After the ravages of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, the barrier islands of Louisiana and Mississippi are about to benefit from a major investment that could be worth several billion dollars. These narrow, sandy spits of land are the first line of defense for the coast, and while well known to locals for their world-class fishing, they are a forgotten cruising ground outside of the region.
The Mississippi Gulf Islands are wholly undeveloped and part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, which stretches into the Florida panhandle. However, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, each of these islands have lost between 50-60% of their landmass since they were initially surveyed in the 19th century. Federally protected since the 1970’s, studies have confirmed that the deepening of shipping channels serving the Mississippi Coast have directly contributed to their rapid erosion. Always prone to damage from hurricanes, there was a natural sand replenishment process in place to repair them, but the transport of sand in the water column has been disrupted by these channels, which act as sand sinks.
Having learned the lessons of the importance of barrier islands, the Army Corps of Engineers allocated $500 million to their restoration after Katrina. The first project concluded in 2011, with the reconstruction of the northern shore of West Ship Island, adding 150 to 550 feet of beaches into the Mississippi Sound. In 2014, East and West Ship Islands will be rejoined by filling in the nearly 6-mile Camille Cut, formed by Hurricane Camille in the 1960’s. Further projects are scheduled for Horn, Petit Bois and Cat Islands, and studies are underway as to how best reintroduce beach quality sand dredge into the water column.
In Louisiana, the majority of the Army Corps spending post-Katrina has been on storm protection, including repairing and raising levees and building flood control storm locks. Federal dollars have been spent on barrier island restoration in Louisiana, but the majority of near-term funding will come from BP fines from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which could top $20 billion. These fines under the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) will be divided between the Gulf Coast states impacted by the 2010 oil spill, with Louisiana and Mississippi receiving the lion’s share for coastal restoration.
Currently being litigated in court, BP agreed in 2011 to a $1 billion upfront payment towards these fines, but they only agreed to release the majority of the money this year. Of this, $320 million was allocated for Louisiana barrier island restoration, including target projects on Whiskey Island, Cheniere Ronquille, Shell Island and Breton Island. The Chandeleur island chain will also be targeted for major projects in the next installment of BP payments.
These barrier islands along both states are important ecosystems and breeding grounds for seabirds and turtles, as well as incredibly bountiful shrimp and oyster harvesting waters. Add to that the natural protections the islands provide against storm surge for the developed coastlines, and there are many interests intersecting along the coast. Neglected for far too long, these investments in the restoration of the islands should provide ample opportunity for cruisers to discover the quiet sugar sand beaches and dunes of the Northern Gulf Coast into the future.