UNO CERF Sustains Damage During Hurricane Isaac, Researchers Vow to Be Back in Business Soon

The University of New Orleans Shea Penland Coastal Education and Research Facility (CERF) sustained significant damage during Hurricane Isaac last month, but administrators promise that by springtime the treasured resource center will be back in business and open for visitors.

“Because the facility is designed for public use, we cannot use the building for education or hosting any visitors until the water and power are restored. In addition, there was some internal water damage from roof leakage,” said Diane “Dinah” Maygarden, research associate and coastal education program manager at the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences Coastal Education Program. “But we plan to restore the infrastructure as soon as possible and make some changes to help mitigate future damage by storm surges."

The CERF is located at Chef Menteur Pass, a narrow natural waterway in the eastern Orleans Parish community of Lake Catherine that connects Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne along with the Rigolets. The facility is ideally located less than a quarter of a mile from the 23,000-acre Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, the largest urban wildlife refuge in the United States.

CERF is available to any member of the UNO community who wishes to use it for instruction or educational purposes. The facility at CERF has a view of the beautiful surrounding marsh and includes a meeting space with classrooms, conference rooms, lab facilities, a dock and canoes.

Depending on available funding, CERF researchers often host teachers, school groups and community groups for education programs on the coastal wetlands that focus on topics including levees and the flood control system, coastal lines of defense and strategies for coastal restoration. Every summer, together with UNO’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, CERF hosts minority STEM students on a weeklong educational tour of the Louisiana coastal wetlands, in which students conduct experiments and learn more about Louisiana flood protection systems, coastal barrier islands and other regional issues.

When Hurricane Isaac hit New Orleans on Aug. 29, the facility received a storm surge of approximately nine feet, Maygarden said. The building, which is elevated to 19 feet and built to withstand storm surges, survived Hurricane Katrina intact. Yet, when Isaac hit, the facility sustained damage, particularly in the ground-level dock area and the facility’s infrastructure.

The facility’s outer walls were made of sheet metal and designed to break in the event of a storm surge, Maygarden said. They did, causing the majority of the structural damage to the building’s electrical system and well, which supplies the facility’s water. Both are now out of service. Electricity is expected to be restored soon, she said.

Contractors have cleaned the dock and surrounding property of considerable mud and marsh grass mixed with many kinds of debris, Maygarden said. They used a fire hose, pump, and ambient water to push debris from the canal so that UNO’s research vessels -- the 30-foot Cavalla, which holds up to six students and two instructors and the 50-foot Percy Viosca, Jr. which can hold as many as 50 students and five instructors -- can return to the facility from safe harbor and resume work.

Moving the majority of facility’s research and education equipment to the facility’s upper floors prior to Isaac’s landfall minimized major loss.

“UNO CERF has a hurricane preparation policy in place that researchers followed, including moving valuable equipment out of harm’s way and shutting off power to prevent fire, prior to a storm surge,” Maygarden said. “So, even though the magnitude of the storm surge and the damage it was capable of was a surprise for many, our policies paid off for the most part.”

The immediate concerns at CERF are to restore power and water and to dry the building to prevent spread of mold, Maygarden said. To this end, UNO Facility Manager Chris Schieble is working with James Royer and Facility Services to resolve matters. A generator may be used to run air conditioning to dry the building.

Maygarden remains unsure when exactly CERF will resume educational programs in which the facility hosts school groups aiming to learn about coastal wetland issues. She hopes that the programs will be restored by late fall – and that the facility will increase its number of volunteers and volunteer projects. Work must be done to restore the wetlands, develop education programs, host students and restore the facility, she said.

In recent years, the facility has worked with volunteers to implement strategies to protect the coastal wetlands, including installation of Hesco baskets, wire mesh baskets that are approximately 3 feet by 3 feet, lined with geotextile fabric and named after the company that makes them. The baskets can be filled with sand to help with flood protection. At CERF, native marsh plants are planted in the sand inside the Hesco baskets to hold the substrate in place and create a new "living shoreline".

Other volunteer efforts have helped with planting the grass in the Hesco baskets. PIES and CERF have ongoing relationships with schools now fulfilling Service Learning Projects funded by the Brown Foundation in New Orleans. The children learn about the wetlands and grow wetland plants at school, then plant them along the shoreline to create new wetland habitat.

Opportunities are available for UNO students to help CERF with education programs, repair and maintenance work in order to fulfill service hours or "to just get involved," Maygarden said.

For more information, visit the CERF website or e-mail Dinah Maygarden at dmaygarden@uno.edu.