Laplace Rising: The Story of How a Tiny Community in Southern Louisiana Will Save the Largest Delta in North America

Author:J. Robert Hudson
Position:J.D. Candidate 2014, George Washington University Law School
Pages:23-33
 
CONTENT
22 SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT LAW & POLICY
the most environmentally friendly projects for SEQRA relief by
limiting environmental review for compact developments near
public transit. More radical options would include encouraging
all development by exempting all zoning permits from SEQRA,
or by limiting SEQRA review to a project’s impacts upon the
physical environment.
Endnotes: How Environmental Review Can Generate Car-Induced Pollution:
A Case Study
1 See 42 U.S.C. §§ 4321-4370h.
2 See 42 U.S.C. § 4332(C).
3 See Elena Bryant, Innovation or Degradation? An Analysis of Hawaii’s
Cultural Impact Assessment Process as a Vehicle for Environmental Justice for
Kanaka Maoli, 13 ASIAN-PAC. L. & POLY J. 230, 265, 265 n. 209 (2011) (listing
states in footnote).
4 N.Y. ENVTL. CONSERV. LAW. § 8-0101 (McKinney 2013).
5 See William Fulton & Paul Shigley, Guide to California Planning 156 (3rd
ed. 2005) (“[M]ost state [little NEPA] laws . . . apply only to public develop-
ment projects.”).
6 See Stewart E. Sterk, Environmental Review in the Land Use Process: New
York’s Experience with SEQRA, 13 CARDOZO L. REV. 2041, 2042-43 (1992)
(explaining that unlike other states New York and California “require impact
statements not only for government-sponsored projects, but also for projects
that require government permits, and extend the EIS requirement beyond state
actions to actions taken by municipalities”); Daniel P. Selmi, Themes in the
Evolution of the State Environmental Policy Acts, 38 URB. LAW. 949, 956-57
(2006) (contrasting New York approach with that of other states). NEPA may
also require an EIS for private sector projects requiring government permits.
See Save Our Sonoran, Inc. v. Flowers, 408 F.3d 1113, 1121 (9th Cir. 2005).
But NEPA is far less relevant to most private sector projects because zoning is
primarily a local issue rather than a federal issue. See San Remo Hotel v. City
& Cnty. of S.F., 545 U.S. 323, 347 (2005) (noting that state courts have more
experience than federal courts in dealing with zoning issues).
7 See Chinese Staff & Workers Ass’n v. N.Y.C., 502 N.E.2d 176, 180, (1986)
[hereinafter Chinese Staff I] (holding that SEQRA requires consideration of
“social or economic” factors as well as “physical environment”).
8 Id. at 180 n.7 (explaining that the scope of NEPA is limited to “natural or
physical environment”).
9 See John Watts, Reconciling Environmental Protection With the Need for
Certainty: Significance Thresholds for CEQA, 22 ECOLOGY L.Q. 213, 241 n.170
(1995) (“About half the states … require consideration of [socio-economic]
impacts.”); Sterk, supra note 6, at 2043 (Some “states define the environment to
embrace only natural and historical resources.”).
10 See Anne L. Hanson, Offshore Drilling in the United States and Norway:
A Comparison of Prescriptive and Performance Approaches to Safety and Envi-
ronmental Regulation, 23 GEO. INTL ENVTL. L. REV. 555, 559 (2011).
11 Id.
12 See Dep’t of Transp. v. Pub. Citizen, 541 U.S. 752, 757 (2004).
13 See Emily M. Slaten, Note, “We Don’t Fish in Their Oil Wells, and They
Shouldn’t Drill In Our Rivers:” Considering Public Opposition Under NEPA
and the Highly Controversial Regulatory Factor, 43 IND. L. REV. 1319, 1324
(2010) (citing 40 C.F.R. § 1508.16).
14 Another alternative is to decide the action is covered by a “categorical
exclusion.” Id. at 1325. Categorically excluded actions are “routine agency
actions with traditionally non-significant environmental impacts that are
altogether exempted from the NEPA process.” Id. An individual federal agency
may designate types of agency action as categorically excluded. See 40 C.F.R.
§ 1508.4 (“Categorical Exclusion means a category of actions which do not
individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the human environment
and which have been found to have no such effect in procedures adopted by a
federal agency.”).
15 40 C.F.R. § 1508.9(a)(1).
16 See 40 C.F.R. § 1501.4(e).
17 The Ninth Circuit requires an EIS even if federal action “may” degrade the
environment. Wetlands Action Network v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng’rs, 222 F.3d
1105, 1119 (9th Cir. 2000). However, the majority of courts require an EIS only
if a project will significantly affect the environment. See, e.g., Heartwood v. U.S.
Forest Serv., 380 F.3d 428, 430 (8th Cir. 2004); Greater Yellowstone Coal. v.
Flowers, 359 F.3d 1257, 1274 (10th Cir. 2004).
18 See 40 C.F.R. § 1501.7.
19 See 40 C.F.R. § 1502.9(a).
20 See 40 C.F.R. § 1502.9(b) (noting that in final EISs agencies “shall respond
to comments” and “discuss . . . any reasonable opposing view which was not
adequately discussed in the draft statement and shall indicate the agency’s
response to the issues raised”). See also id. at § 1503.4(a) (stating that a lead
agency “shall assess and consider comments . . . and shall respond by one or
more of the means listed below, stating its response in the final statement”).
21 42 U.S.C. § 4332(2). In addition, the EIS shall address any possible rela-
tionship between the action’s environmental impacts and long-term productivity,
and any irreversible commitment of resources the action may cause. Id.
22 See Vill. of Chestnut Ridge v. Town of Ramapo, 841 N.Y.S.2d 321, 332
(App. Div. 2007).
23 See Town of Amsterdam v. Amsterdam Ind. Dev. Agency, 945 N.Y.S.2d 434,
440 (App. Div. 2012) (explaining that the “primary purpose” of SEQRA is “to
ensure that the agency gives appropriate respect and due consideration to the
environment in deciding whether a proposed project should proceed”).
24 See Mark A. Chertok & Ashley S. Miller, Environmental Law: Develop-
ments in the Law of SEQRA, 2009, 60 SYRACUSE L. REV. 925, 925-26 (2010)
(clarifying that the statute “applies to discretionary actions by the State of New
York, its subdivisions or local agencies” including “direct agency actions, fund-
ing determinations, promulgation of regulations, zoning amendments, and the
granting of permits and similar approvals”).
25 Id. (SEQRA governs “zoning amendments”); Matter of Neville v. Koch, 79
N.Y.2d 416, 426, (1992) (“[R]ezoning is an ‘action’ subject to SEQRA.”).
26 See Paul D. Selver, The Public Review Process: Land Use Due Diligence
and Comments on Structuring the Deal to Shift Land Use and Environmental
Risks, in 12 COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE INSTITUTE 903, 906-10 (2010) (noting that
subdivision approval, variances, and numerous other land use procedures are
subject to SEQRA).
27 See Edna Sussman et. al., Climate Change Adaptation: Fostering Progress
Through Law and Regulation, 18 N.Y.U. ENVTL. L. J. 55, 79 (2010); Sterk,
supra note 6, at 2045. Although the lead agency is technically responsible for
drafting the EAF, EIS, and similar documents, as a practical matter a developer
often drafts such documents, which in turn are used by the lead agency. See
Carolyn A. Zenk, New York State Environmental Quality Review Act, http://
www.carolynzenk.com/new-york-state-environmental-quality-review-act.html
(last visited Aug. 20, 2012).
