It is generally felt in the water resources community that the most significant twenty-first century public works projects will be those undertaken to correct environmental damage caused by twentieth century projects. A second axiom is that the switch from economic development to restoration and mitigation, what we call redemption, often will be precipitated by disaster. Finally, it must be expected that the repair project will cost far more than the initial public investment but also may have economic revitalization potential far exceeding anticipated environmental benefits. We examine this cycle for the federally funded Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) navigation project east of New Orleans, beginning with its much heralded birth in 1963 as a 122 km long free-flowing tidal canal connecting New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico and ending with its recent de-authorization and closure. We track the direct and indirect effects of the project through its commercial failure, and then on to the official denial, the pervasive environmental impacts, and finally exposure of its role in flooding New Orleans during Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and more seriously during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Post de-authorization planning to curtail continuing environmental and economic damage now offers an opportunity to apply lessons that have been learned and to reinstate natural processes that were disrupted or interrupted by the MRGO during the half-century of its operation. One surprising outcome is that the restoration program may turn out to be more commercially successful than the original navigation project, which was conceived as an agent of economic transformation. The U.S. Army Core of Engineers still does not acknowledge, even in the face of compelling scientific evidence, that the MRGO project was a significant cause of early and catastrophic flooding of the Upper and Lower 9th Wards, St. Bernard Parish, and New Orleans East during Hurricane Katrina. A modeling effort that removed the MRGO from the landscape, and restored the cypress swamps and marshes killed by the MRGO, reduced flooding from Hurricane Katrina by 80%. We conclude that the MRGO spelled the difference between localized flooding, and the catastrophe that killed 1464 people and inflicted tens of billions of dollars of property damages. If the MRGO-caused economic damages associated with Hurricanes Betsy and Katrina are combined with those of construction, operation and maintenance, and wetlands destroyed, then the total economic cost of the MRGO is in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
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Vol. 2009 • No. 10054