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Interview 7:47 - 31:49 Play 7:47 - More
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Suzette Kimball - Address  







Hurricane Katrina; USGS  

Interview 35:44 - 1:08:31 Play 35:44 - More
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Greg Smith  







Hurricane Katrina; USGS  

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Map unrolling  








Interview 1:13:27 - 1:35:34 Play 1:13:27 - More
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Scott Wilson, Jim Grace  







Hurricane Katrina; USGS  

NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
14 Sep 2005

  • United States
    Lafayette County
  • Lafayette; USGS National Wetlands Research Center
  • 30.225   -92.046
  • Mono
    Sampling Rate
  • 48kHz
    Bit Depth
  • 16-bit
    Equipment Note
  • Two-Channel Mono

Show: Louisiana - Katrina
Date: 09/14/05

SK = Suzette Kimball
GS = Greg Smith
SW = Scott Wilson
JGr = Jim Grace
CJ = Chris Joyce
JG = Jessica Goldstein

USGS Meeting

SK speaking until 31:49

GS: This is what we produced almost on the second day so that we could frame the way we were approaching the natural disaster response and basically we needed to in the midst of this disaster to be able to effectively organize our thinking and our actions and our response. And so we took a 3-fold approach, all of which moved simultaneously but first and foremost was to provide the science that first responders needed. The science and technology that enabled them to save human lives.

GS: And we're very proud that volunteers from our center with the fish and wildlife service and other federal agencies were involved in that search and rescue operation right here in new Orleans. As it turns out that we in lafayette with the fish and wildlife service and USGS had the skills and training and equipment to effectively bring search and rescue teams into the flooded area. We have boats, we have people trained in first aid and CPR and more importantly, in the operation of the boat, the safe operation so we were actually paired by FEMA with the city of phoenix fire batallion #4. they brought 82 people from the city of phoenix here with equipment including things like oxygen and masks and medical supplies ATVs and all sorts of equipment, but no boats.

GS: So it was impossible for them to access these areas without the use of our flat bottom shallow water boats that we use in wetlands research. So that pairing of us and the phoenix fire department was brilliant. And it enabled all of us to get into these effected areas and Really rescue people and bring them to safety

CJ: what do you do now? USGS will be at the forefront of finding out what happened to the natural world. What do you know, what do you need to know, how to find?

GS: well first of all we know that there's been physical impact to wetlands and other natural habitats that support endangered species including those species that we're only now beginning to address, like the ivory billed woodpecker. We deployed aircraft immediately to do a habitat assessment of the situation. Looking at wetland loss, impacts, and habitat loss.

And we've now have satellite imagery and other high resolution imagery that can help us assess those impacts. I think our next steps are to understand the conservational landscape in a changed environment. And to learn from the impacts that this storm has had on the natural environments, the habitat, the fish, and wildlife species. And especially those species that rely on these areas for their life history strategy.

CJ: such as...

GS: Right now we are beginning and actually moving rapidly into the middle of the fall migration for migratory bird populations. And we have birds that are rapidly assembling on parts of the Louisiana coast that have been devastated. The pearl river area we have imagery from our radar ornithology studies that show an immediate impact of bird use in this environment. The birds were there before the hurricane, and the birds are no longer there.

GS: and that means that those birds that would normally fly south and begin to refuel their food stocks and to begin to-- Their life history strategy of making that huge migration across the gulf of mexico are displaced. And we need to understand what that means in terms of continental populations of migratory birds.

GS: We've been studying birds along the Louisiana and the northern gulf of mexico coast for years And we have decades of information so we understand the typical migration patterns and the needs of these populations, but this has all changed. And what we need to do is assess the impact on these bird populations and their strategies as they go about this migration for the fall.

CJ: give me an idea of how important this fly away is

GS: yes this is part of the miss fly away and basically we have good estimates of birds use along our coastal habitats, and it's just phenomenal the numbers of birds that use this coast as a staging area. And a wintering area for their survival. We have estimates of up to 167,000 birds per mile of coast per hour using these habitats.

