The extent of the environmental damage inflicted on the southern US states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama began to emerge Thursday with reports of an entire group of islands disappearing, serious oil slicks and the potential ruin of the seafood industry.
Immediate concern centered on Louisiana's heavy industrial area. Katrina flooded many of the 140 large petrochemical works that line the Mississippi river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and little assessment has been done of the damage.
Initial aerial reconnaissance by the environmental protection agency suggests no serious chemical damage, but has revealed several large oil spills.
About 85,000 barrels of crude is now known to have escaped from a Murphy Oil plant in Chalmette, Louisiana, and a further 68,000 barrels were spilled by a damaged storage tank at the Bass Enterprises site in Venice.
As an international relief effort gathered pace and the Mexican army entered the US for the first time since 1846 to bring aid, scientists warned that Katrina had seriously weakened the delta's natural defenses and the whole region was much more vulnerable to further hurricanes and storm surges.
"The 64km long Chandeleur chain of barrier islands off the Louisiana coast which used to protect the delta from storm surges have pretty well gone," said Laurence Rouse, of Louisiana State University.
"The delta is definitely under more threat now. Great damage has also been done to the important wetlands and marshes east of New Orleans which also act as defenses. They have been ripped up."
Many scientists believe that one of the reasons Katrina was so devastating was because a century of river engineering and levee building had reduced the delta's natural defenses.
"Katrina would have been much worse if the islands hadn't been there," said Klaus Meyer-Arendt, a coastal expert at the University of West Florida. Several other barrier islands were also badly damaged.
The increased vulnerability of New Orleans will raise further questions about the advisability of rebuilding the city below sea level in a floodplain which now has few natural defenses left.
According to the US coastguard, 37 shallow oil platforms are missing from the Gulf and another 20 have been badly damaged, including four deep-sea ones.
The department of the interior's oil minerals management service (MMA) said that 70 percent of the Gulf of Mexico's oil output and 54 percent of its gas were still closed off because of Katrina.
"A full assessment of the damage will require several more days," Rebecca Watson, assistant secretary of the MMA, told the Senate natural resources committee in Washington. She expected 90 percent of Gulf oil production to return to the market within a month if refineries were repaired, but said that some pipelines suffered damage that could take months to repair.
On land, the environmental protection agency warned people to take precautions against an explosion of mosquitoes which could be carrying West Nile fever.
Damage to the oyster, crab and shrimp industries, one of the major employers on the coast, is thought to have been extensive.
The storm surge wrecked many boats, harbors and warehouses and destroyed breeding grounds. The Gulf is home to more than 80 percent of oysters grown in the United States and is the center of the shrimp industry.
Meanwhile, the American Farm Bureau Federation said farmers had lost more than US$2 billion. Katrina flattened sugar cane and rice fields over a wide area in the south, in addition to which farmers in other states are unable to export from the damaged port of New Orleans.
Several hundred barges carrying maize and soya are reportedly unable to navigate down the Mississippi, which is the main route for more than 40 percent of US farm produce exports.
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