After meeting with about 4,000 residents over the course of a year, state officials are working on a report that could reimagine how communities in southeastern Louisiana will deal with coastal erosion and sea-level rise.
If some of the proposed policies become reality, residents in coastal areas at risk of serious, repeated flooding could become part of a massive campaign to encourage them to relocate to higher ground.
Among the ideas under consideration:
- Prohibiting residential construction outside planned levees and floodwalls in some high-risk areas that would experience extreme flooding.
- Creating a buyout program so residents can afford to move out of those high-risk areas.
- Phasing out the homestead exemption for property taxes in high-risk areas outside levees and floodwalls.
- Requiring new commercial developments to have bonding that will pay for their demolition at the end of their useful life or long-term vacancy.
- Requiring certain communities to participate in a program that will lower flood insurance rates if they limit development in flood-prone areas and encourage flood-resistant construction.
Some of those ideas are highly controversial.
“It’s patently clear to anyone who lives here that all of these proposals are against the residents’ interests,” Plaquemines Parish President Amos Cormier III said. “Just put yourself in that position. It’s the same as your home being condemned.”
Besides housing, the proposals also deal with transportation, the economy and the state’s fishing and tourism industries.
The upcoming report drawing on these ideas could provide an important framework for how Louisiana deals with one of the highest rates of sea-level rise in the world, coupled with the loss of 10,000 acres of coastal land every year.
But the state still has a long way to go before it sets any policies. Given Louisiana’s continual budget shortfalls, funding is far from certain.
No required resettlement
“We’re not going to land on anything final until we have a lot of discussions with a lot of different people and we understand … if something makes sense in a particular place or doesn’t,” said Mathew Sanders, an official with the state Office of Community Development. “We’re just not there yet.”
Sanders said the state is not pursuing a mandatory resettlement program, even in portions of the coast projected to experience up to 14 feet of flooding during so-called 100-year storms. Such storms have a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year, or a 26 percent chance of occurring over the course of a residential 30-year mortgage.
“There’s certainly a lot of apprehension to any idea that we would be moving people by the tens of thousands across a huge swath of the coast. That is not something we have even talked about, let alone proposed,” Sanders said. “That certainly is not a popular idea.”
In 2010, about 80,000 people lived in areas that by 2067 will be deemed to be “high risk,” meaning a 100-year flood would bring more than 6 feet of water, according to the Office of Community Development.
In December, Bloomberg reported that the state is planning to “empty out its coastal plain.” The OCD published a statement denying that, and Sanders and other state officials said they’re not done with the report yet.
But they do have a list of about 70 “recommended policies” that could be part of the report. The proposals point to a strategy of limiting development in the most vulnerable coastal communities and making it more expensive for people who remain there.
Sanders said those proposals are the product of a “ground up” approach: about 70 meetings with residents and other community members in six coastal parishes. Those parishes — Terrebonne, Lafourche, Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. John the Baptist and St. Tammany — suffered significant damage from Hurricane Isaac in 2012.
The meetings were held by Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments, or LA SAFE, a community planning process organized by the OCD, where Sanders works, and the Foundation for Louisiana.
Mark Davis, director of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law & Policy, said the proposals show that residents realize they’ll have to make difficult choices if their communities are to adapt to the dual threats of land loss and rising water.
“We cannot implement government planning if we do not create the capacity to do it,” Davis said. “It seems to me the civic groundwork is being laid.”
Many decisions needed
The report, due out later this year, will lay out a regional framework with recommended policies and projects, along with a pilot project and an individualized plan for each parish.
Right now, the proposals exist only as part of a four-page document made public at meetings in the six parishes.
The presentation describes the planning process and lists about 70 proposals in several different categories: stormwater management, housing and development, transportation, education, the economy and jobs, and culture and recreation.
Among the ideas:
- Require the state to account for flood risk before designing transportation routes, and retrofit existing ones to deal with flooding.
- Incorporate ferries into evacuation plans.
- Improve training in careers related to the coast, and diversify the local economy by giving tax rebates to use renewable energy.
- Require new housing developments to be built at least 2 feet above the base flood elevation.
- Offer financial incentives to elevate homes and fortify them against strong winds.
- Build recreational facilities that mitigate flood risk.
- Create a state Office of Resilience to oversee these efforts.
Sanders said the policy recommendations were compiled by a LA SAFE planning team, based on discussions at the parish meetings.
