Disaster Waves has earned Louisiana a reputation as the place to see how climate change will affect coastal areas. Hurricane Ida was only a punctuation mark in a series of devastating tropical cyclones, tragic inland flooding, epic oil spills and deadly pandemics.
Despite all of these recurrent disasters, many residents of Louisiana’s vulnerable coastal areas remain strongly committed to rebuilding after each disaster. The powerful attractions of family, faith, traditional food, local music, culture and landscape create a strong attachment.
Native Americans, African Americans, Acadians, Islenos and Vietnamese populate the coastal area, living in narrow settlements along creeks and natural valleys that stand a few feet above backwater swamps and marshes. Many come from a history of traumatic displacement from their traditional home. They adapted to the local environment, became skilled shrimpers, fishermen and oyster farmers and took deep roots.
In coastal Louisiana, people often live their entire lives where they were born. Yet they have also gone so far as to survive in a dangerous place – growing “bio up” – away from the Gulf of Mexico for decades. Each major storm signals the departure of something else that contributes to the slow pace of recovery-weary residents.
As the state tries to deal with recurrent disasters, it is figuring out how to manage the ongoing crisis – the slow loss of these southern wetlands and barrier islands. They provide valuable natural storm protection. But the state’s solutions could harm the communities living there and jeopardize the unique cultures that define the Louisiana coast.
As a historical geographer living in Louisiana, I studied these areas and recently published a book on Louisiana’s land-loss crisis. My research documents how these rural areas are being asked to adapt to save cities and industries, and how this is affecting their cultures.
Downside to wetland restoration
The state’s coastal margin is disappearing at a rate of about 23 square miles per year. This is partly due to flood protection that redirects water-borne sediments away from the Mississippi River Delta. This sediment once rejuvenated the river’s floodplains, backswamps and marshes during seasonal spring floods. Now, it circulates between higher levees, so all that material is carried far offshore.
Without regular replenishment, the delta sinks. Navigation canals dug for oil and gas development have contributed to saltwater infiltration and erosion, leading to land loss. Pumping oil and gas also accelerates the subsidence of the land.
The gradual rise in water levels in the Gulf of Mexico due to climate warming, combined with these other processes, exposes Louisiana to the highest rates of relative sea level rise in the Americas, leaving low-lying coastal parishes vulnerable to erosion. Makes susceptible to flooding and storm surges like Ida.
fix one problem, create another
To address this slow-moving disaster, the state has launched an ambitious program to fortify the coast and restore wetlands and barrier islands.
The plan includes structures to convert water and sediment from the Mississippi River back into swamps. But those freshwater diversions bring another problem: They can alter water chemistry and add sediment, affecting the oysters, shrimp, crabs and fish on which residents depend.
The state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which is directing this massive effort, is attentive to protecting key industries and the largest cities, restoring important coastal habitats and ecological functions, and assisting coastal residents. Towards these ends it has spent millions of dollars studying the geology, hydrology and ecology of the region. And it intends to spend billions on its projects, which will build multiple layers of defense such as restored wetlands and barrier islands, as well.
Its regularly updated plans note that local culture matters too. Yet, it has not measured social and cultural processes at work or modeled their future. Planners have offered no designs to save and restore cultures that will be disrupted either by land loss or by projects on the drawing board.
cultures at risk
Despite living in the midst of the waves of calamity, specific ethnic and cultural groups remain here that wash their homes. Our studies show how locally based practices have enabled them to resume, rebuild and recover after hurricanes, river floods, epidemics and oil spills. Social scientists refer to these as implicit or informal resilience.
Long before the arrival of Civil Defense, FEMA or other government-organised response efforts, residents deployed these practices, enabling them to rescue hurricane-ravaged people, shelter and feed neighbors, and begin repairing housing and workplaces. Gaya.
The state’s restoration plan ignores these fundamental cultural skills.
The scheme also allows for the “voluntary takeover” of the homes of those who live beyond the structural protections and wish to depart. Nevertheless, there has been no meaningful discussion, study or planning for assisted rehabilitation of at-risk communities by the agency in charge of coastal restoration. Another agency has worked for several years to assist the largely Native American community of le de Jean Charles to begin a move inland. There is no comparable effort for other communities under the master plan.
Shopping can enable some families to escape a precarious situation. But without community-wide resettlement support, it will inevitably contribute to community fragmentation and cultural disintegration as residents become isolated.
As cultural communities are eroded by large-scale storms and other disasters, the state is, unwittingly, promoting the dissolution of the distinctive and highly valued cultures of the coastal region.
Warning for other coastal areas
The Louisiana landscape offers a preview of what to expect in other locations experiencing sea level rise and seeking protection behind fixed dikes or levees.
These barriers disrupt the local environment on which resource-based economies such as fishing depend. They also contribute to the “levy effect” – the creation of a false sense of security that exposes coastal residents to severe impacts when a storm exceeds the levy’s design limit.
With each successive hurricane, recovery funds will go into repairing damaged rigid coastal security systems, such as US$14 billion to repair New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and undeclared damage to restoration projects caused by Ida. This means less money is available to meet the needs of cultural communities in distress.
Designing protection systems that include informal resilience, such as community-directed resettlement plans, or that integrate with existing social networks, can protect both coastal cultures and inland populations. And when conditions become untenable, as some Louisiana settlements are exploring, state investments may have to go beyond individual purchases to help communities plan for a safer future together.
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