28 Citizens Against Retail Sprawl v. Giza, 722 N.Y.S.2d 645, 648 (App. Div.
2001) (emphasis deleted) (quoting N.Y. COMP. CODES R. & REGS. 6, § 617.2(y)).
29 See N.Y. COMP. CODES R. & REGS. 6, § 617.2(a)-(c). See also Chinese Staff
I, 502 N.E.2d at 364 (“[W]hether an EIS is required … depends on whether
an action may or will not have a significant effect on the environment.”). If
the agency foresees significant environmental impacts but has an enforceable
commitment to mitigate those impacts, it may avoid an EIS by creating a “con-
ditioned negative declaration.” N.Y. COMP. CODES R. & REGS. 6, § 617.2(h). See
also Chertok & Miller, supra note 24, at 926.
30 Chertok & Miller, supra note 24, at 927.
31 Chertok & Miller, supra note 24, at 927. See also Jackson v. N.Y. State
Urban Dev. Corp., 67 N.Y.2d 400, 415, 494 N.E.2d 429, 435 (1986) (describing
the draft EIS process in more detail).
32 See Selver, supra note 26, at 904.
33 See Sterk, supra note 6, at 2045-46.
34 Sterk, supra note 6, at 2078 (providing examples of such “commitments”
which include “the use of construction materials or the occupation of land
area”).
continued on page 64
23WINTER 2014
LAPLACE RISING: THE STORY OF HOW A TINY
COMMUNITY IN SOUTHERN LOUISIANA WILL SAVE
THE LARGEST DELTA IN NORTH AMERICA
By J. Robert Hudson*
I. INTRODUCTION
Laissez les bon temps rouler, they said. It was supposed to
be an easy one: Category 2, at worst.1 Before Hurricane
Isaac made landfall at the mouth of the Mississippi River
on August 29, 2012, the people of Laplace, Louisiana, made
preparations as they always have: duct-taped windows, filled
sand bags, stocked up on bottled water and whiskey. The fore-
cast looked decent; nothing compared to the menace of Katrina,
Rita, or Gustav.2 The generations-old tradition of hurricane par-
ties commenced without question. It then could only come as a
shock when the streets of this city of thirty thousand people were
suddenly deluged in water levels higher than those ever experi-
enced before: higher than Hurricane Katrina.3 In the days lead-
ing up to Hurricane Isaac’s landfall, the citizens of Laplace had
little, if any, war ning of the devastation that would ensue.4 There
was no precedent—just brown lines left across dining room
walls after Lake Pontchartrain receded.
Following the horror and multi-billion dollar onslaught
of the 2005 hurricane season, the United States Army Corps
of Engineers (“Corps” or “USACE”) was drowning under the
weight of its failed levee system in New Orleans.5 Scenes of
degenerates raiding electronics stores and refugees sleeping on
highway overpasses were staples of every major news broadcast
from New York to Shanghai.6 Some looters even saw the crimes
as “an opportunity to get back at society. 7 Many citizens, as
Oliver Houck writes, just wanted the government to “get them
off their fucking roofs!”8
How had a governmental body failed so tremendously to
protect a city as important as New Orleans? How had a levee
system designed by the greatest engineers in the country simply
failed? The answer was simple: in addition to its shoddy con-
struction and negligible maintenance, the system was designed to
withstand a maximum Category 3 hurricane, but circumstances
had changed.9 The natural wetland barriers of the Breton Sound
and the Barataria Basin that the city once enjoyed have degener-
ated at an alarming pace.10 In their absence, massive hurricanes
like Katrina are able to maintain their strength and their storm
surges all the way to the doorsteps of the French Quarter.11
In response, the Corps spent $15 billion to upgrade and
reinforce the levee and water control systems of New Orleans.12
Bigger walls were built around the sinking bowl. The amount
spent on the projects paled in comparison to the $120 billion
in damage that Rita and Katrina had inflicted primarily upon
America’s most unique city.13 Politicians, citizens, and governors
all vowed never again.14 Accordingly, when Hurricane Isaac
passed over the city like a creeping monster in late August of
2012, New Orleans remained dry.15 Thirty miles west, the citi-
zens of Laplace bundled possessions and pets into small boats as
Isaac’s waves devoured their homes.
For hundreds of years, the Mississippi River and the wet-
lands have, economically speaking, been a figurative printing
press for Louisiana and the United States as a whole. However,
in the past 25 years, Louisiana’s coast has lost an average of
roughly seventeen square miles of land per year, or the equiva-
lent of a football field of land every hour.16 More important than
the substantial economic benefits that the wetlands bestow upon
Louisiana (e.g., seafood, energy, recreation, shipping and tour-
ism) is the vast physical barrier that they once played between
ferocious Atlantic hurricanes and coastal communities.17 The
wetlands reduce hurricane surge waters by one foot for every
mile.18 With the wetlands diminishing at incredible rates and
global climate change instigating more powerful storms and
higher sea levels, communities like Laplace, Louisiana, are fac-
ing unprecedented devastation.19
During Hurricane Isaac, characterized as Category 1 by the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”),
Laplace was victim to flood waters higher than it had ever expe-
rienced before—higher than even those brought on by Hurricane
Katrina.20 The difference in the seven years between Isaac and
Katrina were 120 square miles of lost wetland barriers and a $15
billion Corps effort to revamp and improve the water control
structures of New Orleans just miles away.21 Essentially, Laplace
fell victim to the decimation of its natural protective basins and
floodwaters diverted from New Orleans as a result of the city’s
post-Katrina flood control improvements. These two avoidable
disasters were the cause of the worst flooding in the recorded
history of the city of Laplace.22
Accordingly, this article proposes separate class action
lawsuits and a litigation strategy for the affected members of
the Laplace community (“Class”) against the Corps and the
*J.D. Candidate 2014, George Washington University Law School. Mr. Hudson
is immensely thankful for the mentorship of Dr. William Platt and the majesty of
Southern Louisiana. Justice Holmes once stated, “[I]t is required of a man that
he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not
to have lived.” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Memorial Day (May 30, 1884), in THE
OCCASIONAL SPEECHES OF JUSTICE OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES 4, 6-7 (Mark DeWolfe
Howe ed., 1962). The words of this article are not only the author’s but also the
passion and thoughts of an entire people.
24 SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT LAW & POLICY
Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (“LDNR”). A
judicial mandate that the State, the LDNR, and the Corps take
immediate action to restore and protect the wetland barriers of
Southern Louisiana could effectuate the crucial action necessary
to prevent the disasters of Katrina and Isaac from occurring once
more. The Class will first assert a public-trust doctrine claim
against the LDNR for: (1) failing to protect the natural resources
of the Louisiana wetlands from decimation by diverting their
fresh water sources and not using available Mississippi River
diversionary structures; and (2) failing to meaningfully regulate
the canalization of coastal Louisiana.
Furthermore, a second suit should be brought against the
USACE: (1) contributing to the mass flooding in Laplace,
Louisiana, during Hurricane Isaac, as the flood protection mech-
anisms surrounding the New Orleans area diverted water in to
the communities of the southwest banks of Lake Pontchartrain,
in violation of the Federal Tort Claims Act, and (2) failing to
maintain the integrity of the Louisiana wetlands (described
above) as required by federal public-trust doctrine. Had these
issues been addressed prior to Hurricane Isaac, the flooding
experienced in Laplace would not have occurred.
Finally, the Louisiana public-trust doctrine should be
permanently amended to include the State’s wetlands. The suc-
cess of the suit will force the Louisiana Department of Natural
Resources and the Corps to revive coastal wetlands, and amend
the water control structures of New Orleans so they do not
flood the outlying communities of Lake Pontchartrain during
hurricanes.
