The barrier islands of Alabama and Mississippi, cultural touchstones that have shaped coastal life for
generations, are disappearing with gathering speed.
Barrier islands naturally move, erode and grow, fed with sand that moves westward on the currents. But a
report by the U.S. Geological Survey says that island chains in the northern Gulf of Mexico, from Mobile Bay
in Alabama to Atchafalaya Bay in Louisiana, are disintegrating rapidly because of a lack of sand,
rising sea levels and more frequent intense storms.
Concerned by the prospect of storm-driven waves pounding the mainland without the barrier islands to soften
the blow, officials in Mississippi and Alabama are seeking a total of nearly $360 million to rebuild the
islands. Mississippi officials aim to restore its chain of undeveloped federally protected islands to
about their 1917 size.
"The fact is, in the condition the barrier islands are in now, if we were to have a storm of lesser
magnitude than Hurricane Katrina, the damage could be worse because our speed bumps have been flattened,"
said Patrick Sullivan, policy adviser to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
Dauphin Island leaders, meanwhile, are seeking to renourish an east end beach they say has been worn away
by erosion, threatening the island's future.
Federal scientists have blamed, in part, a handful of ship channels cut by the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers for robbing the islands of the sand they need to keep from slipping beneath the Gulf waves
forever. The only direct way of mitigating the land loss is to renew sand supply to the islands,
the 2007 report states, including the placement of dredged material back into the natural sand delivery system.
A 'levee system'
Mississippi officials are developing an estimated $348 million project to restore the barrier islands of
Petit Bois, Ship and Horn. It's part of a larger Mississippi coastal improvement program with more than
$950 million in proposed projects so far, including wetland and barrier island restoration, land
buyouts and levees, officials said.
Sand would be placed in shallow water, rather than directly onto the islands -- where nearshore currents
driven by waves can move sand westward, allowing the islands to rebuild naturally, said officials with
the Corps of Engineers, which is designing the project.
"Rather than going in and trying to manipulate the islands manually, what we want to do is add sand
into that sediment budget system, and then allow the current to naturally move that sand onto the
barrier islands and make them more resilient to the normal, everyday waves," said Susan Rees, Mississippi
Coastal Improvement Program manager with the Corps of Engineers.
A break in Ship Island, cut into two pieces by Hurricane Camille in 1969, would also be filled and small
dunes would be constructed, officials said.
The project, which would take about six months and use between 20 million and 24 million cubic yards of sand,
has yet to receive approval or funding from Congress, officials said.
Pete Smith, a spokesman for Gov. Barbour, said barrier islands serve as Mississippi's levee system,
a primary defense against ocean waves and storm surges from tropical storms and hurricanes.
Widespread damage from Hurricane Katrina's 30-foot storm surges in 2005 illustrated the need for
better shoreline protection, he said.
Billions of dollars have been spent rebuilding the destroyed coastline, including investment in bigger,
grander onshore casinos.
Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said this month
that he supports rebuilding the islands and has included $348 million for the project in a supplemental
spending bill. Any federal dollars spent on the project "will be money well invested in preventing future hurricane damage,"
House members, who did not include money for the project in their version of the legislation approved last
month, hope to come to agreement with the Senate and send the final bill to President Bush within the
next two weeks. Bush has threatened to veto both versions, in part because he considers them too expensive,
according to statements from the White House budget office.
DI's east end
The east end of Dauphin Island ? the oldest part of the island, with a natural dune system and a forest
of pine trees ? has eroded away in recent decades.
Evidence of east end erosion lies about 300 feet from the Gulf shore, near historic Fort Gaines.
Parallel lines of rocks, manmade sand traps known as groins, protrude from the water. The groins were built
nearly a century ago, constructed perpendicular to a shore that no longer exists.
Dauphin Island town officials, aided by a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., are seeking about $11.5 million in
federal funds to nourish the east end, from the fishing pier near the public beach to the eastern tip at Fort Gaines.
Town officials argue that the historic Civil War fort, the local Audubon Bird Sanctuary that supports
migratory birds, and the tourism dollars generated by the island are also at risk if erosion continues
to destroy the shoreline.
"Because of the storms and beach erosion from the dredging, there's a very, very significant problem," said
Rod Grimm, the lobbyist hired by Dauphin Island. "You can see where the erosion has taken half of the beach away."
Scientists have said that the east end is the more stable part of the island when compared with the west
end, a long spit of sand where houses on stilts line Bienville Boulevard .
Just past the last houses on the west end, Hurricane Katrina breached the island, severing a swath of
The west end has been the focus of nearly a decade of litigation. A group of west end landowners,
the Dauphin Island Property Owners Association, filed a lawsuit against the federal government in 2000,
claiming that corps dredging practices of the Mobile Ship Channel robbed their beaches of sand, causing
their parcels to erode away.
The Corps of Engineers officials declined to comment on Dauphin Island, citing the ongoing court case.
Islands at risk
Robert Morton, a research geologist who authored the Geological Survey report, said if the Corps of
Engineers wants to be part of the solution to the problem of deteriorating barrier islands, dredged material
from nearby ship channels must be placed back into the sand delivery system.
"Our conclusion is that's really the only way the barrier islands can be saved," Morton said.
"If you don't alter the dredging practices, the barrier islands are going to continue to lose land."
Rees said the Corps of Engineers is considering repositioning where dredged material is placed from the
routine maintenance of Mississippi ship channels, in an effort to get more of the sand onto the islands.
(Staff Reporter Sean Reilly in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.)
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