more and to grow more.

0:12:54.7 JS: You both have sort of touched on climate resiliency and as well as, sort of bringing in volunteers and Arthur, you mentioned specifically sort of bringing in the next generation. I'm wondering, because New Orleans is so vulnerable, let's say, just geographically speaking, does the message of preparing and the necessity of climate resiliency, does that resonate?

0:13:24.3 MB: Absolutely. I mean, the city is, like you said, very vulnerable, and it's become more vulnerable with the loss of the wetlands. Without those wetlands, our levy system would be right up against the water. The resilience is a bit of a complicated topic, it means different things to different people. There's a little bit of pushback against that term resilience, and that to some extent, the issues that we're facing are not caused by the communities that are dealing with the impacts. We want to try and address these issues, but to ask these communities to be resilient when they're not at fault for the issues and they're just kind of on the, kinda the short end of the stick, whether it's about carcinogens or wetland loss and impacts from storms or urban heat island effect, we want to try and address the root issue in addition to making communities more prepared to respond to them. But if we focus just on the community's response without addressing that root issue, we need to be talking about more than just resilient communities. But about the root of the issue.

0:14:30.4 AJ: I agree. I think we're beginning to feel comfortable or more comfortable about talking about the root of the issues. And it does go back into the history, the greed and the over-usage of our natural resources. One of the things that I've seen from this is the underserved overburdened communities and members of color, of communities that were not engaged, we're able to be more forceful, to have a voice and to demand our voices be heard. And so through these opportunities, efforts through these grants, it allows us to do more and more of that as we continue to do the coastal restoration because with that comes coastal education. So it's not just planting trees, but it's our habitats, it's our way of life.

0:15:29.2 JS: Tying it back to this new funding, do you see it as a step in the right direction? Do you see it as a kickstart? How would you sort of characterize what you're now able to do?

0:15:46.7 MB: Yeah, this federal money is more of like a catalyst, something that is going to spur a lot more growth and change and capacity. We're going to engage with students and this could be a way for the general public to get more involved in ecosystem restoration, coastal restoration, whether it's through a career or just being engaged as a citizen. But then also just purely ecologically as well, we're planting 30,000 bald cypress trees. That's not just gonna be a one-off thing, these trees when they grow and become mature are gonna drop their seeds. And this is a process, and so this money is gonna go much further than if it were to just be kind of a one-off type of thing.

0:16:23.9 JS: So these habitat restoration projects are in some ways very, very hopeful, they're designed to reconstruct the natural environment. Michael, do you see it similarly?

0:16:37.7 MB: Yeah, there's a lot of doom and gloom in this field and in this region right now. It's easy to get paralyzed and kind of lock up when we see the weight and the magnitude of all of these issues that we're facing. But with a project like this, what we're working towards is to create a vision for a future that is hopeful and that is inspirational. Something that can help unlock people from that cycle of doom and gloom and imagine themselves and their communities as a thriving place. And so I'm incredibly grateful to all of the funders for this project and all the partners because these kinds of projects are the things that are helping to create that future.

0:17:18.9 JS: Arthur Johnson and Michael Biros, thanks so much for talking with me.

0:17:23.0 AJ: Thank you, John.

0:17:25.8 MB: Thank you so much.

0:17:29.4 JS: Arthur Johnson is the CEO of the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development based in the Lower Ninth Ward. Mike Biros is the Restoration Program Director for the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. Both groups are part of the Central Wetlands Reforestation Collective, along with [0:17:41.0] ____ Conservancy, common Ground Relief, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, and the Morrow Foundation. You can find more about their organizations as well as other federal funding enabling habitat restoration at our website, fisheries.noaa.gov, where you can also get updates or sign up for one of our newsletters such as the newly launched Climate Change Newsletter, The Shift. I'm John Sheehan, and this has been Dive In with NOAA Fisheries.

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Last updated by Office of Communications on 07/20/2023