A massive dike system saved New Orleans. Can we help other cities?

LAROSE, Louisiana – After Hurricane Katrina, an ambitious and expensive system of levees, walls, storm barriers and pumps were installed around New Orleans to protect against the type of flooding and horrors that so deeply marked the city and the nation in 2005 And when Hurricane Ida struck last week, exactly 16 years later, those hopes were largely fulfilled. The flooding was minimal.

But 60 miles away, in the small community of Larose, the situation was different. In William Lowe’s neighborhood, Ida’s storm surge passed a modest levee maintained by the Lafourche parish government near his raised house, sending water from a nearby canal onto its floorboards . A few days later, his neighborhood was still wet with water and he and his family were traveling home and back by boat.

“You have destroyed lives here,” said Mr Lowe, 49, fighting back tears. “You go to Dollar General, you have people screaming outside because they have nothing.”

In the workers’ bayou country south and west of New Orleans, local government officials have been trying for decades to secure federal funding for a system similar to New Orleans, to no avail.

And as Ida moved north, bringing more death and destruction to places like New York City, advocates for the project in the coastal parishes of Lafourche and Terrebonne must have questioned her fate at a time when bigger and better known places are growing. likely to compete for funding for storm protection.

As sea levels rise and a warming ocean brings more dreaded storms, the fight for hurricane protection in southern Louisiana is just the latest example of a growing dilemma for the people of France. United States: what places to try to save and how to decide.

Until recently, this question might seem like the plot of a dystopian film, or at least a problem to be left to future generations. But as disasters worsen, the cost of reconstruction has skyrocketed. Extreme weather conditions have caused more than $ 450 billion in damage nationwide since 2005; the number of disasters causing more than $ 1 billion in damage reached a record 22 last year.

The Government Accountability Office has warned that these costs could be unsustainable. Yet the demand keeps growing: When the Federal Emergency Management Agency introduced a new program to help cities and states prepare for disasters, the demands far exceeded the amount of money available.

The increasing frequency and severity of hurricanes poses another dilemma: Even if money could be found for projects to protect places like Larose, are such efforts a good way to spend public money, especially as the need for climate resilience in the country increases and the coasts are disappearing more every year?

“A lot of these places aren’t going to be there that long,” said Jesse Keenan, a professor at Tulane University who focuses on how to adapt to climate change. As worsening disasters push more and more people to leave these cities, he said, the number of people likely to benefit from storm protection systems is declining, making these systems more difficult to remove. to justify.

“It’s going to be difficult for a lot of these projects to come up with,” Dr. Keenan said.

Officials in Louisiana, a state still suffering from the repeated beatings inflicted by last year’s record-breaking storm season, don’t see it that way. They argue that investing now in projects like the parishes of Lafourche and Terrebonne will save the federal government money in the long run by reducing cleanup costs, with fewer disaster relief claims filed. by businesses and families, and fewer insurance claims under national law. Flood insurance program.

It’s about moving from a reactive position to a proactive one, said Reggie Dupré, general manager of the Terrebonne Levy and Conservation District. Mr Dupre said the government needs to quickly change its mind on the Louisiana coast. Hurricane Ida devastated buildings and infrastructure in her parish, mainly due to strong winds. But had he gone a few miles west, he said, the storm surge would have claimed many lives as well.

“We don’t want to wait,” said Mr. Dupré. “We don’t want to have body bags everywhere. “

The project, known as Morganza to the Gulf, is designed, supporters say, to protect 250,000 people from flooding. But unlike the New Orleans system, the Morganza system has yet to receive significant federal money, although it was first approved by Congress in 1992. Local officials have already spent nearly ‘$ 1 billion to build part of it, with the expectation that the federal government will eventually deliver its promised $ 2 billion in cost share.

The dike system received its first federal funding of $ 12.5 million this year after years of discussions about its cost versus the number of people it would benefit.

“I don’t really think people understand how many people live there,” said state representative Tanner Magee, who represents the parishes of Terrebonne and Lafourche.

He said people outside the region also didn’t understand how much of the country’s oil – nearly a fifth – is refined in the state, much of it along the coast.

“It’s an active coast, it’s not like it’s a Florida beach town,” Magee said.

Those who have lived unprotected for years in southern Louisiana have understood for a while that they are on the wrong side of the cost-benefit equation.

“It’s the same scenario year after year,” said Michael Jiles, pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Plaquemines Parish and former warden of public services.

Locally funded levees are not enough to protect Mr. Jiles’ neighborhood and surrounding areas, where residents see their homes flooding over and over again.

It’s no mystery to Jiles why his neighborhood hasn’t received the same protections as New Orleans to the north, or the neighboring parish of St. Bernard, which is protected by a flood wall.

“Population and economic power,” he said, adding that in his part of the parish of Plaquemines on the east bank of the Mississippi River, many residents live below the poverty line.

Garret Graves, a Republican congressman from Louisiana, said the federal government’s approach to funding post-Katrina protection projects was to “really focus on population centers.” Most Plaquemines did not have the population density necessary to rank high on this scale.

And there was an incentive to protect New Orleans, Graves said. As residents decided to rebuild or relocate, the federal government approved the hurricane protection system as a way to persuade them to stay.

“The White House really felt compelled to make people understand that there would be no Katrina Version 2,” Graves said. He said Ida could push the federal government to fund similar projects outside of that system.

The contrast between the two Louisianas – inside and outside the protection system – is striking. Immediately after Hurricane Isaac in 2012, Mr. Jiles took a break from cleaning his waterlogged house to stand on the dike separating Plaquemines, submerged by several feet of flood water, from the nearby parish of Saint-Bernard, which was dry.

Standing on the sea wall, Mr. Jiles recalls, he could “see both worlds.”

Without adequate protection, the community will not survive, Jiles said. People started to leave the area after Hurricane Katrina, promising to return if the dikes were lifted. With each storm, more people were leaving.

“Little by little he’s going to be eliminated,” Mr. Jiles said.

The same is happening in other coastal parishes, said David Muth, director of gulf restoration at the National Wildlife Federation.

“The numbers speak for themselves: people vote with their feet to find out where they want to live,” Muth said. The cycle continues: as more and more people leave, “it becomes harder and harder to justify massive investments in storm risk reduction,” he said.

The state has recognized that not all communities can be saved.

In 2016, authorities began the process of relocating residents from Isle de Jean Charles, a village in the south of the parish of Terrebonne which has lost most of its land due to rising seas and erosion. . With a $ 48 million grant from the Obama administration, the state is building a new site for the village, called The New Isle, about 30 miles to the north.

The project is the first federally funded resettlement project in response to climate change, and was designed to be a model for other communities to follow. The effort did not always go smoothly. But the first residents could move in as early as December, according to state spokesman Marvin McGraw.

And two years ago, Louisiana released a master plan for its coastal communities, which envisioned the government paying some people who live outside federal levees to move further inland. This strategy also called for new investments in towns further from the coast, to better prepare these towns for the influx of new residents.

“We need to be realistic about the current and future effects of coastal land loss and plan today for the development of the next generation of Louisiana communities,” Governor John Bel Edwards said at the time.

Whether the right solution is to beef up protection or pay for people to move, Louisiana coastal communities deserve help, even if that aid does not meet strict cost-benefit ratios, Andy said. Horowitz, history teacher at Tulane who wrote a book on Katrina.

“We might instead be thinking about our values ​​as a country,” said Dr Horowitz. “We can build public works that protect people. We can humanely help them move to a safer place. Or we can let them suffer and die.

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