GS: They are astounding numbers. And these are populations that require this coastal environment to make their migration. They've evolved to use the northern gulf coast as part of their strategy to migrate back and forth to central and south America. How this natural disaster will impact that, we're not sure, but we know that it's very important for us to that, and to begin to make the connection at the population scale.

JG and CJ: dealing with noisy people outside.

GS: says to contact Wiley Barrow
Gives some info

CJ: Prompts for intro

GS: my name is Greg Smith and i am the director of the USGS national wetlands research center in Lafayette Louisiana

CJ: extent of the disappearance of the barrier islands? % of wetlands now inundated.


GS: in the last 72 hours we've really shifted our efforts to understanding some of the quantitative losses of wetlands and other critical habitats along the northern gulf coast. And so those data are rapidly being assessed and processed. And fortunately we were always positioned to look at land loss rates and understanding landscape patterns and the importance of wetlands to support fish and wildlife populations. So we've been able to take the science that we do on a day to day basis and apply it to the impact that this devastating storm has had on the natural environment.

GS: And that's currently doing, we can certainly tell you that there has been a dramatic loss of wetlands in some areas. The impact has been local in some areas and much more widespread in others. The storm itself I think was rather diverse in terms of it's impact on the landscape and within the next 24 to 48 hours I hope to have some very good estimates of some of these impacts.

JG: tells GS not to look at her.

GS: really what we should do is we should get y'all together with john barra and jimmy Johnston and people who are doing our spatial analysis because as you walk around our center you'll see that we have been doing the land loss imagery and estimates for the Louisiana coastal wetlands for years here just turns out that we can apply that same science and technology to understand the immediate impact of the storm on those critical wetlands environments.

GS: Now we've been able to document rapidly using our radar technology that we've partnered with the national weather service at NOA. In order to understand the immediate impact of the storm on habitat use by migratory birds during this critical time in their life stage. The critical fall migration. So we have a number of dimensions to this issue of the disaster and its relation to the natural environment, the habitats that support the migratory birds, clearly the impact that this will have on the aquatic species and the fisheries.

CJ: what do you think those effects are or could be?

GS: Well, I think we need to really assess how the nearshore habitats and the wetlands that support the aquatic organisms the shrimp, the crabs, and the fish have been changed. Clearly the pattern of landscape has been changed - the fresh, the dry, the saline, and the freshwater. And what we need to do now is assess exactly how those changes at a
landscape scale will be effecting these populations in both the near term and the long term.

GS: I guess one of our concerns is that there's so much emphasis on assessing the immediate impacts, we need to be diligent in using this really as a baseline to understand the longterm effects.

CJ: so many towns and cities inundated and they all included manmade materials that were pulsed into the water. What will be the effect of that?

GS: no I think that's a very important issue and its one that the US geological survey is ready to address. We have we have developed some important scientific approaches that will add the immediate and then the longer-term impact. To a certain degree, much of this will depend on the partitioning of those chemicals in the environment. Will they be absorbed to the sediments and then be released later. Will they be dependent on the salinity, the pH the temp, we certainly understand that the circulation patterns between Lake Pontchartrain, the coastal wetlands, and the Gulf of Mexico waters will be critical in terms of how these toxic substances move through the environment.

GS: Their actual chemical characteristics will determine largely whether they are persistent, whether they will partition into the sediments, whether they'll remain suspended and and dissolve in the water. And how that all plays out over the next several days will I think importantly effect how these impact fish and wildlife species in the long term.

CJ: so you have to map the junk that came out of the cities

GS: yeah we have to understand the spatial relationships. Where these things started, how these things started how the toxic substances can be moved. Whether or not they are moved rapidly through the water. Or whether they are absorbed and stay more with the soils and the sediments. And with such a mixture of toxic chemicals we've got pesticides that have been applied to lawns hich are now sediments theres a whole new understanding that's needed in order to basically understand and predict how these toxic substances will move through the environment, persist or degrade, and then ultimately create a toxic potential for fish and wildlife.

