Battling rising seas, Louisiana ‘gets on with it’—minus California-style climate talk
MANDEVILLE, La. — Pat Brister sits at a conference table and ponders the subject that preoccupies her professional life: water.
Brister, the council president in St. Tammany Parish, a county north of New Orleans, calculates that more than a third of her workday is spent thinking about the quietly lapping waters of Lake Pontchartrain outside her door and the intemperate Gulf of Mexico that feeds it. She mentally inventories the region’s array of water pumps and levees and seawalls, all employed to keep the ever-rising tide at bay.
“We used to think we could control it,” Brister said, with a matter-of-fact shrug. “Now we have to live with it. We’re fighting the water.”
Quite often, the water wins. Such is life at the tip of the climate-change spear, where rising seas continue to meet and overwhelm a sinking, rapidly disappearing land.
This deeply crimson oil-producing state doesn’t readily discuss climate change or the menace of rising seas, or dwell on the grim scientific projections that show the southern portion of the state lost to the sea by the middle of the century. Louisiana just gets on with it.
The state has piled up massive seawalls, shored up an extensive levee system and raised roads and homes. It is relocating entire communities to higher ground. Engineers are punching holes in the man-made earthen walls that confine the Mississippi River, to unleash sediment and start the process of “making” more land in a state that loses 16 square miles a year.
To accomplish this, Louisiana has lobbied for federal grants and received hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for flood-control projects. The state has taxed itself and, along with municipal governments, probed the figurative couch cushions for any other money it can find to offset the billions in flood-related losses every year.
Perhaps more than other coastal states facing catastrophic sea rise—including California—Louisiana is tackling the problem with an approach best described as “git ’er done.”
Much of the state’s action now will undo previous mistakes: Preventing the Mississippi River from naturally depositing sediment, ignoring Louisiana’s shredded wetlands systems and enabling energy developers to use the lower portion of the state as a private, disposable oil patch. Set against historic neglect, a new state plan to repair the coast is a roadmap for Louisiana to clean up its own mess.
“What we do or don’t do in the next two decades will determine our coast’s long-term future,” says the state’s master plan for its coast. It identifies about 27,000 buildings that may need to be flood-proofed behind levees, put up on stilts or demolished.
St. Tammany Parish has the direst outlook. The report identifies nearly 6,000 structures in need of some form of mitigation, and it estimates that nearly 1,000 will have to be bought by the government and condemned.
“The decisions are not easy,” the report states. “Some of us will have to change our homes and businesses. Others may have to consider bigger changes, even leaving cherished communities.”
Louisiana shares with California geographic characteristics that make them both vulnerable: extensive coastlines and estuary systems that help channel storm surges from the sea to the city. The San Francisco Bay may be California’s Lake Pontchartrain.
Both states have delta systems with the capacity to carry water inland, and lots of it—the Mississippi River Delta in Louisiana and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in California. Both New Orleans and Sacramento are secured behind levees, as befits two flood-prone cities.
But California may have time to ponder its threat. Louisiana does not. The precarious future wrought by a rapidly changing climate looms near in the low-lying southern state, which lacks California’s buttress of coastal bluffs. California still has a few decades before water inundates its crowded coast. In Louisiana, the sea is at the door.
California is justifiably proud of its many scientific analyses that track the current and projected impact of climate change on the state. The multi-disciplinary reviews have been exhaustive and are considered state-of-the-art on the subject.
The state’s most recent projections, released in June, show an accelerating rise of the sea that imperils coastal cities. The report, from the California Ocean Protection Council, a state agency, lays out in reserved tones the eventual disaster state officials face.
The information forms a cautionary guidepost, intended to be folded into every state agency’s long-term planning, much of which is years, or decades, away from implementation. In many critical ways, California is still talking about sea rise without uniformly taking action.
By comparison, Louisiana’s state-run Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority’s most recent update of its Coastal Master Plan is much more urgent. It was released about the same time as California’s and has had the focusing effect of a sharp slap to the face.
The plan unequivocally describes sea rise as a crisis. Notably, the Louisiana report adopts the worst-case projections of five years ago as the current best-case scenario and warns of the calamitous consequence of inaction, putting a price tag on it of nearly $20 billion a year in flood damage. California has yet to tally the numbers.
The report, which serves both as scientific update and immediate action plan, warns of escalating land loss—an additional 4,100 square miles in the next 50 years as Louisiana’s elaborate natural flood-protection systems fail. Barriers such as marshes and wetlands, which are critical in absorbing and slowing devastating storm surges, continue to disappear, rendering communities and infrastructure increasingly vulnerable, the report concludes.
Some parts of the state will likely be abandoned and surrendered to the water. Public facilities such as schools, police stations and hospitals are no longer built in the flood-prone south between Interstate 10 and the Gulf of Mexico, a capitulation that spares the state throwing good money after bad.
The plan also lays out a construction checklist, identifying more than 100 flood-control projects across Louisiana, assigning each a budget and timeline. No such comprehensive blueprint exists in California, where state agencies and local governments are essentially on their own to mitigate against the coming catastrophe. Conservative Louisiana has adopted a command-and-control approach to rising seas, while the blue state of California has been mostly loathe to dictate to private landowners, business and local governments on this topic.
