I’m in New Orleans for the month of June, taking a course with the UW. Here’s our first entry from our group’s new blog, written by yours truly…
We are a group of five undergraduate and five graduate students from the University of Madison, Wisconsin, who are in New Orleans for a month-long course on wetland ecology and community development in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina brought national attention to this neighborhood, exposing issues ranging from poverty to wetland degradation. As both social and natural scientists, we hope that our work will provide useful data to help community and government organizations rehabilitate the wetlands abutting the Lower Ninth Ward, and in turn strengthen the community itself.
After nine days in New Orleans, we’ve already acomplished quite a lot. We’re well into surveying residents of the Lower Ninth Ward (L9) in order to assess current usage and attitudes about the Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle (BBWT), a body of water that borders the neighborhood’s northern edge.
The BBWT is 427-acre, triangular-shaped body of open water which used to be a healthy cypress swamp. When the Army Corps of Engineers (ACoE) built the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) in the 1960′s to improve shipping access between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, salt water began to infiltrate the wetlands, causing salinity levels that are toxic to the swamp’s cypress trees. In turn, the once-fertile Bayou is now an open body of water. The still-standing cypress stumps remain as a reminder of what has been lost.
Cypress offer more than a verdant view and wildlife habitat. The trees, grasses and marshlands act as a regulator for storm surges, such as the one that inundated New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. The example we often use is to imagine a glass of water spilled on a hardwood floor. With little to stop it, the water will spread quickly. However, on a carpeted floor, the water’s movement is stalled and spreads more slowly. In a healthy bayou, cypress trees act like this carpeting, slowing water surges and acting as a natural protection against hurricanes. With this in mind, we believe that a healthy bayou will help protect the Lower Ninth Ward.
While in New Orleans, we will continue to survey both residents of the L9 as well as visitors to a viewing platform built by students from the University of Colorado. Before the platform was built, many residents had never looked over the levee; now it is regularly visited by both locals and tourists alike. The ACoE is developing plans in conjunction with neighborhood associations and Tulane and LSU landscape architecture students for an expanded area with possible improvements such as a boardwalk out into the bayou, picnic facilities, fishing and viewing platforms and walking trails. Members of our group hope to be part of this planning process.
We plan to use this blog both as a reporting and documentation tool as well as a resource for members of the community to learn about and engage in activities associated with the BBWT restoration. We hope to start dialogues with the site’s visitors and welcome questions and comments. Thanks for checking in with us and be sure to return – we’ve got a wide range of projects in the works and look forward to sharing our experiences with you.