Scientists blast Army Corps' plans for Mississippi coastline

In a New York Times op-ed published last week, two prominent North Carolina scientists sharply criticized the Army Corps of Engineers' plans for Mississippi's coast in the wake of the widespread devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Titled "Castles in the Sand," the piece -- by Rob Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, and Orrin Pilkey, professor of earth sciences at Duke University -- began:

At this year's meeting of the Geological Society of America, which took place in Philadelphia in October, representatives of the United States Army Corps of Engineers presented proposals to re-engineer the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Some 200 coastal and marine scientists attended the meeting; most of them were stunned by the scope, expense and sheer wastefulness of the projects the corps is considering.

As part of its Mississippi Coastal Improvements Program, the corps wants to build a large seawall to protect parts of Bay St. Louis, Miss., and to install storm-surge gates to close off local bays. A corps proposal the op-ed authors deem "particularly awe-inspiring" calls for reconfiguring the Mississippi Gulf Islands -- part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore -- to their pre-Hurricane Camille size, while adding enough sand to elevate the islands by about 20 feet. The proposed project would dump some 50 million cubic yards of sand on the national seashore to protect redevelopment of the mainland coast.

That, the scientists say, is nuts:

At the very least, these proposals would cost billions of dollars to realize, aside from the environmental damage that would ensue. Yet as the corps acknowledged at the Geological Society meeting, its proposed "coastal improvements" would not provide protection from the kind of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes that have destroyed coastal Mississippi twice in the past 37 years. So what, exactly, is the point?

The corps' failure to devise a rational redevelopment plan points to the futility of trying to maintain coastal development in such an unstable place. A realistic appraisal would conclude that the long-term outlook for coastal development there is bleak. Yet the corps, urged on by developers, seems determined to wage a quixotic fight.

The consensus among the scientists who attended the GSA meeting was that the corps' plans would fail, either catastrophically during a major hurricane or gradually through shoreline erosion that's worsening as a result of rising seas caused by global warming, say Young and Pilkey. They advocate a more pragmatic approach:

The time has come to step back from this extraordinarily hazardous shoreline, perhaps to replace the blocks of destroyed buildings with rows of protective dunes in a seashore park. We should not rebuild on the shoreline of vulnerable areas like the Mississippi Gulf Coast. We certainly shouldn't be doing it with federal dollars or destroying a National Seashore in order to provide a false sense of security for redevelopment.

Congress has ordered the corps to present its long-term plans for the region by the end of next year.

Following up on the scientists' op-ed, the Times yesterday ran a story further detailing scientific opposition to the corps' proposals, as well as the agency's perspective on the matter:

The corps says it is working closely with state agencies, federal emergency management officials and environmental regulators, ''trying to come up with a plan that would retain the quality of life'' but also keep residents ''as far out of harm's way as possible,'' in the words of Susan Ivester Rees, a marine scientist with its Mobile district in Alabama, where much of the work is coordinated.

It's interesting to hear that the corps hopes to protect residents from harm, when at the same time the agency has proposed relaxing restrictions on wetlands development along the Mississippi Gulf Coast as well as eliminating the requirement for public notice of such projects.