The coastline has been shrinking for decades. Twenty-three percent of the land that protected the New Orleans metro area in 1956 has now turned into open water, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. The coastline has continued to shrink in the past five years, losing about 20 square miles each year, and some land that was once forest is now turning into swamp as the water moves inland. The BP oil spill has hardly helped the sensitive ecosystem, though what its longterm effect will be on wetlands loss is unknown.
"New Orleans and the coastal communities would be at greater risk of receiving surge" today, Davis said.
Congress authorized a coastal restoration program in 2007, but so far, Davis said, not a dollar has been spent to turn that goal into a reality. There are some positive signs, though. Everyone from local leaders to the governor to President Obama have spoken about the importance of the coastal wetlands, and the state and the federal government have come forward with firm policy proposals for coastal restoration.
That couldn't come soon enough, experts say, because while the stronger levees and surge barriers do provide a greater measure of hurricane protection today for the New Orleans metro area, all the engineering in the world won't be enough without working in tandem with Mother Nature.
"The time to act is disappearing. At some point, you have to do more than talk. You have to begin to act at a scale that can make a difference," said Davis. "As the Gulf gets closer, the danger goes up."