Mississippi River Gulf Outlet Misgivings

Learning from “Mr. Go”

“The MR. GO took two years to plan, two years to close, and 50 years to debate!” – Junior Rodriguez, former St. Bernard Parish President


MR GO? Mr. Go? In spite of the rhetoric following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the average citizen still has only a vague notion of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet – why it exists, its economic significance to the Port of New Orleans, its impact on the ecosystem, why it makes our region vulnerable and how it affects the unique culture of St. Bernard Parish.

It has always been seen by sportsmen as a pariah. In the 1950s, they recognized that it might change their fishing and hunting habits.
The MRGO was sized for post-World War II Victory Ships. No one knew (or shared) that containerized shipping was looming. Who knew the ships’ wakes, coupled with subsidence and debilitating increased salinity, would widen the MRGO from its original 650 feet to over 2,000 feet? Who knew the 40-mile wide zone of storm surge absorbing salt marsh, so productive for our fisheries, would thin and weaken?

In the absence of disaster, people tend to stay their normal course.

We seem to have several dominant, yet independent, approaches to our lives. If we’re in a profit mode, we tend to protect the status quo and accept the least interruption of our modus operandi – don’t tinker with my good thing. If we’re in a political mode, we don’t think beyond the election cycle, and our myopia enables policy makers their own myopia: to ignore or dissemble hard facts proven by science again and again. And what about forward thinkers? They may be people with their backs against the wall – with options precipitously narrowing – or maybe they’re the rare, special group that judges risk in lives against risk in dollars.

It is worthwhile to reflect on the evolution of coastal science. Sherwood Gagliano, the scientist who first revealed our delta’s geomorphology, measuring and predicting its rate of loss, has observed that before the 1970s, most coastal science focused on the exploitation of natural resources. That continues today, but coastal ecology and restorative sciences now concern themselves in dealing with the waning coastal ecosystem and the post-Macondo blowout response of coastal organisms.

Day-by-day it becomes more apparent that we live in a region where business and political leaders publicly minimize the value of scientific knowledge. At times, the ignored scientific knowledge could arguably have saved people’s lives.

Our documentary, MRGOing, Going, Gone (working title), will premier this fall on WYES-TV, Ch. 12. Begun 10 years ago, our intent was to alert the public – again – about the potential consequences posed to Greater New Orleans by the MRGO. Then, catastrophically, Katrina happened, and we no longer have to foretell that story. The documentary will walk the viewer through pre- and post-Katrina concerns and attitudes of St. Bernard activists and politicians, the Port of New Orleans and its clients, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a bevy of concerned citizens. We attempt to show how the human error argument could continue to exist in spite of a plethora of warnings, while Mother Nature clearly, predictably, suffered.

Armed with the testimony of activists and engineers, some involved for many decades, what’s the potential application for lessons learned about the MRGO as suggested in the documentary?

What is done is done, the MRGO is closed to navigation and the Port of New Orleans currently enjoys record years. We must arm ourselves with the lessons of history to address other chronic challenges along our coast. How do we resolve issues associated with: the Houma Navigation Canal or the Barataria Waterway; reconnecting Bayou LaFourche with the Mississippi River; diversions versus dredging along the river; rerouting the shipping mouth of the river, Morganza to the Gulf levees; and possibly the most difficult of all, connected to all of those challenges, climate change and sea-level rise – topics summarily dismissed by many of our elected leaders.

Have we learned?

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