In advancing this proposal, Part II will provide information
pertinent to understanding the geographic and social history of
the Louisiana delta region by reviewing the impetus behind the
Corps’s involvement in the region’s current environmental situ-
ation and the dire need for immediate action, as well as modern
efforts at coastal restoration. Part III will describe the Class’s
reliance upon the history of the public-trust doctrine to further
its claims; namely, the State and Corps’s failure to maintain the
wetlands under the obligations encompassed in the public-trust
doctrine, as well as those claims to be brought under the Federal
Tort Claims Act against the Corps. Part IV concludes this article.
II. WHERE WE ARE, HOW WE GOT HERE,
AND WHY IT MATTERS
A. Bienvenue en Louisiane
It was May of 2008 when I first crossed the I-10 bridges
over lukewarm expanses of Lake Pontchartrain, en-route to a
hazy cobalt sketch of New Orleans clambering towards the sky
out of what seemed like endless ocean. I was on the phone with
my sister in Dallas.
“So what does it look like?”
“Dead Swamp Cypress in every direction. It’s like a
graveyard for Earth.
As I would later learn, the massive Bald Cypress forests
around New Orleans were once part of the greater deltaic
wetlands that had protected the city for hundreds of years.23
However, saltwater intrusion caused by urban development,
dredging, and the creation of navigation channels has increased
the salinity of the Pontchartrain lakeshore past the habitable
zone of the iconic trees.24 The effect: miles of stone-grey trunks
standing in contrast to the vibrancy of the city that killed them.25
Figure 1. Wetland Loss in Southern Louisiana. Source: U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY, DEPICTING COASTAL LOUISIANA LAND LOSS 2 (2005),
available at http://www.nwrc.usgs.gov/factshts/2005-3101.pdf (areas colored in yellow are projected land losses by the year 2050).
25WINTER 2014
Contrary to its swift demise, the Louisiana delta region
was built over a several-million-year period and is now the
seventh largest delta on the planet.26 As with any deltaic region,
ceaseless streams of sediment from continental North America
bumble down the swift waters of the
Mississippi River and are deposited
where the mouth meets the Gulf
of Mexico or, colloquially, “the
Bathtub.”27 Essentially, after mil-
lions of years and unfathomable tons
of sediment, the region known as
Southern Louisiana was built from
the compaction of these deposits.28
Although the loss of land in
Louisiana is a “spanking new phe-
nomenon” in geologic terms, it can
hardly be considered news by any
stretch of the human conscience.29
Coastal erosion in the state has
been documented from at least the
1930s.30 The question then arises:
how could a state so inherently
dependent upon its wetlands not act
to prevent the environmental train
wreck that Louisiana faces today? As
Oliver Houck suggests, Louisiana’s relationship with its wetland
resource “is similar to that of any organism with too much of
a resource to bother about.”31 Simply put, most people never
thought the wetlands would actually disappear.
Notably, the region is home to 37% of the nation’s estuarine
habitats and accounts for the largest commercial fishing econ-
omy in the continental United States. 32 Prior to the 2005 hurri-
cane season, Louisiana was the source of one third of the United
States’ seafood, and 20% of all U.S. energy passed through the
ports of New Orleans and Baton Rouge.33 It is only obvious that
the economy of Louisiana is inexorably and vitally linked to the
health of the Mississippi River and its wetlands. However, to
truly understand the positive impact that Louisiana’s waterways
have had on its cultural and economic development, one must
know the tempestuous, untamable nature of the Mississippi
River.
1. THE GREAT FLOOD OF 1927
In the spring of 1927, the residents of Arkansas, Illinois,
Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, and Louisiana
saw between six and eleven inches of rain poured upon the
Mississippi River, and its banks swelled to unimaginable widths,
creating unprecedented and catastrophic flood damage across
incredible swaths of the country.34
Estimates of the Great Flood of 1927 (“Great Flood”)
suggest that twenty-seven thousand square miles of land were
inundated, “ruining crops, damaging or destroying 137,000
buildings, causing 700,000 people to be displaced from their
homes, and killing 250 individuals across the seven impacted
states.”35 By July 1st, the Mississippi River had swelled to a
width of 70 miles and covered an area of land equal to the size
of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont
combined.36 In today’s terms, a flood equal to that of the Great
Flood would come with an economic damage bill of over $160
billion—besting even Hurricane
Katrina.37
When confronted with these
numbers, it can come as no surprise
that there was a significant and fun-
damental change to the way in which
Americans viewed the Mississippi
River, in addition to an equally signif-
icant shift in the political climate.38
Indeed, the event was so scarring
and impactful that the passage of the
Flood Control Act of 1928 became
of the utmost national importance,
and the successful handling of flood
relief efforts by Herbert Hoover all
but guaranteed him the office of the
thirty-first president.39
Given the economic necessity
of the river and its use as a waterway
for shipping, the Flood Control Act
of 1928 took a very human-centered
perspective on co-existence with nature by placing the planning
and containment of the Mississippi River within the hands of
the federal government.40 USACE was tasked with controlling
and mitigating the flow of the fourth-longest river in the entire
world.41 Little, if any, respect to the natural flow of the river was
granted after this point. Like a prized stallion, the Mississippi
had to be broken.
2. USACE AND THE DISAPPEARING STATE
Under the new authority of the Flood Control Act of
1928,42 the Corps set out immediately to design and construct
an extensive network of dams, levees and water control struc-
tures in order to prevent another flood on the scale of the Great
Flood. In furtherance of its divine destiny to control the mighty
Mississippi, the Corps constructed an enormous 2,203 miles of
levees43 running like twin ribbons along the banks of the river.44
Over thousands of years, rivers naturally change their course,
swinging back and forth across a landscape, giving them an
aerial visage of a snake. However, as one might guess, the con-
struction of levees prevents this most basic function by blocking
any natural movement in the river.45
Each major basin of the Louisiana delta was once the mouth
of the Mississippi River.46 Indeed, over millions of years the river
shifted back and forth between these massive wetlands, deposit-
ing the silt and sediment that eventually built the area known as
Southern Louisiana.47 Since 2600 B.C.E., the Mississippi River
has altered its major course four times.48 At the founding of
New Orleans in 1718 by the French settlers Pierre Le Moyne
d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, the mouth
of the Mississippi was located near the fated city, and its major
“Contrary to its
swift demise, the
Louisiana delta
region was built over
a several-million-
year period and is
now the seventh-
largest delta on the
planet.
26 SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT LAW & POLICY
distributary49 flowed in to the Atchafalaya Basin.50 H owever,
nearly 300 years later, the river has, inevitably, shown a desire
to shift primarily down this distributary, the Atchafalaya River,
into the Atchafalaya Basin.51 The consequences of this shift
away from New Orleans were not lost upon the politicians who
controlled the purse strings of the Corps.52 Understanding the
strategic economic importance of deep water for the Port of New
Orleans, the Corps ensured that the Mississippi River would for-
ever flow directly to the city via this network of levees.
In addition to the levees, the Corps constructed a series
of dams along the length of the river that reduced the overall
output of sediment from over 1.5 million tons a day in 1951 to
a little less than 500,000 tons per day.53 The damming of the
Missouri River alone reduced contributions to the Mississippi
River by 70-80%.54 The multitudinous dams on the river essen-
tially blocked the transport of vital sediment to the Louisiana
wetlands. Without these sediments, the wetlands began to shrink
and simply disappeared.
3. CANALIZATION OF COASTAL LOUISIANA
Dr. William Platt and I were sitting in his office staring stoi-
cally upon the bands of a swirling giant in the Gulf. It was August
30, 2008 in Baton Rouge, and mere hours before Hurricane
Gustav was to make landfall. I got up to pace the room because
it is unnerving to stare at a bullet you cannot stop.
