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Jimmy Johnston  







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

JJ = Jimmy Johnston
CJ = Chris Joyce
JG = Jessica Goldstein

JJ: Kind of give you a perspective being a victim of this. I live in Slidell, Louisiana on the lake I'm only about 300 yards off the lake, and it's right in this area here. And my house suffered considerable damage but it's it'll take some repairs but I really feel that the track of the storm came this way and that this

CJ: we don't have a camera

JJ: If you look, it's headed north, kind of northeast, right along the border of Louisiana and Mississippi. And my house was just to the west of the eye of the storm. And I strongly believe that the land bridge, what we call the New Orleans land bridge here which separates lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borne provided a buffer to reduce the amount of damage to my home. And it was built on foam pilings[?] so you can see the track in here. There were 26 ft storm surges along the lake in this area here, many of my friends had their houses completely destroyed and in fact Senator Mary Andrews' camp was destroyed, leveled in this area here.
There was water under my home, probably about 12 feet of water came under. Now you've got to remember I'm up on big pilings so it blew out everything on the bottom, but basically the top part of it is fine.
So we talk about wetlands, and this is just my theory, but this provided a buffer to protect me.

CJ: Cause that land bridge is covered with wetlands?

JJ: Yes, yes, right here it's kind of degraded, but its still there.

CJ: Describe a wetland.

JJ: a wetland is something that periodically has water on it. It has hydric soils which are wet soils. it has certain types of vegetation different types of vegetation depending on the salinity regime.

CJ: What kind-
JJ: Like salt marsh, brackish marsh, or fresh marsh.

CJ: Start that again

JJ: Well we call it smooth cord grass, is primarily what's there. Most of the wetlands in Louisiana were fresh marshes at one time because of the Mississippi river and the way that the water overflowed the banks and created these deltas and these deltas shifted and we had a fairly large freshmarsh system. But as we've been studying since 1956, using 56 imagery, we've found that's been shifting into a brackish or intermediate salt marsh environment because as you can see the fresh water of that river is basically channelized down here.
Also the wetlands provide habitat for fish and wildlife resources, storm buffers, which in this case like I said in my particular case helped me, and so the wetland provide that storm buffer. Aesthetically they are amazing where I live I have a marsh on the side of my home and I can just look at it and watch the critters, I call 'em, in there. And so forth, so that's basically what wetlands are, and unfortunately, I firmly believe that in the case of what happened to the coast of Mississippi is that these wetlands to the east of Louisiana which is over in this area of Breton Sound, Buloxi marsh, and this area here. When Camille came in, it came in almost more towards the east and caused massive destruction and but that was in 1969. we're here in 2005 and these wetlands have been degraded. You can see the red here and the yellow that's losses that have occurred at one time probably would have reduced some of the storm surge from this hurricane, had those wetlands been in tact, and unfortunately they're not.

CJ: can you summarize conclusions from overflights?

JJ: Yeah. We looked at an area. We looked at wetland loss in an area to the that was really more to the west of the eye of the storm in an area called Breton Sound it's east of the Mississippi River to give you a perspective, and what we found was that approximately 20 to 26 % of the marshes in that area were destroyed as a result of this hurricane. Which is about over 30 square miles were destroyed from the hurricane.

CJ: What % of all the wetlands is that?

JJ: In this particular case, as I said before, it's about 26% of that area we analyzed which was 133 square miles total.
CJ: In one fell swoop that's a lot.

JJ: Yes. We have not been able to this is from satellite imagery we have not been able to do any other analysis because we do not have any more data at this point in time.

CJ: Permanent loss? How resilient is wetland?

JJ: What we've seen from past hurricanes in relation to wetlands is that this probably is lost. What's the amazing part about this is in the area that we were gaining wetlands because of a diversion called Canarvon here that was draining¿ diverting freshwater from the Mississippi river through this area. In Breton Sound. And we were actually creating and starting to stabilize that whole system. Because we were introducing freshwater and some sediments there. But as a result of this hurricane a lot of what we had thought, or what we had restored and stabilized was lost. as you can see on this map, a lot of our losses now are what we call fringing marshes on the shoreline and those are in the case of the area we studied primarily salt water intrusion and the lack of freshwater and sediment stabilized that. So basically that was those were very fragile to begin with.