CJ: there are no models for this, are there? Trying to predict which direction these toxins will go¿

GS: And typically there are a lot of models available and there are models that look at circulation patterns, there are models that look at the persistence of certain toxic substances. What we don't have models to understand is how all these things come together in this particular geographic setting. We have a waterborne hazard that's basically a city and how that moves through the entire system - Pontchartrain, coastal Louisiana, and the gulf of mexico - I believe it is not really well understood especially in the context of the mixture.

GS: We have a very good models, the scientific community has developed excellent models of persistence and hazard for individual toxic substances. As you know most chemicals and pesticides are registered based on the individual chemical or substance not on a mixture. And what we have now is a real mixture.

GS: This is a mixture like no one has ever seen. Because it is municipal. It's industrial. It's househould chemicals. And it's microbial. And it's chemical. So it's an unbelievable mixture of complex dimensions that we really don't have models to describe.

CJ: this toxic soup is going to have an effect on wildlife and there's no way to protect the wildlife¿

GS: there really isn't. The exposure will be out there. And it comes at a bad time with the migration of birds, and what we need to do is quickly understand the environmental landscape which includes the exposure of these fish and wildlife populations, and then ultimately we need to understand what those impacts are.

CJ: ever seen anything like this in terms of a large effect on a wild ecosystem?

GS; no I haven't. I was involved in the Exxon Valdez 1989 chemical assessment and clearly there we had a focus on oil and oil-related compounds and the analytical list if you will at that time was rather specific because we understood the chemical processes associated with an oil spill . This goes way beyond that situation in terms of its complexity.

JG and CJ talking about needing room tone

GS Room Tone USGS office in Lafayette

CJ and JG talking ambi logistics.
JG getting people's cards
CJ meeting people
CJ chatting about what he needs to focus on

Map Rolling and Unrolling

CJ: and what are we looking at here

SW: right now this is an initial satellite image pre/post comparison for the hurricane everything you're seeing in light blue is potential loss to this area.

CJ: that's half of what's on the map.

SW: its app 30 percent um they're still working on the quantifiable numbers right now, but it looks like 30 percent was directly impacted.

CJ: now that's 30 percent of what?

SW: of this basin area this Canarvon basin area.

CJ: you're talking about a marsh that's south of new Orleans?

SW: Southeast. Southeast new Orleans. Just directly southeast.

CJ: give me an idea of the function of the marsh for the city of new Orleans.

SW: this area has been used for a long time by a lot of the shrimpers basically the people that make their living of the land. Delacroix is a huge fishing port for commercial migration fishermen. These people have learned to live off the land and made their life living off of that. This area not only has been supporting that, but also has been supporting flood reduction, storm surge reduction for the New Orleans area. And historically by looking at previous storms. Every mile of wetlands reduces the storm surge. Excuse me. Every, every 1.5 miles of wetlands reduces the storm surge by one foot.

CJ: reduces the storm surge where?

SW: um, reduces the storm surge to the city of new Orleans. So if you wanted to reduce a 20 foot storm surge, you would need 30 feet of wetlands at this point.

CJ: 30 feet?

SW: I mean 30 miles, excuse me

CJ: 30 miles between the gulf of mexico and new Orleans you'd need. How much ave we got?

SW: it depends when you're looking. Not 20 miles, and not 30 miles. The other interesting thing about this is they did this same study back in the 70s, and for every mile of wetlands, it reduced the storm surge by one foot and the reason that it's changed is that these wetlands have become so degraded that they no longer have the storm surge reducing capacity that they used to have. And that's our concern that we have this loss, and these wetlands are getting further degraded which further reduces their storm surge, flood reducing capacity.

CJ: when you say degraded, what do you mean by that?

