Left Adrift

A Toxic Nightmare in New Orleans" Marinas

Nearly 200 foundered sail and powerboats still litter New Orleans" largest marina.© Troy Gilbert

More than 200 children from around the country traveled to New Orleans in June of 2006 to compete in a two-day youth sailing championship on Lake Pontchartrain. The kids, some as young as eight, launched their seven-foot sailboats and sailed out to the course, dodging the nearly 200 derelict, foundered sail and powerboats still littering the city’s largest marina, the Municipal Yacht Harbor at West End.

The forest of masts rising from the dark, brackish waters only hint at the environmental hazards concealed below. The Municipal Yacht Harbor has yet to be cleaned up from the worst effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, highlighting a disconnect between all levels of government that still continues. This past summer, another youth sailing championship was held at the same marina, with work only just begun on removing the dead boats.

Ben Goliwas, who lives aboard his boat at the marina, was astounded when he finally returned to the city in May of 2006 and discovered the near-total lack of progress and clean-up since the storm. He called upon the members of the New Orleans and Southern Yacht Clubs to volunteer their time removing floating and submerged debris, and they responded. Taking time away from rebuilding their homes and businesses, the volunteers attempted to raise a few boats blocking the channels, using truck inner tubes and inflatable racing marks, but were severely under equipped. Goliwas says, "We only touched the surface. We removed maybe 30,000 pounds of wreckage, but unfortunately that was only a small part of it. Everything you could imagine was in that marina."

During the storm, several marine service yards and nearly 102 boathouses and their contents were washed into the marina, along with more than 450 large wooden dockboxes stationed at each boat slip. The boxes held a stew of paints, solvents, oils, batteries, fiberglass resin and other chemicals. All of this debris sat on the marina bottom alongside the rusting and deteriorating boats, many with their fuel tanks full of diesel. Goliwas says, "You wouldn’t want any of that stuff down there in your living room. We were only able to pull out hot water heaters, refrigerators, parts of walls and other unidentifiable large wooden things."

Carlton Dufrechou, the president of the active environmental group known as the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, wanted a thorough inventory. He says, "We really needed to determine what and how much was down there. It’s guaranteed that something was leaking. We just didn’t know the magnitude of it, but leaving it in place was never an option."

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), at the request of Orleans Parish, took over the leadership role for the problem of removing the estimated 125 sunken vessels remaining in Municipal Harbor at the end of 2006. But after several site visits, the DEQ began to grasp the extent of the potential hazards. When Bruce Hammatt, the DEQ official managing the project, saw the young racers, he came away convinced of the need to be thorough. "I knew the cleanup had to include a sweep of the marina bottom," he says. "Kids were out there having a regatta."

The Louisiana DEQ was ready to bid a marina clean-up contract at the beginning of this year, but was dogged with delays from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) bureaucracy. The major snag was that the federal government requires local governments to advance either the full amount or, in some cases, 10 percent of the costs for infrastructure reconstruction before it will reimburse or release matching funds.

With the city of New Orleans nearing bankruptcy, with tax revenues from the decimated population and businesses far below their pre-Katrina levels, the city is forced to prioritize and juggle projects and dollars. This has left FEMA sitting on billions of dollars in recovery aid with almost none of that money making its way to the affected areas. It took nearly two years for Congress to finally eliminate this local dollar match, a requirement that was quickly eliminated for every other major disaster site including Hurricane Andrew in 1985 and the 9/11 attacks.

New Orleans" officials who deal on a daily basis with their FEMA counterparts call it "the million-dollar queue"—a giant stack of project worksheets and documentation for only the first step in a long list of steps to release federal money for rebuilding damaged public infrastructure.

While the boating community has long understood that marinas are a low priority when compared to the infrastructure needs of the city, they make an argument for quality of life and protecting the jobs of marine service companies, all of which have reopened. They add that the West End and Lakeview neighborhoods, inundated by more than 10 feet of water from the federal levee failures, are nearing a critical mass in their recovery. The area needs only a small push from government to ensure the neighborhoods" return to life. Rebuilding the marina could very well be that push.