“Dr. Bill, this roadmap on the wall, where is this?”
“That’s not a roadmap. That’s the bayou, kiddo.
Here in the swamps of Louisiana, they’ve experienced death
by a thousand cuts.55 Any aerial image of the Louisiana wetlands
will provide a shocking example of the many-thousand canals
that have been dredged primarily to facilitate transportation for
oil and gas sites.56 The canals intersect and weave mindlessly
like the streets of an old European capital, like the ravines of a
brain without any of the functioning. Today, these cuts disrupt
hydrological flow and have the effect of eliminating all biologi-
cal cohesiveness in a very delicately balanced environment.57
The direct impacts of canal cutting are an immediate loss of
land to dredging, tidal circulation disruption, and bank erosion
as a result of the constant wake from boats that use the canals.58
However, it is the indirect effects that are far more sinister.
Research now shows that the cutting of a canal allows for saltwa-
ter intrusion into the heart of the bayou.59 As saltwater intrudes
upon the open canals, the salinity of the surrounding brackish
water increases to an uninhabitable point; grasses die and the
entire process is aggravated.60
4. CASE STUDY: “MR. (NO) GO
A disastrous example of canalization in coastal Louisiana
was the development of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet
(“MRGO”), or “Mr. Go.” Constructed by the Corps and opened
in 1968, MRGO was a massive canal capable of streamlining
freight shipments into the Port of New Orleans, rather than
through the winding Mississippi River.61 The intent of the canal
was the expedited movement of all shipping traffic through a
straight-shot canal connecting the Gulf of Mexico and the inner
harbor of New Orleans.62 Unfortunately, the Corps had not
anticipated the intrusion of saltwater into their newest crown-
ing achievement.63 Although MRGO was originally dredged at
approximately 600 feet, the introduction of salt water into the
Figure 2. Canals in Southern Louisiana. Source: J.M. Allen, Louisiana’s Lost Wetlands (May 2011),
http://www.atlantisbolivia.org/canalslouisiana1.htm.
27WINTER 2014
brackish water canal eroded the vegetation that held the canal
together.64 As a result, MRGO widened to nearly 2,000 feet and
became shallower, necessitating hugely expensive re-dredging
efforts at the cost of about $20,000 per passing ship.65 If the
expense of maintaining MRGO was not enough, the fiasco of
Hurricane Katrina truly sealed its fate. As Hurricane Katrina
approached New Orleans, MRGO acted as a direct pipeline for
surge and floodwaters to funnel leisurely into the inner harbor of
the city.66 After the tremendous disaster of Katrina, MRGO was
officially closed by the Corps, citing a $130 million price tag for
its repair.67
With disastrous projects such
as MRGO surviving until the mid-
2000s—even against the opposition
of thousands screaming like ban-
shees over its negative environmental
impact68—one would assume that
Louisianans have chosen instant
gratification from commerce over
long-term sustainability in the
region. However, the efforts to restore
coastal Louisiana are massing, albeit
at a slow pace.
5. MODERN EFFORTS AT
COASTAL RESTORATION
IN LOUISIANA
I once spent a steaming sum-
mer weekend at the south end of
Bayou Petit Caillou, near Cocodrie,
Louisiana. It was the kind of hot that
Southern writers hate to describe. Up
to my shins in swamp mud, shoving
plugs of marsh grass into the roiling
puddles. Two years later, as I drove
through the back half of Hurricane
Isaac on my way from Houston to
Baton Rouge, the wind slapped sprigs of a familiar grass against
my windshield wipers. I could not help but think, “Did I plant
you?
In the 1990s, several Louisiana commissions and offices of
the state released a cooperative plan gloriously labeled “Coast
2050.”69 The massive report, hailed as a beacon of light for the
blighted state, was a highly generalized report on how the state
of Louisiana, hilariously, needed saving.70 The report echoed
what scientists and researchers had been postulating and pub-
lishing for years. Plus, the bureaucratic structure of the Coast
2050 plan led to inherent issues regarding effectiveness and
response time.71 Although the plan was established almost 20
years ago, the efforts have proven to do ver y little to save coastal
Louisiana from ultimate destruction.72 The lack of effective-
ness with regard to the Coast 2050 plan can be overwhelmingly
attributed to the intentional underutilization of the Mississippi
River diversion structures at Caernarvon, Davis Pond, Bonnet
Carré and Morganza.73
6. BITING THE FEEDING HAND: THE DIVERSIONS AND
THEIR BASINS
The story of diversionary structures built along the
Mississippi River in Southern Louisiana includes a lot of gilded
lip service deep-fried in some ivory tower nonsense about
restoring and saving over a million acres of precious wetlands.74
Much to everyone’s shock, I am sure, these lofty ideals and res-
toration promises have been about as effective as an Alcoholics
Anonymous© (“AA”) meeting on Bourbon Street. And, frankly,
in the case of the Caernarvon Diversion Structure, the AA group
leader was found blackout-wasted in
Pat O’Brien’s® at two o’clock on a
Tuesday afternoon.
The old dogs of the diversionary
structures are the Bonnet Carré and
the Morganza spillways.75 Opened
in 1931 as a response to the Great
Flood of 1927, the Bonnet Carré is
a 350-bay spillway that allows for
significant diversions of Mississippi
River water into Lake Pontchartrain
and the surrounding wetland basin
during times of exceptionally high
water.76 As a reminder, the wetlands
of the Pontchartrain Basin are inte-
gral defenses against storm surges
for the communities (e.g., Laplace)
outside of the high-walled Crescent
City.
In its riveting eighty-decade
existence, the Bonnet Carré spillway
has been opened a grand total of ten
times at an average 87% capacity.77
In addition to the infrequent open-
ings of the spillway which “ha[ve]
an immediate, short-term, freshening
effect,” the Corps proudly boasts that the spillway’s structure
unintentionally leaks around 10,000 cubic feet of water per
second once or twice per year,78 compared to the 250,000 cubic
feet capability of an opening.79 Ignoring the blatant fact that the
Bonnet Carré is only opened when New Orleans is threatened
by river flooding and not for the express purpose of wetland
restoration, as evidenced by the historical record,80 the Corps is
essentially tossing a pirogue at the Titanic and calling it a rescue
mission. Numbers do not lie, and since 1900 the wetlands of the
Pontchartrain Basin have been reduced by 50% due to the lack
of sediment deposits from freshwater—a monstrous issue that
could have been solved via the Bonnet Carré spillway.81
The narrative of the Morganza Spillway, which feeds fresh-
water to the wetlands of the vitally important Atchafalaya Basin,
is even more lackluster than the Bonnet Carré. Opened in 1954,
the Morganza spillway has been utilized exactly two times: once
in 1973, opening 42 of 125 bays,82 and again in 2011 when a
mere 17 were opened.83 However, due to the existence of the
Atchafalaya River and the small amounts of sediment that are
“Numbers do not
lie, and since 1900
the wetlands of the
Pontchartrain Basin
have been reduced by
50% due to the lack
of sediment deposits
from freshwater—a
monstrous issue that
could have been
solved via the Bonnet
Carré spillway.
