Dispatches from a Sinking State: How Louisiana Communities Can Adapt to Climate Change

Photo By: Staff Sgt. Jeffery Barone, Louisiana National Guard

In May, a report from Louisiana’s Office of Community Development unveiled a blueprint for the state to adapt to climate change and flooding. The report, titled “Our Land and Water: A Regional Approach to Adaptation” is unique in its pragmatic acknowledgment that Louisiana—a state-sized frontline community facing down the realities of climate change—will need to look and work dramatically differently to survive the years and changes to come.

Tellingly, the report explains that some parts of Louisiana are home to communities that will have no choice but to relocate—even if the planned coastal restoration work is completely successful. In its introduction, the report states that even if the $50 billion Coastal Master Plan goes without a hitch, in an “ideal scenario”, the state will still face a net loss of 1,452 square miles of land. The report is unflinching in its portrait of a state at a crossroads—that the low-lying parishes of St. Tammany, Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. John the Baptist, Lafourche, and Terrebonne in southeastern Louisiana face extreme risks of flooding that will make relocation the best option for some residents.

Southeastern Louisiana region faces a trifecta of flooding threats: “coastal (surge and tidal), fluvial (riverine), and pluvial (intense rain causing surface flooding).” But it doesn’t stop there—flood risk is further exacerbated by subsidence—as water is pumped from the ground, the porous soil contracts. Subsidence is also caused by oil and gas extraction. In past years, flooding from the Mississippi River deposited sediment that built land over the course of thousands of years. Now, however, man-made levees and other barriers obstruct this process.

Meanwhile, the coast also must contend with sea level rise and salinity encroachments, which damage wetlands, which in turn make the coast more vulnerable to storm surges and hurricane flooding. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy hit the gulf coast with more intensity than Hurricane Katrina. However, at the time, the state was better protected by miles of marsh which was able to absorb some of the flooding. The death toll from Betsy was 81 people, compared to an estimated 1,833 deaths in Hurricane Katrina.

Tellingly, the authors report that many residents of high-risk areas are already moving to land that is safer from flooding. They cite rising flood insurance costs, as well as the mental strain of living in danger of floods, as reasons that people have been relocating. However, this also means that more affluent members of the communities most at risk have been able to move, leaving shrinking communities with dwindling tax bases. In these cases, the report recommends voluntary buyout programs to allow people who wish to relocate to do so.

As high-ground population centers become “receiver” communities for those displaced by rising waters, the report recommends that these communities work to plan growth that will improve quality of life for residents. The recommendations include planning denser communities that are more walkable and incorporate more green space that can accommodate flooding. The report mentions several times that these types downtown areas are more attractive to “millennials” than suburban sprawl.

Denser urban centers also confer the benefit of lowering residents’ per-capita carbon emissions by reducing travel by private vehicle and tend to encourage more physical activity. These suggestions for development also include a proliferation of green spaces meant to reduce flooding as well as improve urban design. At the same time, the report suggests adding more public transportation options between communities, as well as improving access from urban areas to nature preserves.

One of the major standout recommendations from the report is a transition of high-risk zones to incorporate more ecotourism into their economy. Though Louisiana has been guilty all too often of prioritizing industry over conservation, “Our Land and Water” highlights not only integrating greenspace into cities but also prioritizing environmental restoration. Notably, the authors suggest that decommissioned oil platforms could be integrated into ecotourism, as places to observe wildlife.

The report also devotes an entire section to ways that the industry can be strengthened in the face of environmental challenges, not to mention the influx of cheaper fish and shrimp coming from overseas. The report recommends a branding and certification system to extoll the virtues of sustainably caught, Louisiana seafood. Additionally, the report recommends supporting local seafood markets, so that fishers can distribute their catch locally.

At times, however, the authors veer into territory that feels overly-positive: one section outlines a legal precedent that may mean that while Louisiana loses land, its borders will remain the same. This would give Louisiana jurisdiction over a greater area of open water. While noteworthy, this is still predicated upon the loss of highly productive marshland and areas of great cultural significance to indigenous peoples.  

In another section, the authors discuss the case of the Isle de Jean Charles community, an island home to the Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, that has lost 98 percent of its area to encroaching waters. Once over 22,000 acres, the island is now a 320-acre strip. Though the report offers a utopic vision of the community that may be built with relocation funding from the government, the truth is more complicated than a sustainably designed haven for the climate refugees.

Though the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has awarded the relocation project millions of dollars in funding, which has allowed for the purchase of a 500-acre property, some members of the IDJC, including its chief and executive secretary, have turned against the deal. The Tribal Council has asked that the HUD funding be returned to the agency. In a report by DeSmogBlog, members of the tribe explained that they felt disrespected and that the plan has unfolded without cultural competency from the state, resulting in a plan that they have ultimately rejected. Though the plan as it is presented in the report appears laudable, without a strong grounding in environmental justice, the outcome is worth far less than it could have been.

While “Our Land and Water” does not go so far as to completely reimagining Louisiana governance or inequality, or even a complete end to the petroleum industry, it does show a future where Louisiana gives more protection to its ecosystems, communities, and small-scale fishers. The report dares to decouple Louisiana from oil, and reimagines the “sportsman’s paradise” as an ecotourist destination. The authors look at suburban sprawl and tell the reader that with smart urban planning, Louisiana can have cities with thriving, walkable downtowns. It is obvious that the Louisiana of the future will look different from that of today. What “Our land and Water” serves to remind us, is that a just transition to that future may be possible.

Jesse Lu Baum is a queer writer and cartoonist originally from Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has been featured in publications such as Medium.com, The Jewish Daily Forward, The Mid-City Messenger and Preservation in Print. Aside from writing, she has also worked as a non-profit home repair person, a theater bartender, and a research assistant.

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