Cat Island Reborn. The Triumphant Restoration of a Feline Paradise


Cat Island is a barrier island located off the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, spanning over 1,400 acres. Once a prime vacation destination in the early 1900s, Cat Island was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The massive hurricane brought a 15-foot storm surge and wind gusts up to 140 mph to the island, destroying the bridge connecting the island to the mainland and eroding over 90% of the island’s land mass ( Prior to Hurricane Katrina, Cat Island was home to one of the state’s largest fishing villages, tourist facilities, a healthy maritime forest, and acres of rolling dunes. However, after the hurricane the island was reduced to submerged sandbars and narrow strips of sand dotted with dead trees. Since 2005, there have been extensive restoration efforts to rebuild the island, though environmental organizations say more needs to be done. This article will examine the impact of Hurricane Katrina, restoration efforts to date, and the outlook for Cat Island going forward.

Hurricane Katrina’s Impact

Hurricane Katrina had a devastating impact on Cat Island in 2005. The storm’s powerful Category 3 winds and enormous 20-foot storm surge eroded around 90% of the island’s land area (NASA, 2005). Where there had once been dunes and forest, nearly half of the island’s total land mass vanished underwater overnight. According to the National Park Service, the island shrank from around 1,500 acres to only about 540 acres after the hurricane (NPS, n.d.).

This extreme land loss devastated crucial nesting habitat for birds like the endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle and the Brown Pelican. Vegetation was stripped away, destabilizing the island and accelerating erosion. The hurricane dealt a catastrophic blow to the island’s ecosystem that would require years of restoration work.

Restoration Plans

After Hurricane Katrina significantly damaged the Cat Island chain in 2005, restoration plans were developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and partners to rebuild the islands. The Cat Island Restoration Project aimed to reconstruct three islands in the lower Green Bay, providing 272 acres of new habitat for fish and wildlife (Port of Green Bay).

The restoration plans focused on reconstructing the Cat Islands’ protective barrier that historically sheltered Green Bay’s shoreline from storms and erosion. By rebuilding the islands, the project sought to recreate critical habitat for migratory birds, fish spawning, and native vegetation, while also protecting the shoreline from further damage (DOI).

Phase 1 Restoration

In 2011, an initial restoration effort began aimed at rebuilding the lost sand mass of Cat Island using dredged material. As described in the Project Summary from the Army Corps of Engineers, sand was hydraulically dredged from an approved “borrow area” in the Gulf of Mexico and pumped via pipeline to rebuild the island’s beach, dune, and marsh areas [1].

By pumping sand, the goal was to restore approximately 70 acres of beach/berm, 150 acres of dune, and 40 acres of marsh, recreating valuable habitat for wildlife. In the first phase, construction focused on the western segment of the island. According to the Basis of Design Report, this initial phase aimed to increase the island’s elevation and width to provide protection from erosion [2].

While still in the early stages, the sand pumping project marked the beginning of progress toward rebuilding Cat Island’s lost land mass. Further efforts would be needed to fully restore the island to pre-hurricane conditions.

Ongoing Challenges

Despite progress made in restoring the islands, significant challenges remain. One of the biggest issues is continued erosion of the islands from wind and wave action (Restoration of the Cat Island Chain in Lower Green Bay, Wave action constantly batters the islands, slowly wearing down sand dunes and beaches. According to the UW Green Bay report, erosion has caused Cat Island to lose up to 30 feet of shoreline per year.

Ongoing restoration requires significant funding, which can be challenging to secure. The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates full restoration of the islands will cost $15-20 million over the next decade (Cat Island Restoration, While initial funding has allowed the first phase of work, long-term support is needed to complete the project and implement continual maintenance.

Environmental Impact

The restoration of Cat Island has had a significant positive impact on the surrounding environment and ecosystem. According to the University of Wisconsin Green Bay (link), rebuilding the island has helped recreate important habitat for wildlife. The island provides spawning habitat for fish like northern pike and yellow perch, nesting sites for birds like herons and egrets, and shelter for amphibians and reptiles. Since restoration began in 2007, biologists have observed a resurgence in the diversity and population of birds and other species on the island.