28 SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT LAW & POLICY
consistently fed to the basin naturally, the Atchafalaya Basin
maintains the distinct honor of being the only moderately stable
wetland basin in the entire state.84
Differing from the original flood control intent of the
Bonnet Carré and Morganza, the Caernarvon and Davis Pond
diversion structures were constructed for the express purpose of
restoring wetlands and regulating salinity in the Breton Sound
and Barataria Basins, respectively.85 At a cost of $26 million, the
Caernarvon began operating in 1991 and was expected to restore
sixteen thousand acres of coastal wetlands.86 Someone must
have enjoyed one too many Hand Grenades®87 while devising
this plan, because not only has there been significant continued
wetland loss in the Breton Sound Basin following the opening
of the Caernarvon, data shows that the losses are increasing.88
Even in the areas close to the Caernarvon Diversion, where the
impact of sediment deposition would be the greatest, the vegeta-
tion level is lower than when the diversion opened in 1991.89
Finally, the Davis Pond diversion structure was completed
in 2001 at a cost of $120 million with the expectation of restor-
ing thirty-three thousand acres and benefitting seven hundred
seventy-seven thousand acres of wetlands in the Barataria
Basin.90 With a potential freshwater outflow of 10,650 cubic feet
per second, the diversion structure has been underutilized at an
average of less than half that capacity. 91 At this rate of usage,
the influx of freshwater is capable of merely maintaining the
dwindling wetlands that are present in the Barataria Basin, but
in its 12 years of operation, the restoration and wetland creation
aspects have not come to fruition.92 One then might ask, where
are the 33,000 acres of restored wetlands? USACE is currently
discussing and formulating a plan to further open the Davis Pond
structure in order to facilitate wetland growth.93 Unfortunately,
the initial report, due in November 2013 upon the signature of
the Chief of Engineers, has not released.94 After this momentous
signing, the plan then has the distinct pleasure of going before
Congress for approval.95
However, recent successes with freshwater diversion include
wetlands restored near Venice, Louisiana, at West Bay and, albeit
unintentionally, in the Pontchar train Basin as a result of the
Bonnet Carré opening that occurred during the 2011 flooding.96
Despite the success of the West Bay restoration, where ten acres
were restored in 2011 alone, navigation industry lobbyists were
able to secure an order to close the diversion in 2008 in order
to facilitate anchorage in the area.97 Fortunately, after a lengthy
legal battle, proponents of the West Bay project won a reversal
and a 10-year extension of operation in October of 2012.98
Although the economic, cultural, and environmental impor-
tance of the Louisiana wetlands has now been recognized, this
understanding is something of a recent phenomenon.99 For hun-
dreds of years, the wetlands and bayous of the state were looked
upon as nothing more than a cesspool for disease and dangerous
animals.100 In fact, during the era of slavery, owners rarely, if
ever, followed a runaway slave into the swamp, as they were
likely to die anyway. In Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northrup
recorded this reality when he escaped capture from his Louisiana
master by fleeing into the Great Pacoudrie Swamp, evading water
moccasins and alligators.101 Moreover, the swamps of Souther n
Louisiana have been drained and reclaimed since the early 1700s
by French settlers in an effort to increase their land holds and
reduce mosquito breeding grounds.102 Recognizing the historical
love-hate relationship between Louisianans and their swamps, it
can only be expected that the protection of a malaria-infested,
alligator breeding ground would take decades of evolution and
a judicial cognizance of its function, which could only come at
a glacial pace.
B. The Public-Trust Doctrine
This section will discuss how the wetlands of Southern
Louisiana eventually came under the protection of the Louisiana
public-trust doctrine and, further, how the federal public-trust
doctrine emerged as an interpretation of ancient Roman law. As
a matter of course, the Laplace community will be required to
prove that the aforementioned wetland basins are lands protected
under the public trusts of the State of Louisiana and the United
States. In establishing this fact, the Class must first emphasize
the history of the public-trust doctrine and how modern juris-
prudence has included the Louisiana coastal wetlands within its
bounds.
The first Western record of the public trust comes from the
laws of Emperor Justinian of the Roman Empire, who ordered
that the seas, rivers, air and seashores were the property of the
people, could be owned by no single entity, and were held in
the public trust.103 Later records of the public trust have also
been found in Las Siete Partidas, Spanish laws from the time of
Alfonso the Wise.104 The overarching intent of the public trust
evolved under English common law to ensure the protection of
the citizens’ natural resources by the government so that present
and future generations might also reap their benefits.105
Borrowing from the English common law, the United
States effectuated its own federal public-trust doctrine, which is
mandated over each of the 50 states under the authority of the
Supremacy Clause.106 However, many states have expounded
upon the original federal public-trust doctrine and tailored spe-
cific legislation to protect those geographic features particular to
their borders.107 Judicial interpretation of the public-trust doc-
trine more or less begins with the landmark case Illinois Central
Railroad Company v. State of Illinois.108
1. FEDERAL AND STATE INTERPRETATION OF THE DOCTRINE
In 1851, the City of Chicago granted the Illinois Central
Railroad the rights to construct a north-south railroad along 3
million acres of Lake Michigan shoreline and, later, 1,000 acres
of land submerged under Lake Michigan via the Lake Front
Act of 1869 in exchange for the construction of a breakwater
to protect the harbor of Chicago from siltation.109 Siltation is
the pollution of water by fine particulate terrestrial material,
which can eventually make a harbor shallow and unusable.110
Following public opposition and an extensive legal battle, the
Supreme Court of the United States ultimately invalidated the
agreement finding that the right to lands held in the public trust
cannot be sold, bought, or relinquished in any way.111 The Court
held that each state has an inalienable right and ownership of all
29WINTER 2014
lands submerged below water and designated as navigable water
within their state, noting a departure from the English “ebb and
tide” rule.112
The public-trust doctrine was interpreted again in 1988
by the Supreme Court in Phillips Petroleum Company v.
Mississippi,113 where the Petitioner brought a claim of owner-
ship against the State for 42 acres of land underlying a bayou
and several streams. Although the doctrine had historically been
interpreted to apply only to those navigable waters of the United
States, the Court departed from this tradition in finding that
“States have interests in lands beneath tidal waters which have
nothing to do with navigation,” and, as such, wetlands, bayous,
and streams incident to the Mississippi River fall within the
public trust.114
In 1983, the National Audubon Society sued the Los
Angeles Department of Water and Power to enjoin it from further
draining and degrading Mono Lake, which the plaintiffs argued
fell under the protection of the state public-trust doctrine.115
In finding that Mono Lake did fall under the protection of the
public-trust doctrine, the Supreme Court of California held that:
The lake’s recession obviously diminishes its value
as an economic, recreational, and scenic resource.
. . . The declining shrimp hatch depresses a local
shrimping industry. . . . Mono Lake has long been
treasured as a unique scenic, recreational and scien-
tific resource, but continued diversions threaten to
turn it into a desert wasteland like the dry bed of
Owens Lake.116
The decision in National Audubon Society was immensely
important because the Court imposed a duty upon the State to
place substantial consideration upon the economic vitality, natu-
ral health, and scenic importance of the lake before allocating
water from its reserves.117 Similarly, in Citizens for Responsible
Wildlife Management v. State, where 12 organizations sued the
state of Washington challenging bans on certain trapping mecha-
nisms for wildlife, the Court found that the legislation enacted
was necessary under Washington’s obligation to protect the
natural resources of the people, i.e., wildlife.118 The lack of such
legislation could effectuate neglect on the part of the State with
regard to their directives under the public-trust doctrine.119
2. LOUISIANA INTERPRETATION OF THE
PUBLIC-TRUST DOCTRINE
Although the Louisiana public-trust doctrine has long
included those waterways that are navigable by nature (e.g.,
rivers, lakes, inland bays), the inclusion of the State’s wetlands
within the doctrine was, at best, murky until some clarity was
provided from the 2004 decision in Avenal v. Louisiana.120 Prior
to that ruling, in 1984, environmental protection of the coastal
wetlands garnered a slight victory in Save Ourselves, Inc. v.