SW: a lot of times its¿ we haven't even seen some of the salt water impacts yet. A lot of times the wetlands are actually gone. Large areas of wetlands are actually picked up and folded on top of other areas of wetlands which leave these small ponds. And as you get more and more of this ponded type things, due to erosion and subsidence, these ponds get larger and larger, and soon start to form lakes and small bays.

JGr: and another feature of this is that the plants hold together these fragile marshes. The marshes are very fragile here because of the whole combination of factors. But when they are replenished with nutrients and when they have the proper natural functioning, they are able to hold the system together. A storm comes along like this and breaks those connections that the plants are using to hold the marsh together, and you get an instantaneous loss of marsh. It just simply washes out.

JGr: And we see an amazing amount of this¿we've seen some degree of this before for hurricane Andrew. Now hurricane Andrew was a storm that hit intact marsh. It didn't a wrap around spot where it could come in from the top. And there there was an enormous dampening of a storm roughly the same magnitude because it hit in a different location.

JGr: A lot of the discussion that's been going on about the marsh and its capacity to buffer storm surge and storm impact doesn't just relate to this storm. It relates to all those other storms that we will continue to see year after year and our ability to persist. This one took a particular track that was able thwart some of the buffering capacity that was left. But it also seems to have greatly decreased the buffering capacity for future storms.

CJ: storm's path nullified effects of wetlands. the winds really came from north, northeast which is not where the wetlands are.

JGr: As I understand that was a contributing factor to it, now of course the people who live south of New Orleans, they took a direct hit. So all the attention been focused on one half with the levee breach in new Orleans itself. The south of NO all the way to empire and Venice there was a storm of maybe the more traditional type. that came in straight on, it hit Venice and it hit Empire, which do not any longer have any buffering. Those marshes are gone. and wiped them off the face of the earth, as I understand it those are gone.

JGr: as it came further and further inland it got dampened more and more, but the destruction to the people who are scattered in the communities out in these areas was really quite devastating and would have been a lot worse so the further down below new Orleans you get, the less marsh there the less marsh there was to protect against the frontal assault.

JGr; for those folks, that was the important role and the wrap around doesn't play any role with them. That was just something particularly that happened up on lake pontchartrain. So it's a complex story. One of the things to keep in mind is that we have a lot of people who live in wetlands. Last number I heard, and it's been a few years ago, is that we had a million people living out in the marshes.

CJ: a million?

JGr: yeah, a million people living in the marshes and if you go out and you, I don't know if the number is still the same but I bet it's in that ballpark, there are a lot of people who live out in the marshes and they've of course had to retreat some as the marshes have been lost, but when we've done our surveys before throughout coastal lousiana lots and lots of people get to and from their houses by boat, off of launches. A lot of people living in areas that rely on these mashes, not only for their livelihood but for their protection.

CJ: can get an idea of concept by looking at map. Weird landscape. Are these roads? Rivers? All swamp?

SW: that's bayous going through the marsh. And a lot of these communities are actually using those bayous as transportation networks you know for their livelihood.

CJ: is this marshy land?

JGr: yeah that's not dryland, that's wet land

CJ it doesn't look habitable.

JGr; well, these are tenacious people you know a lot of 'em moved out into the marsh years ago and they have been able to retain that way of life. And its a bountiful environment, I mean the fish take and the ability to -well used to be fur and trapping was a big industry as well. A lot of people still live out in these areas.

CJ: taken a physical look?

JGr: I have not but we've had some of our people do a number of flights to get the initial-- capture the initial images and you can see the small communities just scattered like matchsticks all throughout here and the further down you go to the edge of the marsh the more devastating the wind effect was.

JG: asks for ID

JGr: Yes, I'm Jim Grace and I'm a research scientist with the us geological survey here
at the national wetlands research center.

SW: I'm Scott Wilson, I'm an electronics engineer with the USGS national wetlands research center.

