Corps Plans to Close La. Ship Channel Blamed for Katrina Flooding

May 22, 2007

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it wants to build a $50 million earthen dam to plug a New Orleans-area ship channel blamed for much of the flooding from Hurricane Katrina.

The announcement at a meeting in Chalmette, a refinery town just outside New Orleans, won the battered agency some of the first praise it has received since the hurricane. Area leaders and residents have clamored for years for the closing of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, known as Mr. Go.

“It’s about time,” said Carlton Dufrechou, the executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, a group advocating the restoration of the lake system surrounding New Orleans.

“This thing has been a cancer in the coast of southeast Louisiana for decades,” Dufrechou said. “The bottom-line is that as long as the MRGO is open, the coast is shot.”

Greg Miller, a corps project manager, said closing the man-made channel is “a key piece to the whole plan to restore and protect southeast Louisiana.”

The corps’ announcement was a major victory for St. Bernard Parish leaders, where residents display signs reading “The Mister Go Must Go” in their lawns and say that they will not feel safe until the channel is closed.

When the corps presented its findings, the well-attended meeting burst into applause.

The corps will present a final plan to Congress by the end of the year, and Congress must still approve it. Officials said that if Congress does not balk or slow the process down a dam could be built by the start of next year’s hurricane season.

Closing the channel with a dam, however, presents a problem for the maritime industry. Several businesses that rely on the MRGO in eastern New Orleans are asking to be relocated, and Congress would have to approve tens of millions of dollars for that to happen.

The industry is pushing for a set of $764 million locks to be built between the Mississippi River and eastern New Orleans waterways.

Built in the 1960s as a shortcut for ships from the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans, the 76-mile MRGO morphed into a swamp killer as the Gulf’s salty water moved up the wide and deep channel.

Before Katrina, scientists warned that the loss of swamp combined with the channel’s widening made for a perfect conduit for hurricanes’ storm surge by funneling water into the heart of New Orleans. Those fears played out in Katrina.

Afterward, the channel turned into a symbol of the corps’ incompetence and history of ill-advised engineering projects.

A lawsuit was filed against the corps after Katrina alleging negligence on the agency’s part for digging the channel; the suit sparked an avalanche of claims amounting to more than $278 billion against the corps by tens of thousands of businesses, residents and the state of Louisiana.

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