RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Along the U.S. Gulf Coast, Louisiana is still reeling from Hurricane Gustav which rolled through there last week. Gustav swept west of New Orleans and pounded the wetlands along the coastline. These marshes extend for 200 miles and protect the coast from big storms, but they're disappearing.
As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, a combination of bad weather and lack of money has hampered efforts to protect and restore the wetlands.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: When Hurricane Gustav's big winds died and the clouds cleared, biologist Tommy Michot showed up at a small airport in Louisiana to get his plane up in the air. It was his job to assess the damage to the wetlands. But first he had to get out of the hangar with no trucks in sight.
Mr. TOMMY MICHOT (Biologist, U.S. Geological Survey): If you can hold on for a second. We've got to push the plane out. We've just got to get over that bump.
JOYCE: Michot is a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. He says the wetlands have taken a beating from hurricanes over the past 10 years. George, Lili, Isadore, Ivan, Katrina and Rita, and now Gustav.
Mr. MICHOT: They blow so hard that it just kind of pushes the marsh around, especially fresh marsh. That's what we call floaton marsh. It's floating on the surface, and it'll - a lot of times it'll push it up in a pile and buckle it, or flip it over, or carry it to another place and put it down and consequently open up some big ponds, or open water areas.
JOYCE: Open water makes wetlands more vulnerable to the next storm and less effective as a buffer against big waves and flooding. Michot says what he's seen of Gustav's damage isn't too bad, but the effects add up.
Dr. MICHOT: These wetlands withstood hurricanes for hundreds of years, and they're used to that, you know, and they are resilient. They will come back. But if hurricane frequency increases, then definitely they'll keep getting knocked back.
JOYCE: Even before Katrina hit three years ago, conservationists were trying, largely in vain, to preserve the wetlands. For decades, they've been drained and paved or removed to make way for housing, shipping channels or pipelines. And the only way to grow new wetlands is to add sediment. Historically, that happened when the Mississippi River flooded. Now barriers and levees prevent that. Then Katrina hit. More people realized the value of the wetlands as a sort of natural levee system to protect people, not just alligators. Conservationists crafted a multibillion-dollar plan to restore them and went to the federal government for help. They left empty-handed.
Mr. KING MILLING (Chairman, Advisory Committee on Coastal Protection, Louisiana): At the end of the day, it's all about money, no matter what else you want.
JOYCE: King Milling is chairman of the Louisiana Governor's Advisory Committee on Coastal Protection and a longtime advocate for rebuilding the marshes. He says the federal government said, do it for less. Milling says people still underestimate the value of these wetlands.
Mr. MILLING: This ecosystem is, in fact, what has preserved the lives of some two million people and literally hundreds of billions of dollars of infrastructure.
JOYCE: The marshes do that by slowing down storm surges, and thus protecting things like oil and gas pipelines, refineries, chemical plants, or port facilities that serve the busy Mississippi River.
Scientists from numerous universities and conservation groups have now put together a new master plan for the wetlands. The basic idea is to pump huge amounts of sediment from the Mississippi River and its delta through pipelines and into the marshes. That would create new land where plants can take root.
This has been tried before at two places near New Orleans with mixed success. Scientists say those were only trial runs. Milling argues that no one knows for sure how to restore one of the world's largest wetlands. You just have to start and adapt as you go.
Mr. MILLING: If we don't begin to really deal with large-scale delivery of sediment through pipelines and other conveyances by building back barrier islands - but I'm speaking five years, now - you know, it could be too late.
JOYCE: Engineers have yet to dig the first spadeful of dirt for this new effort, but the state of Louisiana has put aside half a billion dollars for it. Conservationists say each new hurricane lends more urgency to the effort. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.