CJ; you were looking at some stuff, scott

SW: yeah I don't know this shows exactly, you've proably seen some of these things. his is areas we were doing search and rescue for the first week or so. And this is I 10. And we've been I 10 as a boat map for search and rescue missions. Um¿

SW: This is the major breach that you see on tv. This is the 17th street canal breach and you can see that the major breaches that occurred weren't on the river side and they weren't on the lake side, they were interior canal breeches. It breached here on the east side and basically flooded everything east from the17th st canal, all the way into the NO central business district.

SW; and these breaches, there are several of them that we are working with the corps [??] To document them and also other areas that were impacted on the levees. And that's of course a major concern with high water levels right now and the degraded levees to make sure that we don't have additional breaches. So that's one reason they're trying to keep people out of new Orleans right now. Things that may be dry today, may unfortunately be wet tomorrow.

JG: restrictions on building houses on wetlands?

JGr: well when we talk with regard to many people living out in these areas those dwellings were built many years ago, I mean those are established dwellings that were built years ago, many of them do not have flood insurance I mean they were developed by people built their own homes out in the marsh.

JGr: So that's really a historic kind of dwelling that you find many places, not only here, but all across the coast of Louisiana. Then the towns and villages and the communities and so forth it's a different issue there you start getting into flood insurance and flood zoning and things of that sort.

SW: this is um, we deal with coastal restoration issues from the federal side all the time. And this is a really a complex issue here because this is not like the everglades. This is not like Alaska. This is what we call a working wetlands. As jim pointed out, you've got a lot of people that their livelihood they're actually embedded in the wetlands. So at the same time we're trying to conserve things, we also have to um let people you know, this is their livelihood, their income. A large percentage of oil and gas comes through these wetlands so you cant just shut down all activities with out really reshaping how this whole country works and performs.

SW: so it's a very complex task, of balancing conservation, preservation, with you know, you know people's human livelihood, and there's not any simple answers.

CJ: talk about future - sense of NO prob rebuilt, raise levees, lots talking about opportunity to do things differently -- problems of levees created by us. How would you do it so that the wetlands help, instead of getting damaged in the future.

JGr: well, talk about the mother of all questions. I think that if one disregards all those important details that effect people's lives, their property, legal issues and so forth, one might say, well 'let's locate further up the slope, further upstream' uh, and declare this a lesson learned.

JGr: But I think the reality of dealing with peoples property, their legal claims, their homes, businesses, and all the rest of that, make this an extremely complicated kind of choice to talk about in real terms. So there's kind of a grand idea term which has been mentioned very early on by some people of not going back and trying to relocate. But I think in the details it may not be feasible to do anything other than that.

Now this will be a big question, and I hope, and one of the things that the organization is very keen on is that there will be a large scale analysis of the situation. Because it is an opportunity to analyze all the options and look and see what should be done and how best to do it. I think that however, you have to take into account all the human dimensions as well as the ecological sustainability of this system because all those things come into play.

CJ: what do you think you could manage in terms of preserving wetlands (assuming people move back to New Orleans) so that they do a better job of protecting than they did this time?

SW: we've been working with federal state task force for the last 5 years to develop a comprehensive state plan for Louisiana and that actually has been developed and they were seeking funds to get that uh funds appropriated this year. The total package I believe was approximately about 10 billion dollars.

CJ and you didn't get anywhere near that much.

SW: no. no. funding's been a big issue. But we've had these discussions over the last fifteen, twenty years at a very high level within, you know, the federal and state community. Its just a matter of action. And I think some action's about to happen.

CJ: from a scientists point of view - what would you do? What should you do so that the wetlands aren't so vulnerable next time?

JGr: Well, one of the big things that has been used, there are many, many possibilities but one of the big things that has been used is the diversions that were mentioned earlier. I mean a diversion allows water that is gonna otherwise pass through a channelized system like the Miss and go out to the gulf, it allows water to be diverted into more of a natural location. And bring its sediment with it.