The Louisiana style also buffaloes past what in California would be years, if not decades, of multi-layered environmental review. Louisiana officials concluded that restoring wetlands to slow storm surges would protect the state’s people and structures and also heal the environment.
Some of the measures Louisiana is relying on are controversial, such as the armoring of the coast with seawalls, which can ultimately deplete beaches and shorelines.
And the hundreds of pages of analysis and projections in Louisiana’s report contain scant mention of climate change. The issue is cast as a critical flooding problem. While the report warns, “We must take bold action now before it’s too late,” it all but ignores the role climate change plays in exacerbating sea rise. Louisiana has thus created a comprehensive response to the effect without acknowledging the cause.
“What generally happens when I give talks or speak at forums in the coastal parishes is that officials won’t talk about climate change until you are in the hallway when no one’s listening,” said Rob Verchick, a professor of environmental law at Loyola University in New Orleans and a former official at the federal Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama.
“I have had very frank conversations about climate change with Republicans and Democrats in Louisiana, but they won’t talk about it in public,” he said.
That keeps touchy politics on a back burner as Louisiana moves to protect itself. In California, by contrast, for more than a decade there has been almost constant dialogue about climate change.
Louisiana’s soggy delta is an actor in its vulnerability. The highly engineered Mississippi River has been locked behind high levees. The 100-year attempt to tame the meandering river and protect communities from flooding has prevented the natural flow of sediment and water to replenish marshes, causing them to wither. The state accounts for 40 percent of the nation’s wetlands but also 80 percent of its wetland losses.
Wetlands loss, coupled with a gradual but persistent subsidence of the existing ground, results in the rare alchemy of turning land turning into water.
It’s a costly transformation. Like California’s coast, Louisiana’s is densely developed. Nearly all major projects along the Gulf coast dip a toe into water—casinos, universities, ports and airports, military installations.
Louisiana, where it is necessary to inter the dead above ground, now has some of the nation’s first climate refugees. The native American community of Isle de Jean Charles has been lost to sea rise—rendered unlivable—and a $48 million federal grant has been secured to relocate the residents.
Elsewhere, the phenomenon of “self-retreat” is taking hold, with residents of low-lying parishes on the march north, to higher ground. A profound demographic shift is underway, driven by the rising sea.
Cameron Parish, which fronts the Gulf, lost 31 percent of its population from 2000 to 2010. In nearby Plaquemines Parish, the land loss is projected to be 55 percent in the next 50 years. St. Bernard Parish, to the east of New Orleans, dangles into the Gulf and the Mississippi Sound, surrounded on three sides by water. It’s lost 46 percent of its population and may lose 72 percent of its land.
Such wholesale land loss is not a feature of California’s future, but its beaches are on the retreat, and seas are marching toward homes and development. Coastal residents have resisted moving and are pushing back against zoning and building codes that limit construction along the shoreline.
Orleans Parish, battered and still recovering from Katrina and more recent storms, has lost nearly 30 percent of its residents, who fear the prediction of 15-foot floodwaters for those living outside the city’s $14 billion levee system. The burden on the communities receiving the influx has not been calculated.
“We call them ‘relocators,’ ” Brister said. Her parish has seen a 22 percent population spurt, mainly New Orleanians leaving the city, crossing Lake Pontchartrain for good.
Flood insurance premiums have increased by as much as 85 percent in coastal areas, and Brister said that the cost of repairing and starting over after two and three major floods a year is wearing on residents.
“Some are just turning in their keys and walking away from their houses,” she said.
People exiting on their own is the easy part for officials. The state’s plan envisions the involuntary removal of thousands of residents who lack the funds or the will to move out of harm’s way. A voluntary program that gives homeowners $200,000 to raise their homes up on stilts has its own limitations.
“When you are looking at a structure that’s worth $150,000 and you are spending $200,000 on it to raise it, that’s when you say, ‘What am I doing? There’s got to be a better way to do this,’ ” said Gina Campo, the chief administrative officer for St. Tammany Parish.
In contrast to California, where living by the sea is often a signifier of wealth and perhaps influence, people who live close to the water in Louisiana are likely to be poor. Campo acknowledged the distasteful necessity of forcibly buying people out.
“How do you move people?” Campo said. “These are people’s homes. This is where they’ve lived and grown up. This is their culture.”
Mark Kulp directs the Coastal Research Laboratory at the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of New Orleans. He studies land loss in the pockmarked and tattered region known as the Birdsfoot Delta along the lower Mississippi River, where land is but a thin tissue. He calls the work chilling and sobering.
“There’s not a chance that we’re going to restore the Delta to what it looked like 50 years ago, 10 years ago, 5 years ago,” he said.
Kulp, who has spent countless hours sloshing through swamps, holds a deep affection for the Delta and its people.
“It kills me when I do go down to places along the coast and these people, who are truly embedded down there and have been for decades, if not centuries, and love to hunt and fish,” he said.
“They’ll say, ‘Mark, when are you gonna restore our coastline?’ “ And I’ll say to my buddy Nick, born and bred in Bayou Lafourche, ‘Nick, we’re not gonna restore the coastline.
“ ‘You’re watching the very thing that your heart and soul and family is embedded in disappearing before your very eyes.’ ”