Louisiana Environmental Control Commission,121 when the
Court found that the “Constitution imposes a duty of environ-
mental protection on all state agencies and officials, establishes
a standard of environmental protection, and mandates the legis-
lature to enact laws to implement fully this policy.”122 However,
many scholars felt that the holding did not reach far enough in
guaranteeing the protection of coastal wetlands, as the clever
litigant could still maneuver the Court’s balancing test in f avor
of environmentally harmful actions.123
3. GAME CHANGER: AVENAL V. LOUISIANA
In 1994, affected class members, including oyster fishermen
and lease holders in the Breton Sound Basin, brought suit against
the LDNR to recover for alleged unconstitutional takings of their
fishing grounds and leaseholds.124 As previously described in
this article, the Caernarvon Diversion Structure was constructed
in 1991 and activated for the purpose of introducing freshwa-
ter and sediment into the Breton Sound as a coastal restoration
project.125 However, the influx of freshwater altered the salinity
of the oyster beds in small areas of the Breton Sound, negatively
affecting the various businesses of the class members.126 In its
monumental holding, the Court found that the implementation
of the Caernarvon Diversion structure for purposes of coastal
restoration fit entirely within the scope of the State’s duties under
the public-trust doctrine and, thus, did not amount to an uncon-
stitutional taking.127 The Court found that the natural resource
at issue was Louisiana’s rapidly receding coastal wetlands and
that the “risks involved are not just environmental, but involve
the health, safety, and welfare” of southern Louisiana, which is
threatened by hurricanes and a shrinking coastal barrier.128
The problem before the people of Louisiana is clearer now
than ever before. Our state is disappearing at a pace unrivaled by
any period of American history and with it goes an entire way
of life. Small, respectable efforts at restoration have been suc-
cessful to an extent, but they have merely placed fingers in the
cracks of a faltering dam. Fundamental and robust action must
be taken by the only entities capable of protecting the citizens
of Louisiana: the state legislature and USACE. Unfortunately,
it has become exceedingly apparent that the state and USACE
do not have the time for scholarly insight or scientific recom-
mendation regarding climate change and the rapidly shrinking
wetlands. Thus, the only remaining avenue of recourse for the
people of Louisiana has become the court.
III. LAPLACES CLAIMS UNDER THE PUBLIC-TRUST
DOCTRINE AND THE FEDERAL TORT CLAIMS ACT
This section will begin by describing the Class, its central
intent of the litigation and the common interests that it shares,
as well as the various courts in which the suits will be filed.
Additionally, as the argument of the Class will be entirely simi-
lar in both cases with regard to the public-trust doctrine claims,
this section will combine the legal analysis instead of addressing
them at both the federal and state levels. Finally, the claims to be
brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act against the Corps will
be discussed and further elucidated.
A. Contours of the Class
The central intent and common interest of the separate
Laplace class action suits against the state of LDNR (Office
of Coastal Management) and the Corps (“Defendants”) will
be wholly the same: to effectuate the forced restoration and
30 SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT LAW & POLICY
reclamation of the wetland barriers in the Barataria, Breton
Sound, Pontchartrain, and Atchaf alaya Basins, so as to mitigate
or prevent future flood disasters similar to those experienced in
Hurricanes Katrina and Isaac.
In compliance with the requirements of Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 23(c)(1)(B) and Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure
Article 591 (“Article 591”),129 in order to bring a class action
suit, it must be shown that: (1) the class is so numerous that
joinder of all members is impracticable; (2) there are questions
of law or fact common to the class; (3) the claims or defenses of
the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses
of the class; and (4) the representative parties will fairly and
adequately protect the interests of the class.130
In the present case, the joinder of thousands of affected indi-
viduals from the Laplace community would be the definition of
impracticable, and therefore, the description of those eligible for
the “Class” will be defined as the following: Any member of the
Laplace, Louisiana, community who suffered physical harm to
their persons or property as a direct result of the flooding or high
water during Hurricane Isaac. The Class will assert that they
have common interest in the maintenance of the State’s natural
wetlands for physical protection of their, inter alia, businesses,
homes, and families against the ancient threat of hurricanes from
the Gulf of Mexico and sea-level rise. Furthermore, the Class
will assert that it has common claims against the Defendants;
specifically, that the State of Louisiana and USACE negligently
failed to maintain the integrity and vitality of the wetlands as
required by their obligations set forth within the Louisiana and
federal public-trust doctrines. As such, the health, safety, and
economic interests of the citizens of Louisiana and the Class
have been placed in continued, serious danger.
In the first action, the affected members of the Laplace
community (“Class”) should file suit in the 40th Judicial District
Court for St. John the Baptist Parish located in Edgard, Louisiana
pursuant to Article 591. The Class should seek a judicial man-
date that the State of Louisiana and the Department of Natural
Resources (Office of Coastal Management): (1) substantially
lobby the Corps for utilization of the available, and construction
of additional, diversionary structures, in accordance with the
State’s obligation set forth by the Louisiana public-trust doctrine;
(2) mitigate future wetland loss by restoring and reclaiming inac-
tive industrial canals; and (3) permanently amend the Louisiana
public-trust doctrine to include wetlands within its language.131
In the second suit, the Class should file suit pursuant to
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23,132 in the United States
District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, located
in New Orleans, seeking a judicial mandate that the USACE:
(1) substantially utilize the available diversionar y structures
at Davis Pond, Morganza, Bonnet Car ré and Caernarvon in
accordance with the Corps’ obligation set forth by the federal
public-trust doctrine; and (2) devise and construct flood control
mechanisms to deter future flooding in the outer lying communi-
ties of New Orleans.
B. The Attack
The fundamental legal basis for the Class’s claims will be
based upon federal jurisprudence in the area of the public-trust
doctrine, as well as Article IX of the Louisiana Constitution,
which states in pertinent part:
The natural resources of the state, including air
and water, and the healthful, scenic, historic,
and esthetic quality of the environment shall be
protected, conserved, and replenished insofar as
possible and consistent with the health, safety, and
welfare of the people. The legislature shall enact
laws to implement this policy.
. . .
The legislature shall neither alienate nor authorize
the alienation of the bed of a navigable water body,
except for purposes of reclamation by the riparian
owner to recover land lost through erosion. This
Section shall not prevent the leasing of state lands or
water bottoms for mineral or other purposes. Except
as provided in this Section, the bed of a navigable
water body may be reclaimed only for public use.133
Louisiana and the Corps have long maintained the capa-
bility of effectuating wetland restoration but have negligently
failed to implement the reasonable measures at their disposal.134
In fact, the very regulations prescribing USACE’s policies and
procedures in carrying out water control management activities
compel the Corps:
. . . to insure that all water impounding structures
are operated for the safety of users of the facilities
and the general public. Care will be exercised in
the development of reservoir regulation schedules
to assure that controlled releases minimize project
impacts and do not jeopardize the safety of persons
engaged in activities downstream of the facility.
Water control plans will include provisions for
issuing adequate warnings or otherwise alerting all
affected interests to possible hazards from project
regulation activities.135
This state and federal negligence has left the people of
Southern Louisiana in exponentially increasing danger as the
natural barriers between their homes, businesses, families and
cultural heritage have eroded due to three factors: (1) the inac-
tion of the State and LDNR by not issuing a firm recommenda-
tion to the Corps to open extensively the diversion structures to
facilitate wetland growth; (2) the systematic blocking of every
major conduit and distributary of the Mississippi River, via
levees and diversion structures; and (3) the failure to meaning-
fully regulate canalization and mitigate its destructive effects.