JGr: and it's that sediment supply that ultimately contribute both the material and the nutrients that allow a productive marsh to build itself. If you go to the border of miss and lou. The pearl river. The lower pearl. Is a case where the subsidence rate there by our measurements is every bit as great as it is anywhere in the delta of Mississippi. But that system is very in tact, because it doesn't have the hydrological alterations it doesn't have the channelization of sediments so it gets a replenishment of sediments in there.

JGr: and that system in our measurement is able to build 10 cm or several inches of elevation in a ten year period. Its building about a third of an inch a year it's able to build its own elevation - by the plants, able to take those sediments and hold that system together and that's what we're trying to reestablish in many areas.

JGr: now there are many other aspects of the wetlands restoration effort. But the diversions probably impact a bigger area and more of the sort of question that you're addressing.

SW: you've got to remember that when we had the flood of 1927 that flooded new Orleans that's when the SELA (?), the southeast louisana levee project started. And that was a 50 year project to channelize the river and start flood protection. To rebuild these wetlands is gonna be a you know, equally you know, complex challenge, and it's not gonna be a one ore two year solution, its gonna be a fifty, hundred year project

[phone ringing]
to rebuild these wetlands.
Phone ringing¿
Informal talking

SW: its really gonna be a fifty, hundred year you know process to rebuild these wetlands. And integrate this into flood protection, wetland restoration, and economic development. So this is-there's no short answers or easy answers here. But there are things we've discussed in the past and we're ready to move forward on.

CJ: and keep you busy for the rest of your career
SW: and my son, and grandson¿

SW: ¿um, the other ting that we've talked about recently instead of using in addition natural diversions is actually using what's called pipeline sediment type diversions
Where you have a bunch of the sediment that's in the river that's now being pushed off the co- outer continental shelf on the delta. If you can take- track that sediment from the river at different locations and pipe it into the wetlands then you can basically build up the elevation. And we have that technology now, we've been using to clear the river. We just have to change our mindset on what we do with that material.

CJ: you pipe it? Truck it?
SW:You actually truck it
JG: prompts to start again.

SW: the dredging industry has already developed the technology to clear the river. And to move sediments long distances. We just need to place it in the right place now.

CJ: is it a slurry pipe?

SW: yeah, it's a slurry pipe - pipeline slurry, um, we've had estimates that they can do pipeline slurries for as much as 20miles from the river source

CJ: and how much sediment can you move how fast?

SW: um, I'm not an expert in that area, but it's a tremendous amount. I mean, it's the same technology that they use to clean the river out to keep it for navigation purposes.

CJ: so it's like sucking up river sediment and slapping it down somewhere else.

SW: that's exactly what it is. But of course since it hasn't been done for that purpose there are a whole lot of scientific questions about the quality of the sediment whats the longevity of it, how's it going to impact the wildlife in that area. Um, so we don't have all the answers worked out yet, but we are taking steps forward.

SW; and you know, in the long history of new Orleans this, this is a major setback, but it's just a setback, but it's not a stopping point. Um, this kind of activities, living in the wetlands is going to continue. It's going to be altered, but it's going to move forward.

informal talking
SW background - knowing the area very well, sounding like he's from new Orleans
JGr background - living in west Virginia, living in new Orleans.

Map Rolling and Unrolling

Informal talking

JGr; I wish we had a little bit bigger map of the area to give you more of a sense of the whole thing because the focus on new Orleans doesn't tell the whole story. And there are a lot of people who suffered through that storm, and didn't make it south of new Orleans who feel very undercovered, if you will, in this whole event¿

CJ: would like to get down there but don't know if we can¿

Informal talking logistics about where to go

SW: but in terms of the storm you really have, at least in Louisiana, two different stories - you've got the new Orleans stories, which was the levee breaches in the canals and then you've got the Chalmette St Bernard Parish stories where the storm surge really overtopped the levees you know from the lake - well from the bay, gulf of mexico overtopped the levees and went straight for the parish. So it's really two different impacts there.

JGr: that was a monster storm

CJ thanks

Men leave room

Room tone for SW, JGr.

People moving around room - interrupts room tone.

Room tone.


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