Despite ambitious plans for coastal restoration and protection, the Gulf of Mexico has crept ever closer to communities along the coast and families, for generations, uprooted to find a safer place to live.
However, organized retreats from the coast, a scenario where entire communities move to another area, or any government-sponsored help to make this happen are fraught with problems.
A paper released in September by the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy considers some of those problems and actions taken — some have worked, others failed.
“Although there is a plan to address the collapsing coast (Coastal Master Plan 2012), even if every project in the Plan is funded and works as intended, there will still be a large number of Louisianans displaced by sea level rise, storms, erosion, and, perhaps, by the planned projects themselves,” according to the white paper. “How Louisiana chooses to address these challenges (or ignore them) will determine their consequences.”
The state does have a master plan for costal restoration and protection with about half of the $50 billion budget for protection by using levees, elevating structures, creating marshes creation and reconstructing barrier islands.
Much has been made of the idea that not all of that $50 billion is in the bank right now, but state officials have said they have the ability to spend only about $1 billion a year.
All of that money and planning are designed to, hopefully, stabilize the Louisiana coastal system, which, as a delta, is in a natural state of decline after centuries of growth.
The end result, planners hope, will be a stable coast that will eventually even start gaining land.
Even with all that work, the state will still be smaller than it is today. Communities will continue to be in danger. People will decide, as generations of Louisiana residents have, that they’ve gone through one flood too many and move away from the Gulf of Mexico but remain within south Louisiana.
The alternative is that more communities will be in danger and more people will move, breaking up long-standing cultural cohesion that many south Louisiana communities currently enjoy. Should the state relocate entire communities? Should the state focus more on helping individuals relocate?
“The history of community resettlement across the United States and in Southeast Louisiana shows us a variety of possibilities, but few successes,” according to the report.
The report points out that people don’t want to admit defeat by agreeing to relocate.
“The last thing policymakers want to do is push for an unpopular program of resettlement that would have a high chance for failure even if it did get adequate funding — which it almost certainly wouldn’t,” the report says.
So what’s the answer if a community and the state face just such a situation, even as restoration and protection go on in other areas of the coast?
A few simple possibilities include having coastal residents involved in the current work to update the master plan for 2017 to make sure solutions like elevating homes and businesses remain part of the plan. Coastal residents also need to remain involved in the future of the National Flood Insurance Program, which dictates in large measure what the coastal zone will be in the future.
The report ends by saying that its 50-page examination of the issue is just the first step and more research is needed to better understand all of the issues from economic, demographic and costs associated with a state that is, and will continue, to get smaller.
Amy Wold covers the environment for The Advocate. Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.