CJ: Cant have both levees and wetlands 50 or 60 years ago. How to rebuild? Have marshes but provide insulation for city?

JJ: Well, in the case of New Orleans, let me qualify your statement concerning the levees, we had a project over here in New Orleans east that was a national wildlife refuge called Bayou Sauvage and we had actually went in and was controlling water from inside the levees with pumps to generate or stimulate marsh growth by draining it. so it was a fairly successful project we had here. Inside those levee systems and those levee systems were there to protect New Orleans. So we had actually you know started addressing some of those issues to answer your longterm question
we have to go back and look at the landscape. The landscape has been altered dramatically. I mean we've had a whole town called Chalmette demol¿destroyed. So it has to be a big picture overview. The Louisiana coastal area plan which is what we were working from prior to the hurricane we need to reevaluate it. And that's set up by the army corps of engineers and the state of Louisiana department of natural resources. And we are a participant in that program. We have to go back and say, now what's happened, go back and reevaluate, look at the landscape, we hope to be flying getting some imagery, high resolution imagery this fall. Say, November, water goes down and fairly dry then, and kind of reevaluate that whole situation. But it is massive, I mean, I can't, I wish I had the answer. I don't know. Because we don't know having been down in there ok, I go down to New Orleans and [unintelligible] about every day and just looking at the urban area and some of the things that have happened there. I go up to the northshore around and slydele (?) and some of those wetlands are in fairly good shape the big branch national wildlife refuge. The wetlands adjacent to my home look pretty good. so we don't know it's just going to be a process that's going to- you're going to have to go through. to decide where you set priorities and where do you¿

CJ: the system seems so complex - levees, channels, wetlands - complex marriage between civilization and nature.

JJ: it is I mean I've looked at system all throughout the united states and unfortunately the unique part about this system as opposed to the everglades where you have a water allocation problem a water supply problem, where as here, we're losing land we have to go back and build lands. Now how this ecosystem came about, the first modification to it is a of the 1927 flood. We decided to put levees. New Orleans was flooded and a lot of other areas. Then came the oil and gas industry. And we didn't really understand the importance of New Orleans wetlands nor did we understand their function, what they functioned as. And as population and people moved to the coast, all of a sudden you started seeing - and I reckon the revelation came in the mid-70s. the national NEPA act, for example. And all of a sudden, it's like, wait a second, what are we doing? So we've kind of backed away from it and we've had to look at this, but on the other hand, we still have vital services that these wetlands are providing. I mean 25 to 30 % of all the oil flows through this area here in port fushon (sp?) area here. And those are important to the nation. And being a native Louisianian all my life you know and my family being involved in the oil and gas industry, so it's a living. And the seafood industry is just tremendous.
But to get back to your question, yes, it is a very complicated ecosystem with a lot of different things you have to look at and try to understand and we were just starting to get a handle on that I think, I think we were having a better feel of how to do this, but after this, and I don't know what the results of this catastrophe are relates to the wetlands no body really knows, I mean, we're sitting right here in the direct path of the hurricane coming up these large land losses right on the track of the hurricane. Now what that does for the other parts of the ecosystem, we won't know until we go back and evaluate it later in the next few months.

CJ: Take humans out of the occasion. You'd think the ecosystem would have adapted to handle frequent inundation. But have we altered the environment that much?

JJ: Like I said I've only been on the Northshore. I've been around some of the wetlands over in what we call the Bonnecarry (sp?) area and so forth and to be quite frank with you, true, I haven't really seen a lot of wildlife, dead wildlife anywheres except for a pelican in my yard, I think a board hit him or something. But basically we're out on the lakefront and you know I don't know in terms of fish kills. There have been some minor fish kills, but I think that was more from pollutants than from hurricane spilling.
So yeah, I'm not a wildlife biologist, but I would tell you that what we've seen in the aerial surveys we've done, we have not noticed any damage to the wildlife populations. Now the next question is what happens to the birds as they migrate down this winter. The water foul, the geese. Wylie Barrow, one of our staff, looked at [?] over in the pearl river swamp, which borders the Mississippi and Louisiana water here, that the birds had migrated out of that area. We haven't done an analysis to see what effect that had on-- the hurricane had on those trees but it's swamp type of ecosystem over there. So these are questions to be answered I reckon.