“People have talked about the problems they have been facing as a result of some of the changes in land form and flood risk that have been happening over time,” Sanders said, “and how they would anticipate those problems becoming exacerbated as we projected it out in the future.”
Some places would see catastrophic flooding. About 2,400 structures could be subjected to flood depths of more than 14 feet; they could be bought out by the state.
Those predictions come from the latest version of the Louisiana Coastal Master Plan, a blueprint to rebuild the coast and protect some of what’s left.
The 50-year, $50 billion Master Plan relies largely on pipelines, massive river diversions, levees and floodwalls. It also calls for roughly $6 billion in “nonstructural” projects: elevating, flood-proofing or buying out homes.
The LA SAFE process is designed to be a framework “leading the way” for the nonstructural portion of that plan, said Pat Forbes, executive director of the Office of Community Development.
But the $40 million LA SAFE planning grant is paltry compared to the billions it would cost to elevate, flood-proof and buy out homes and businesses.
Ultimately, Forbes said, it will be up to local, state and federal officials to decide if they want to implement the ideas.
“Any ideas that bubble up out of this process will wind up being part of those reports, which is for anybody,” Forbes said. “It’s for the (Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority), for the Coastal Master Plan, for the individual parishes themselves — for anybody working in the coast. It will be things for them to consider.”
By the end of the process, the six parishes will have their own individual plans and partially funded pilot projects to help their communities adapt.
Ultimately, officials hope the report, along with completion of the six projects, will serve as a model for coastal areas elsewhere threatened by climate change.
Coastal experts say the proposals signify that some residents and state officials recognize that bold solutions are needed if the state is to prepare for the coastal changes underway.
“The toolbox right now is pretty crummy,” Davis said, referring to plans for combating coastal erosion and sea-level rise. “It’s going to need to get better, and it’s not going to be painless, not by a long shot.”
That was evident from Cormier’s reaction.
He compared the proposals to the forced removal by the British of the French-speaking people from the Canadian province of Acadia in the 1700s, which resulted in many Cajuns settling in Louisiana.
“I guarantee you none of this is coming from my administration,” Cormier said after reading some of the proposals. “How anyone can claim that anyone who has homes and businesses in this region would agree to such draconian terms is ludicrous.”
Though the LA SAFE discussions have only recently come into view, researchers and state officials have been working for some time to deal with the crisis facing Louisiana’s coastal communities.
In December, the state entered negotiations to purchase a 515-acre sugarcane farm near Thibodaux to resettle the residents of Isle de Jean Charles. The lone road to that quickly sinking island in south Terrebonne Parish is regularly inundated by floodwaters.
A $48 million federal grant will move its residents, who are members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, about 40 miles northwest, to an area less vulnerable to flooding. Sanders is leading that effort.
In 2014, the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy concluded that many residents will eventually have to leave southeast Louisiana, whether they are forced out or given incentives to leave.
Its report warned that in this century, climate-driven migration will happen “on a scale never before experienced in human history.“
Plenty of roadblocks
The 2017 version of the Master Plan calls for flood-proofing 1,398 businesses and elevating 22,432 homes. It also proposes voluntary buyouts for 2,403 properties, but the state doesn’t identify where they are and doesn’t have the money to put the plan in action.
There may be other roadblocks, too, outlined in the 2014 Tulane report. It said voluntary relocations and government-run resettlement efforts have been the products of “failed government intervention” and have been hamstrung by public distrust.
Corey Miller, the community engagement director for the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, said residents probably will be more receptive to changes that come out of the LA SAFE process because they have had a hand in it.
“It’s community-driven action to address the challenges of our land loss and our changing coast,” he said.
Bren Haase, chief of planning and research for the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, agreed that the LA SAFE process is valuable because residents are taking part in the initial stages of the planning process.
He said his agency may be interested in incorporating some of the proposals into its Coastal Master Plan.
“These are very personal, emotional conversations that need to be driven on a local level,” Haase said. “Insomuch that local residents and communities are interested in these things, then yeah, we are interested in advancing them.”
However, he said there are a number of technical issues to work through first before the state could even think about implementing the proposed policies. One of them is identifying which entity would put the ideas into action — and which one would have the money to carry them through.
“It’s extremely difficult,” Haase said. “It requires the science, the education, the means and the will to be able to accomplish the projects. Those things don’t often line up.”