In their report, the Wisconsin Sea Grant (link) noted that the Cat Island chain originally protected over 20 miles of Green Bay’s western shoreline. By dampening waves and blocking winds, the barrier islands reduced erosion and allowed coastal wetlands to flourish. Now that sections of Cat Island have been rebuilt, many hope it will once again shield the mainland coast from harsh weather and water conditions.

While work remains ongoing, early evidence suggests that the environmental impacts of restoring Cat Island have been overwhelmingly positive so far. Reestablishing this critical habitat and natural protection has allowed native plants, fish, birds, and other wildlife to return and thrive again in this section of Green Bay.

Economic Impact

The restoration of Cat Island has had a significant positive economic impact on the Green Bay area, particularly for the fishing industry and tourism. According to the Port of Green Bay, the islands provide vital fish and wildlife habitat that supports commercial and recreational fishing in the bay. By protecting and reconstructing the islands, fish populations are able to thrive, providing a boon to local fishermen and charter boat captains who rely on healthy fish stocks.

In addition, the restored islands have become a popular tourist destination. The unique environment of sandy beaches, coastal wetlands, and dense aquatic vegetation attracts visitors eager to kayak, hike and observe wildlife. This ecotourism provides revenue for local businesses offering tours, equipment rentals, hotels and dining. As noted by the University of Wisconsin Green Bay, the islands are considered the “crown jewels” of the bay, drawing thousands each year. Their restoration has ensured these natural treasures and economic assets will endure for generations to come.

Community Perspectives

The Cat Island restoration project has received a mixed response from the local community. Many Green Bay residents are eager to see the islands restored after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, but some locals have expressed concerns about the slow pace of progress.

In an interview with the Green Bay News-Chronicle, lifelong resident Maggie Smith said, “It’s been over 15 years since the hurricane wiped out Cat Island. We were so hopeful when the restoration plans were announced, but a decade later, we’ve barely seen any progress. It’s frustrating.”

Other locals worry that the scope of the project was too ambitious from the start. “Trying to rebuild those islands to their original size seems like an impossible task,” said Jeff Davidson, who grew up boating around Cat Island. “I wish they had scaled back the plans and focused on smaller, more manageable restoration goals.”

However, some in the community remain optimistic. “We just have to be patient. These things take time,” said Linda Jones, president of the local environmental group Green Bay Nature Alliance, in an interview with the Green Bay Gazette. “Rebuilding the Cat Island chain will be worth it in the end for both the environment and the community.”

Despite differing opinions on the pace of progress, most locals agree that completing the restoration of Cat Island is critical. The project will hopefully reconnect the community to an important part of Green Bay’s ecological and cultural heritage.

Future Outlook

The restoration of Cat Island is an ongoing, long-term project with additional phases planned for the future. According to the Department of the Interior, dredged materials will continue to be deposited in the Cat Island DMDF over the coming years to further build up and restore the islands. The goal is to fully reconstruct the islands to their original size and elevation.

For long-term sustainability, native vegetation will be planted to stabilize the islands and create wildlife habitat. Continued monitoring and adaptive management will be key to ensuring the new islands are resilient to future storms and sea level rise. Community involvement and partnerships will also be important for the continued success of the project over the decades to come.

While the initial phases of restoration have already had a positive impact, the full benefits will only be realized over a longer timeframe as the islands are reconstructed and ecosystems have time to develop and mature. The Cat Island project demonstrates that with perseverance and collaboration, substantial recovery of degraded natural habitats is possible.


In summary, while significant progress has been made in restoring Cat Island following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the island still faces challenges. Phase 1 of the restoration project by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, completed in 2015, successfully rebuilt the western portion of the island using dredged sand. However, the eastern portion remains degraded, and the island is smaller and lower than its pre-storm state.

The restored nesting habitat has allowed brown pelicans and other birds to return, representing an environmental success. But the loss of island acreage has impacted aquatic life, and climate change presents a threat of future storm damage. While promising for tourism revenue, increased recreation and development on Cat Island should be balanced with conservation. With continued restoration and protection efforts, there is hope that the island can fully recover over time as a haven for coastal ecosystems and wildlife.

The outlook for Cat Island remains positive, yet realistic – acknowledging both the progress made and limitations still ahead. Further restoration work combined with sustainable practices and ecological awareness will shape the island’s revival for both economic and environmental gains.

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