Realities of Coastal Living Often Forgotten, Until the Worst Hits

July 15, 2014

Special Report on Risk and Resilience: Part One


Grand Isle is Louisiana's last-remaining inhabited barrier island, and an extreme example of coastal communities around the country that are experiencing sea-level rise.
                                                 Photo: Mira John via Flickr

Perched on poles, the houses on the barrier island of Grand Isle reflect the reality that people who live and vacation there know is part of their lives: the Gulf of Mexico is their neighbor.

In fact, this last remaining inhabited barrier island in south Louisiana is experiencing such a high rate of relative sea level rise that it is the only area in the continental U.S. where the definition of sea level needs to be readjusted not just every 20 years, as it is elsewhere, but every five years instead.

On average, the sea level gets adjusted about two inches every five years. As a result, you’d be hard pressed to find a house on this island that is built on a ground-level foundation.

Grand Isle may be an extreme example, but coastal communities all over the country are seeing some degree of sea-level rise. Hurricane Sandy in 2012, for instance, devastated parts of the East Coast and has prompted a number of calls for increased protection, whether in the form of sea walls or wetland restoration.

Louisiana, too, learned the hard way in 2005. People felt secure behind levees and what appeared to be large expanses of wetland between the Gulf of Mexico and their homes. Then Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the entire state coastline.

In the effort to help all coastal communities face such realities, lessons can be learned from Louisiana as it works to adapt and to mitigate flood risk. The overriding lesson is that there is no single solution that provides complete protection. Communities need to learn how to manage risk in multiple ways as they recognize there's no way to live along the coast risk free.

Restoration, protection linked

After 2005, the Louisiana State Legislature formed the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, or CPRA, to consolidate the largely separate efforts that had been going on in coastal restoration and hurricane protection. Until this time, coastal restoration had largely been thought of as something good for the ecosystem of fish and wildlife, while levees were necessary for community safety and economic development.

The creation of CPRA was a formal attempt to recognize what some had known for years – restoration of wetlands and protection of humans are linked.

There is no silver bullet that will bring absolute protection or resiliency to a community. So instead, the state adopted an approach put forward by John Lopez, a scientist with the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. Called the “multiple lines of defense,” this strategy promoted looking at ways that risk from storm surge could be mitigated in stages, starting with the restoration of barrier islands along the coast.

Other lines of defense to be considered included coastal wetlands, forested ridges of land, levee protection, floodwalls, elevated homes and ensuring the safety of evacuation routes.

Master plan informed by science, public input

Using this strategy as a backdrop, CPRA came up with a required master plan in 2007. Although general in nature, it did give a framework for action until the next plan was ready in 2012. The 2012 master plan is a 50-year, $50 billion outline of what science and computer modeling say can help stop land loss in 20 years and even see net growth after that.

Although based in science, the latest plan is also the result of community input, as well as stakeholder input from industries including fisheries and navigation, all raised during the planning process instead of once the report was completed. That helped the state gain approval of the plan in the state legislature, where it was not free of controversy.

When the plan was released for public review, for the first time it showed areas of the coast that were not going to get much protection. The reasons for this were not political, but rather the result of several factors: distance from the rivers that could deliver sediment to rebuild depleted areas, expanses of open water to contend with and a very soft sea floor that makes placement of structures impossible, as they would continue to sink almost as soon as construction stopped.

Houses in Louisiana’s southernmost communities are built on stilts for a reason, as evidenced in Cocodrie during Tropical Storm Bill in 2007.
                                           Photo: sleepyorange via Flickr

Louisiana’s master plan doesn’t just include wetland creation and levee building. It also includes a large amount of money to be spent on “non-structural” protections, such as the elevation of homes.

For some, the change toward more than just levees has been a completely different way of looking at risk reduction from storm surge. Even the term “risk reduction” is new, since before Hurricane Katrina, the term normally used was “levee protection.”

Important lessons can fade from memory

Protection, absolute protection, is not possible. That was a lesson learned from Hurricane Katrina. But like most lessons, it’s one that can slowly fade from memory.

The United States hasn’t been hit by a major hurricane of Category 3, 4 or 5 strength – one with wind speeds of 111 miles an hour or more – since 2005. This gap is unprecedented in the hurricane record. Previously, there were only two times where the United States went five straight years without a major hurricane landfall.

Complacency is an easy thing to fall into.Windell Curole, levee director for the South Lafourche Levee District, has long blamed it for why New Orleans and the surrounding area decided to focus efforts on solving rain-based flooding instead of hurricane protection.

The hurricanes that hit New Orleans in the1960s were similar to what happened in 2005, but years went by without any major storms and people forgot, he posits.

People all over south Louisiana forgot what their grandparents knew, he says. “In Louisiana, prior to World War II, homes were built elevated on the natural ridges adjacent to the bayou,” he wrote in a paper included on the levee district’s website. People constructed their homes on the high ground directly next to the bayou with the back of their property used for things like trapping, fishing or agriculture.

After World War II, conformity was the rule and people began wanting to have a regular house, meaning built on a ground-level foundation, which increased flood risks.

Keeping the conversation alive

Prior to Katrina, it seems many Louisiana residents forgot they lived in a region that would surely face storm-surge flooding again. And now, almost nine years after Katrina and Rita, there are signs that many New Orleans residents again are failing to recognize the risk in the Big Easy or just how close that open water is to their homes.

The technology and know-how to reduce risk from flooding or coastal hazards is available. The science is available too, even though there can always be more added to what can be done.

The real challenge is keeping that sense of urgency alive long enough to effect change. The political will to make change isn’t easy. People don’t like change. Once the storm damage is cleaned up and people are back to their normal lives, many people want to hold on to what is secure and what they knew before the disaster.

Pointing out risks, where there are hazards that are developing and possible solutions to mitigate those risks, helps keep that conversation alive.

Amy Wold is the environmental reporter at The Advocate newspaper in Baton Rouge, La. She is a graduate of Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA, and worked for two newspapers in the Northwest before moving to Louisiana in 2000. She’s covered numerous hurricanes, including Katrina, Gustav and Ike as well as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Part Two: Living in Harm's Way — Louisiana's Struggle Between Land and Sea

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2014. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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