Even before Hurricane Katrina, there was widespread -- and growing -- pressure to close the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MR-GO) because of its harmful effects on the fragile marshes of St. Bernard Parish and the danger it posed as a conduit for storm surges. The adverse environmental impact of the "Mr. Go," as the man-made shipping channel is commonly known, is beyond dispute. Anyone who fishes or hunts in the southeastern stretches of St. Bernard knows first-hand the destruction wrought by decades of saltwater intrusion into the area's once-lush cypress swamps and brackish marshes. In addition to their beauty, the wetlands of St. Bernard also provided vital hurricane protection to New Orleans and St. Tammany parishes by slowing down oncoming storms and absorbing storm surges. Hurricane Katrina showed everyone exactly how dangerous the channel has become in the face of a powerful storm -- and New Orleans was supposedly on the "dry side" of that hurricane. Had Katrina veered 50 or 75 miles to the west, the wall of water that raced up MR-GO and inundated St. Bernard and eastern New Orleans likely would have been even higher, and therefore more destructive to life and property. For these reasons and more, it is time to close Mr. Go.
The MR-GO represents one of the colossal failures of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, but the Corps is not the only entity at fault. First authorized by Congress in 1956 as a deepwater shipping channel, the waterway was supposed to provide ocean-going vessels a shortcut to and from the Port of New Orleans. Local business and civic leaders clamored for the channel. They were wrong. Mr. Go was supposed to vastly increase shipping tonnage at the port and foster thousands of jobs. Instead, since its completion in 1965, the MR-GO has eroded the pristine marshes of St. Bernard, turning cypress swamps into vast wastelands and swelling to three times its original width. Traffic in the channel peaked in the late 1970s and then diminished to about four ships a week. Meanwhile, every storm that ventured near southeast Louisiana silted up the 76-mile waterway. It thus had to be dredged regularly at a cost of millions of federal dollars a year.
Locally, the MR-GO enticed several industries and facilities to locate on or near the waterway. They include port terminals at France Road and Jourdan Road, as well as five companies -- Bollinger Gulf Repair, CG Rail, Southern Scrap, Buzzi Unicem (Lone Star) and Vulcan Materials -- that provided roughly 1,000 jobs before Katrina. Those facilities are now isolated because the MR-GO has silted up again; its channel is only 22 feet deep as a result of Katrina's storm surge -- rendering it unfit for deep-draft vessels -- and Congress has refused to authorize additional dredging. Jobs are a vital element of every post-Katrina recovery plan, so any talk of closing the Mr. Go must also include provisions for saving as many maritime jobs as possible.
U.S. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana last week renewed an earlier call for closing the Mr. Go. He also put forth a plan to save the jobs presently tied to the failed waterway. Congress should include both elements of Vitter's plan in the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).
Prior to Katrina, Vitter had inserted language into the WRDA requiring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop a closure plan and begin implementing that plan immediately. Unfortunately, Katrina provided additional urgency to Vitter's arguments. Now he proposes more specific language for the bill, such as requiring the Corps to develop a detailed closure plan within six months in concert with the state as well as Orleans and St. Bernard parishes. The Corps also should have authority to implement the plan immediately and not have to wait for additional "authorization" (read: funds). In addition, Vitter proposes relocating businesses now on the MR-GO to the Mississippi River or to other Louisiana locations -- all at federal expense. He estimates the cost of closure and relocation at $380 million.
Vitter's proposal deserves the support of everyone in Louisiana and Washington. Locally, even port officials -- once the staunchest supporters of the MR-GO -- no longer debate the need to close the waterway. Instead, they argue for federal assistance in relocating the industries that will be adversely affected by the channel's closure. Considering the millions in private capital that were lured to the area by federal promises that can no longer be kept (if they ever could), it behooves Congress to foot the bill for relocating industries that will be displaced by MR-GO's demise. In addition, environmentalists rightly call for weirs and other water control structures to guard against future storm surges -- and for restoration of St. Bernard's wetlands. Vitter's plan includes those measures as well as a long-term Corps management plan that focuses on hurricane and flood protection.
The time for debate is over. It's time to close the Mr. Go and relocate the jobs and industries that relied on its unfulfilled promises. As long as the MR-GO remains open, New Orleans and St. Bernard will never be safe from hurricanes and storm surges.