As such, the Defendants have substantially impaired sediment
deposition within the wetlands in order to maintain the Port of
New Orleans, thereby placing the interests of commerce and
industry over the sanctity and value of human life.
31WINTER 2014
The Defendants will undoubtedly argue that the release of
freshwater necessary to rehabilitate and reclaim lost wetlands
through the diversionary structures would completely occupy
the leaseholds of hundreds of fishermen and businessmen who
currently do business within the aforementioned basins, thereby
committing an unconstitutional taking under Article I, § 4 of the
Lousiana Constitution136 and the Fifth Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution.137 In its defense, the Defendants will rely upon the
October 2012 Supreme Court ruling in Arkansas Game and Fish
Commission v. United States, which held:
We rule today, simply and only, that gover nment
induced flooding temporary in duration gains no
automatic exemption from Takings Clause inspec-
tion. When regulation or temporary physical inva-
sion by government interferes with private property,
our decisions recognize, time is indeed a factor in
determining the existence vel non of a compensable
taking.138
However, the case sub judice is markedly different from
that of Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, where the Corps
flooded a swath of forest that “damaged or destroyed more
than 18 million board feet of timber and disrupted the ordinary
use and enjoyment of the Commission’s property.”139 Unlike
the Corps’ flood control intent in Arkansas Game and Fish
Commission, the Corps will be mandated to release freshwater
upon those leaseholds and property interests in the basins for the
purpose of wetlands restoration, an imperative mandated in its
duty under the Federal and Louisiana public-trust doctrines.140
Additionally, in anticipation of this argument, the Class will
refer to the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision in Avenal and
Article IX of the Lousiana Constitution, each stating that the
basins are the sole property of the State and, thus, immune from
unconstitutional takings claims.141
Relying upon the Louisiana public-trust doctrine and its
jurisprudential interpretation, the Class can successfully secure
a mandate from the Court for the substantial opening of the
diversion structures at Davis Pond, Caernar von, Bonnet Carré
and Morganza. Indeed, the basins clearly fall within the scope of
those protected lands, as they secure substantial economic ben-
efits and protect the “health, safety, and welfare of our people,
as coastal erosion removes an important barrier between large
populations and ever-threatening hurricanes.”142
C. Claims Under the Federal Tort Claims Act against
the USACE
The Class will pursue a second claim against the United
States (i.e., USACE) under the Federal Tort Claims Act
(“FTCA”)143 for an unconstitutional taking and destruction of
their property when the flood control measures built around New
Orleans diverted floodwaters from Hurricane Isaac into the com-
munity of Laplace, Louisiana.
In furtherance of the claim, the Class will distinguish
the present case from that of In re Katrina Canal Breaches
Litigation,144 where multiple citizens who lost homes or expe-
rienced severe property damage filed a class action suit against
the Corps for negligently maintaining MRGO and failing to
construct adequate levees.145 In that case, the plaintiffs claimed
that MRGO acted as a flood conduit during Hurricane Katrina
and that water was essentially funneled into their homes in
St. Bernard Parish, the Lower Ninth Ward, and Chalmette.146
However, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that
the Corps was immune from litigation under the discretionary
function exception of the FTCA.147 The Court further held that
the government could not be held liable for damage caused by the
faulty levees because they were constructed as a discretionary
decision to protect the citizens of New Orleans.148 Essentially,
the Court concludes that the government cannot be held liable
for trying its best to protect citizens from disaster.
In the present case, the United States will likely assert that it
has this same immunity under the pertinent FTCA section, stat-
ing that the design of the improvements around New Orleans
were made in the interest of the general public and that the
designs were not scientifically faulty.149 However, the Laplace
litigation is far different from that of In re Katrina, because the
improvements that diverted water into the Laplace community
were designated and designed primarily for the City of New
Orleans, not the citizens of Laplace. Unlike In re Katrina, there
were no discretionary decisions made by the Corps regarding
the flood protections of Laplace other than not to protect the city
at all.
If the State and the Corps had done sufficient analysis
of potential hurricanes, they would have discovered that the
improvements made upon the levee and flood control systems
of the city would divert large amounts of water to those commu-
nities outside its protection, as well as further degenerate those
natural barriers that the outer lying cities do possess. Therefore,
these water control structures are at least contributorily respon-
sible for the flooding that occurred in Laplace during Hurricane
Isaac in August of 2012.
D. A Challenge to Succeeding and How the Class
will Prevail
In November of 2012, the Corps released a report labeled
Hurricane Isaac With and Without 2012 100-Year Evaluation.
The report states:
[T]here were only a few places that the old system
would have been overtopped during Hur ricane
Isaac; thus the old system would have displaced
about the same amount of water as the new sys-
tem and the HSDRRS [Hurricane & Storm Risk
Reduction System] could not have significantly
influenced inundation at communities external to
the system.150
However, if the report is cor rect and the improvements did
not increase or create flooding by directing additional water into
the Laplace community, this does not preclude two additional
scenarios that the Class will pursue in court: (1) that the water
control structures in existence prior to the improvements were
already directing flooding waters into the Laplace community;
and (2) that the water control structures are damaging the natural
32 SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT LAW & POLICY
barriers around the
Laplace community,
thereby indirectly induc-
ing flooding.151 In fact,
the data released by the
Corps only compares
the flood level esti-
mates at various points
in the New Orleans
Metropolitan area in
pre- and post-improvement terms.152 There remains the possibil-
ity that the original water control structures (those existent in
2005) were already funneling floodwater into the surrounding
region. Additionally, the Corps has a rather famous track record
of dodging blame with regard to disastrous projects along the
Mississippi River in Louisiana.153 In fact, in August of 2012, the
commanding general of the Corps in post-Katrina New Orleans
admitted in a Times-
Picayune interview
that when he publicly
blamed the flooding on
city officials in 2006,
he was relying entirely
upon things he had
heard and not on any
scientific or reliable
evidence.154
IV. A TIRED STORY AND A NEW HOPE
I’m sitting in Zotz, a coffee shop straddling the Uptown and
Leonidas neighborhoods of New Orleans, when she asks me,
“So what was the most difficult part about writing your article?”
I look away and stare at the words floating stoically on my com-
puter screen, “I cannot help but feel as if I’m writing a eulogy for
my home. For my people.”
Figure 3. Hurricane Isaac High Water Marks. Source: Dan Swenson & Mark Schleifstein, Blame Hurricane
Isaac, Not Post-Katrina Levee System, for high sure, Corps says, TIMES-PICAYUNE, Nov. 12, 2012,
http://media.nola.com/environment/photo/map-isaacsurge-111212jpg-af6a43422c34fce8.jpg.
“The time to act in order
to save Louisiana’s dwindling
coastal wetlands was
30 years ago.
33WINTER 2014
With every letter that I press into the recesses of this key-
board there is a sinking that echoes the loss of Louisiana—60,000
characters remind me why this isn’t a simple cause célèbre. This
is not another Kony155 sensation splashed across every corner of
the Internet for a burning moment. As Southern Louisiana sinks
into the Gulf, so does a culture unlike any other in this world.
I realize that my finger was holding down the shift key when
she asks me if there is any hope for this place. As I remove my
finger, I feel the rise below. I look up at her and nod, “Yes.
* * *
The time to act in order to save Louisiana’s dwindling
coastal wetlands was 30 years ago. The gut-wrenching truth is
that scholars, such as Oliver Houck, have been recommending,
then heavily suggesting, then screaming, and now are groveling
for action by the State of Louisiana and the U.S. Army Corps
of Engineers. Although the efforts to save the State have begun
to trickle in, gains are slow, and many are disillusioned or con-
vinced that the point of no return happened sometime around
Katrina.
