Natural Buffers Took a Beating

The Clower-Thornton Nature Trail in Gulfport, Miss., a haven for families and bird-watchers, now is cluttered with debris and contaminated by pollutants.
The Clower-Thornton Nature Trail in Gulfport, Miss., a haven for families and bird-watchers, now is cluttered with debris and contaminated by pollutants. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Until a couple of weeks ago, Mississippi's Clower-Thornton Nature Trail lured avid birders as well as small children, who wandered in fascination underneath its broad canopy of oak and dogwood trees. Now the trail's entrance sign warns: "Do Not Enter, Toxic," and the surrounding habitat is dying.

"Every tree is brown, every leaf is blown off," said Donna Yowell, executive director of the Mississippi Urban Forest Council, after touring the area. Hurricane Katrina, Yowell added, "has turned it into a toxic waste site overnight."

The scene of devastation in Gulfport, Miss., is just one of the ecological disasters to emerge as scientists, activists and state and federal officials have begun documenting how the hurricane damaged one of the nation's largest networks of estuaries, wetlands and cypress swamps -- a varied and watery ecosystem that sustains a wealth of birds, fish and vegetation. From polluted fisheries to battered forests, the Gulf Coast's habitat has suffered losses that will take years to restore, they say.

"It's as much a disaster for the places set aside to conserve wildlife as for the cities and the people who have been impacted," said Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. "This is what I would call catastrophic damage to our national wildlife refuges." There are 25 in the affected area.

In the aftermath of Katrina's unprecedented devastation, industrial toxins are seeping into coastal waters. Already-eroded barrier islands have washed away.

Federal authorities have devoted much of their attention so far to the contaminated water in New Orleans, where floodwaters are said to be laced with industrial toxins and untreated sewage. The city's flooded area includes 121 known contaminated sites and more than 1,000 that are possibly contaminated, according to Environmental Data Resources Inc., a firm that compiles environmental information on private and public property.

The polluted water is being pumped out into neighboring Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico, and is likely to affect areas far beyond the city's confines. Federal scientists are already investigating whether the contaminants have damaged valuable fisheries in the gulf, and some scientists and local activists are worried that Lake Pontchartrain is being sacrificed.

Yesterday, environmental activists released satellite images showing large oil slicks a few miles offshore, in the Gulf of Mexico, some stemming from known oil platform locations and stretching as far as 40 miles. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen L. Johnson said the agency has documented five oil spills in the New Orleans area.

Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration dispatched a research vessel, the Nancy Foster, to the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to collect and test fish and shrimp, as well as water and sediment samples. The agency has also hired a commercial shrimp boat to take samples in the Mississippi Sound.

NOAA Fisheries Director Bill Hogarth said the agency will release its results in about a week, adding it would take "a minimum of two years" to restore the oyster industry.

"Obviously, we have to start paying attention to the potential of an environmental disaster," said Steve A. Murawski, NOAA Fisheries' chief science adviser. "This is a major fishing area."

The Gulf of Mexico ranks second only to Alaska among America's largest fisheries; coastal Louisiana alone produces 30 percent of the nation's domestic seafood. The Congressional Research Service estimated the hurricane may cost Louisiana's shrimpers $540 million in sales over the next year.

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