As oil seeps into Louisiana's marshes, National Guard fights a losing battle

PELICAN ISLAND, La. — The brown pelicans that once populated this small sliver of a barrier island were long gone by Tuesday, scared away more than a week ago by slightly bigger birds — Blackhawk helicopters.

The wildlife here on Pelican Island has been replaced by a strong sense of urgency and members of the Louisiana National Guard.

The Guard's mission: to extend this tiny barrier island — about 20 yards wide and a hundred yards long — in an attempt to fortify Louisiana's fragmented and ever-eroding coastline. The goal: to protect the expansive and delicate marshes behind the island from oil. The tools: thousand-pound sandbags dropped from helicopters — and manpower.

The problem: There are scores of disjointed barrier islands here in southern Louisiana, where grasslands meet the Gulf and many of the miniature isles have been sliced to pieces by tidal waters and hurricanes. From the air, the task charged to the Louisiana National Guard seemed daunting and almost foolhardy.

On Pelican Island and a sister island nearby there were 14 breaks that needed filling on Tuesday. The Blackhawks dropped the huge sandbags into the gap — one bag per chopper — then flew back to a nearby staging area to pick up another sack. Guardsmen on the ground then walked on the sandbags retrieving the steel cables used to attach them to the bottom of the choppers so they can be used to bring more bags.

Two Blackhawks and one civilian helicopter made the 14-mile round trips for 12 hours Tuesday, and will continue doing for the foreseeable future.

The work is hard, tedious and, in the end, it may not even work. If southern Louisiana is a war zone for the Louisiana National Guard, then the enemy — the huge spreading oil slick — has an enormous tactical advantage.

"This is the best option," said Lieutenant James Gabler of the Louisiana National Guard's 843rd Engineering Company from his outfit's staging area in nearby Buras.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is working for what he thinks is a better option: dredging the shallows around Louisiana's barrier islands in an attempt to use the sand and mud to fill in the gaps quickly. But to dredge, Louisiana needs an emergency permit from the federal government, and Jindal's requests have been repeatedly denied by the Army Corps of Engineers.

In an emailed statement to The Miami Herald on Tuesday, the Corps said that it understands "the importance and significance of this emergency permit request and it is a top priority. We are closely monitoring the response effort in the Gulf of Mexico and are very concerned about the potential adverse impacts to the environment due to this oil spill."

The laborious and confusing process has enraged many in Southern Louisiana. "Time is ticking" for these people, their beloved marshlands and their livelihoods, says Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish. The parish is one of several in southern Louisiana directly affected by the gushing oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Throughout the parish, homemade signs dot roads pleading for help.

"The government and the parishes, we had a plan,'' Nungesser said. BP and the federal government, he added, "had a chance to save the coast but they sat on their hands and pointed their fingers back and forth. You know, BP and the Coast Guard, there are a lot of good men and women on the ground and I think some of them are disgusted ... I've seen the tears in their eyes, too. "It's tough. There is no leadership on the top. They dropped the ball and somebody needs to take charge."

The Army Corps of Engineers denied a Herald request to fully explain the environmental damage that could be caused by dredging sediment to create barrier islands, but according to independent experts, the impact of dredging could do more harm than good.

Beyond the cost of assembling the fleet of dredges needed to quickly complete work with uncertain prospects, outside experts said the plan raises an array of environmental and logistical issues. The hastily created barriers could restrict the tide-driven flushing critical to maintaining the health of the sprawling salt marsh the state is trying to protect.

"You don't block off estuaries without severe repercussions," said Robert Dalrymple, a professor of civil engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who was among a National Academy of Science team that analyzed levee failures during Hurricane Katrina.

And it would invariably leave openings that would still allow oil in, Dalrymple said.

"You have to entirely seal off the state to make this work," he said.

Chris Macaluso, the public information director of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana, said that establishing one continuous wall of dredged sediment is not the plan of his state's proposal.

"The idea is not to establish a contiguous wall but to leave some gaps so the tide can come in and out and you can place booms along those gaps," Macaluso said. "This is not meant to be a permanent barrier. We're in an emergency situation and we're tying to protect the places that we can clean up."

On Pelican Island on Tuesday, the tide's rip current rushed out to sea through one barrier-island gap of about 50 feet. Half of the break, about 10 feet, was filled with about 500 sandbags and members of the Louisiana National Guard wore lifejackets over their fatigues to retrieve steel cables left from helicopter drops. It was dangerous work.

"The current will sweep you out," said Sgt. Joseph Martin.

Related stories from McClatchy DC