CJ: so this represents what you know so far

JJ: Yes so far and we'll continue to analysis at these scales. We hope to have another flight of the data in within the next week. The LANSAT (?) satellite goes over the area again it goes over I think once every fifteen days. So when we get that in. We can start analyzing that data also. And for these kinds of regional overviews, this is more kind of a regional data analysis as opposed to a specific analysis like at a project. What damage to we have at a restoration project because we have about 80 in this area here we have probably about 30 or 40 projects that we need to analyze what damages and try to learn from that. In other words, we put these projects on the ground, and now lets try to see what happens as a result of this storm. Because [unintelligible] dealing with the storms.

JG: this press release - stuff you knew but wanted more data?

JJ: We wanted to do analysis from [unintelligible]. We wanted to make sure that what we were saying was correct. We had this analysis done over the weekend and then I met with the person who did this analysis on Monday we went through it and then we had it reviewed, and so forth, and now we're releasing it. The image associated with the press release is also on our website, and I would refer people to go to our website,

CJ: early speculation about the shape of the gulf contributed to northwesterly movement¿


JJ: well from what we've seen here is that the morphology that may have contributed to a westerly motion--

CJ: prompts to rephrase.

JJ: so what happened, when the storm came across Florida it was expected to head up to the panhandle of Florida, and it shifted to a NW direction and basically turned it turned east I mean it turned north and it went northeast up in that way. That it usually is storm [mumbling, unintelligible] to the west of a hurricane eye is less significant than it appears to have been. With Katrina so that basically I would say it came back in a counterclockwise. And¿

CJ: the surge did?

Yes and it came back and the, it twisted back around. So I am not a morphologist, geomorphologist I don't exactly understand¿

JJ: [Recommends talking to John Barras, the geologist who did the analysis. Faint audio: Off the record.]

Informal talking: Venice being completely leveled. Lots of referring to map.

Looks like a bulldozer came and leveled everything.
Chandeleur Islands.
Suggests talking Chris Wells.

Borrows phone.

Calling John Barras.


CJ: Asking Barras on phone about press release

CJ: so the shape of the gulf made it the worst place the surge could come from

JJ: What you're saying john is this is the worst damage we've seen.

JJ: Clarifying what JB is saying.

JJ: So it came right up like a funnel what he's saying is because of the Mississippi river and because of these flood protec¿

CJ: Thanks very much.

JJ: What happened is the storm tracked to the NE when it came into these areas here, it goes counter clockwise. So it's going here and it's coming around like this.

CJ: the direction of the wind.

JJ: Right. This Mississippi river levee and these flood protection levees around some parts of New Orleans this is the heaviest damage. Because of that, it didn't spread like a sheet. It just came in and started shearing. As he says in here, it starts shears and so forth. Because it's kind of a funnel . The storm funneled up into that area here.

CJ: and the levees act as kind of a backdrop

JJ: Well yes exactly. Over in here, it was not able to spread out, like over in here

JJ: Explaining with map - completely unclear what "here" and "there" refers to.


CJ: surge came up into NO and then the banks of the levee acted as a trap.

JJ: barges on top of levees.

JJ; You talk about a buffer, it cuts it down, but in this case, it wasn't able to disperse like it normally would have done across land to reduce the impacts of it, it kept hammering it because it was unable to be dispersed across the landscape.

CJ: this is surge coming from the east.

JJ: Explaining on map again.

JG: prompts for name, title.
JJ: My name is Jimmy Johnston, and in the - I'm the chief of the spatial habitat analysis branch and I'm also the coastal Louis - also the coastal Louisiana ecosystem science coordinator for the US geological survey.

CJ: would you call yourself a hydrologist?

JJ: who me?

JJ: i'm a actually if you can believe this an invertebrate biologist

JJ: Used to dive, can't dive in wetlands.

CJ, JJ, JG: Informal Talking.


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