Coastal restoration pioneer Dr. Sherwood “Woody” Gagliano dead at 84

Scientist was the first to document in detail Louisiana's land loss
Published: Jul. 20, 2020 at 6:02 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Dr. Sherwood “Woody” Gagliano, a geographer, geologist and archaeologist who was among the first to warn of Louisiana’s coastal land loss, has died at the age of 84.

“The first thing we did was challenge the long-standing belief that the delta was still building land,” Gagliano said in a 2013 documentary by the production company e/Prime Media.

As late as the 1970′s, the widely-held belief was that the Mississippi River was still building new land, especially near the river’s mouth in the Birds Foot Delta.

Gagliano compared maps from the 19th century to modern maps in demonstrating the rapid loss of the state’s islands, marshes and swamps.

“We live in one of the great natural systems on earth and we’ve badly degraded it,” he said.

Friends said he developed his passion for the subject as a young age.

“As a child, he was studying (Native American) mounds out in the recently-drained (areas) of Jefferson Parish, said Dr. Paul Kemp, a geologist who as an LSU grad student took a class from Gagliano.

“He had the ability to inspire others,” Kemp said.

That early fascination with the coast, and with archaeology, never faded.

“He was the father of modern coastal science,” said Bob Thomas, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Environmental Communication at Loyola University.

“He was the person who built the foundation for everything we do today on coastal restoration,” Thomas said.

For example, Gagliano was the first to document many of the causes of the collapsing delta, including the role played by faults deep below the earth’s surface.

He warned planners needed to keep subsidence in mind as they planned future projects.

“You shouldn’t build in this area because there’s a fault here and if you bridge on top of that fault, it’s gonna fail,” Gagliano explained.

“In the early days, nobody else had the kind of comprehensive vision that he did,” Kemp said.

Gagliano founded Coastal Environments, Inc., a consulting company which did extensive work along the coast, including a recent project to install artificial oyster reefs in St. Bernard Parish for shoreline protection.

However, friends said he never lost his academic interest in the subject.

“He saw himself as an architect of the rebuilding of the coast,” Kemp said. “He would show how the coast was made up of different types of systems and you could put them back in place.”

Even though Gagliano was among those who first studied the possibility of Mississippi River diversion projects as a means of building land, Kemp said he also recognized the importance of keeping the culture and people of Louisiana in mind.

“He always remembered the people,” Kemp said. “He was not an elitist.”

Long before Hurricane Katrina bulldozed New Orleans levees in 2005, Gagliano was warning of the dangers of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, the man-made ship channel that was responsible for hastening the decline of the St. Bernard Parish wetlands.

“Woody and his colleagues were pretty sure that the MRGO was going to, at some point, destroy the eastern half of New Orleans and the question was when?”

The Army Corps of Engineers eventually sealed off the MRGO and installed a two-mile surge barrier in eastern New Orleans as part of the city’s hurricane risk-reduction system.

“He was the person who built the foundation for everything we do today on coastal restoration,” Thomas said.

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