However, Har riet Beecher Stowe once wrote, “Never give
up then, for that’s just the place and time that the tide’ll turn.”156
The citizens of Laplace, Louisiana, have the distinct opportunity
to hold off the oppressive tide of the Gulf of Mexico. Through
organizing and filing a class action suit against the State of
Louisiana, the Department of Natural Resources, and the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers based upon the public-trust doctrine
and the Federal Tort Claims Act, a tiny town of Louisianans
might incite change that will alter the face of a continent.
Endnotes: Laplace Rising: The Story of How a Tiny Community in Southern
Louisiana Will Save the Largest Delta in North America
1 WEATHER UNDERGROUND, Tropical Depression Isaac: Track-
ing Map (Aug. 30, 2012), http://www.wunderground.com/
hurricane/at201209.asp; Eric Burger, Don’t Look Now, but
Forecast Models Continue to Trend West With Isaac, HOUSTON
CHRONICLE (Aug. 26, 2012), http://blog.chron.com/sciguy/2012/08/
dont-look-now-but-forecast-models-continue-to-trend-west-with-isaac/.
2 Hurricane Katrina, NATL CLIMATIC DATA CTR. (Dec. 29, 2005), http://
www.ncdc.noaa.gov/special-reports/katrina.html; Hurricane Rita, NATL
CLIMATIC DATA CTR. (Sep. 22, 2005), http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/special-reports/
rita.html; John Beven & Todd Kimberlain, Tropical Cyclone Report: Hurricane
Gustav, NATL HURRICANE CTR. (Sep. 15, 2009), http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/pdf/
TCR-AL072008_Gustav.pdf.
3 See Cain Burdeau, Hurricane Isaac 2012 Floods Regions Around
New Orleans, HUFFINGTON POST, Aug. 30, 2012 http://www.huffingtonpost.
com/2012/08/30/hurricane-isaac-2012-flood-new-orleans_n_1843172.html;
Tina Susman, Rancor Rises With the Water: Isaac Swamps Parishes While New
Orleans Protected, L. A. TIMES, Aug. 31, 2012, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/
aug/31/nation/la-na-Isaac-LaPlace-20120831.
4 Hurricane Isaac Tracking Advisory, NATL HURRICANE CTR., http://www.
nhc.noaa.gov/archive/2012/graphics/al09/loop_5W.shtml (last visited Nov. 4,
2013).
5 Michael Kunzelman, Hurricane Katrina Floodwall Case Heads to Trial
in New Orleans, HUFFINGTON POST, Sept. 11, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.
com/2012/09/11/hurricane-katrina-floodwall-case_n_1874239.html.
6 Looters Take Advantage of New Orleans Mess, NBC NEWS, Aug. 30, 2005,
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9131493/ns/us_news-katrina_the_long_road_
back/t/looters-take-advantage-new-orleans-mess/#.UPRraKFU4XQ.
7 Id.
8 Oliver Houck, Can We Save New Orleans?, 19 TUL. ENVTL. L.J. 1, 21
(2006).
9 Oliver Houck, Retaking the Exam: How Environmental Law Failed New
Orleans and the Gulf Coast South and How it Might Yet Succeed, 81 TUL. L.
REV. 1059, 1060 (2007) (“It was the work of humans that drowned us, not the
work of nature.”).
10 Doug J. Meffert & Bill Good, Case Study of the Ecosystem Management
Development in the Breton Sound Estuary, Louisiana, LA. DEPT NATURAL RES.,
http://images.library.wisc.edu/EcoNatRes/EFacs/Wetlands/Wetlands23/refer-
ence/econatres.wetlands23.i0008.pdf (last visited Nov. 4, 2013).
11 Houck, supra note 9, at 1060.
12 Dan Swenson, New Orleans Area Hurricane Protection, TIMES PICA-
YUNE, http://media.nola.com/hurricane_impact/other/hurricane-protection-
graphic-2012.pdf (last visited Nov. 4, 2013).
13 Eric Blake, The Deadliest, Costliest, and Most Intense United States Tropi-
cal Cyclones from 1851 to 2010 (And Other Frequently Requested Hurricane
Facts), NATL HURRICANE CTR. (Aug. 2011), http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/pdf/nws-
nhc-6.pdf.
14 See President Barack Obama, Remarks at Xavier University in New
Orleans, Louisiana (Aug. 29, 2010), in 2010 DAILY COMP. PRES. DOC. at 4,
available at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/DCPD-201000706/pdf/DCPD-
201000706.pdf.
15 Ellen Wulfhorst & Scott Malone, New Orleans Withstands Isaac’s Wrath,
For Now, REUTERS, Aug. 29, 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/08/29/
us-storm-isaac-idUSBRE87L0PH20120829.
16 Mark Schleifstein, Louisiana is Losing a Football Field of Wetlands an
Hour, New U.S. Geological Survey Says, NOLA.COM (June 2, 2011), http://www.
nola.com/environment/index.ssf/2011/06/louisiana_is_losing_a_football.html.
17 David Batker, et. al, Gaining Ground: Wetlands, Hurricanes, and the
Economy: The Value of Restoring the Mississippi River Delta, ENVTL LAW INST.
(Nov. 2010), available at http://www.eli.org/pdf/NA_40-11/40.11106.pdf.
18 GULF RESTORATION NETWORK, Wetland Importance, http://healthygulf.org/
our-work/wetlands/wetland-importance (last visited Nov. 4, 2013).
19 U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY, DEPICTING COASTAL LOUISIANA LAND LOSS 1 (July
2005), available at http://www.nwrc.usgs.gov/factshts/2005-3101.pdf.
20 Lateef Mungin, Communities Focus on Cleanup As Isaac Weakens, CNN
(Aug. 31, 2012), http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/30/us/weather-isaac/index.html.
21 EQECAT: AN ABS CO., TECHNICAL REPORT: THE HURRICANE AND STORM
DAMAGE RISK REDUCTION SYSTEM IN NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA 8, 16, 19 (2009),
available at http://www.eqecat.com/pdfs/hurricane-storm-damage-risk-
reduction-system-new-orleans-louisiana-2012-08-28.pdf; see generally, Chris-
topher Helman, Billions in New Defenses Mean Isaac Will Not Rival Hurricane
Katrina In Damage, FORBES (Aug. 27, 2012), http://www.forbes.com/sites/
christopherhelman/2012/08/27/billions-in-new-defenses-mean-isaac-will-not-
rival-hurricane-katrina-in-damage/.
22 Ron Thibodeaux, Hurricane Isaac Floodwaters Take Slidell and Laplace
by Surprise, TIMES-PICAYUNE, Aug. 31, 2012, http://www.nola.com/hurricane/
index.ssf/2012/08/hurricane_isaac_floodwaters_ta.html.
23 Brian Merchant, New Orleans Wetlands Now the Fastest-Disappearing
Land Mass on Earth, TREE HUGGER (Sept. 18, 2009), http://www.treehugger.
com/corporate-responsibility/new-orleans-wetlands-now-the-fastest-disappear-
ing-land-mass-on-earth.html.
24 JEFF WILLIAMS, U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY, THE LAKE PONTCHARTRAIN BASIN:
LOUISIANAS TROUBLED URBAN ESTUARY (1995), available at http://marine.usgs.
gov/fact-sheets/Pontchartrain/.
25 Id.
26 BRADY COUVILLION, ET AL., U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY, LAND AREA CHANGE IN
COASTAL LOUISIANA FROM 1932 TO 2010 at 1 (2011).
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