Sunday, May 26, 2024

LaRose: The start of hurricane season should intensify coastal rebuilding efforts

by BIZ Magazine

You probably don’t need a reminder that the 2023 hurricane season begins today, but you’re welcome if it somehow slipped your mind. Unless you have the luxury of spending the next five months at your mountain hideaway, you know the drill — plan, prepare and execute early enough to get out of town safely.

That early component is critical because, as Hurricanes Ida and Ian have shown over the past two years, storms intensify far more quickly these days. Adequate advance notice for an efficient evacuation and contraflow could well be a relic of the past.

This new reality is all the more harsher when you realize that Louisiana’s ongoing battle to save its vanishing coast might be a net loss in the long run. According to a recent report from Grist, even the unprecedented resources devoted to the state’s massive coastal restoration efforts won’t be enough to build wetlands at a pace that would offset what’s already gone — or will go in the coming years.  

“We can rebuild a piece of marsh, but in 30 years that may be the only piece of marsh there,” Stuart Brown, the main architect of Louisiana’s coastal rebuilding plan, told Grist reporter Jake Bittle.

The state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) estimates gains from rebuilding wetlands will be limited compared with the sheer scale of land loss. In the event Louisiana sees just over a foot of sea-level rise over the next 50 years, projects would only save about a third of the 1,100 square miles of coastline it expects to lose, according to the Grist report.

The picture grows worse with every inch of sea-level rise. At 2 feet over 50 years, Louisiana could only hold onto 10% of the 3,000 square miles lost.

Large-scale coastal protection projects, many in the works for decades, are finally being funded at a level to make appreciable progress. The Morganza to the Gulf Hurricane Protection System and the West Shore Lake Pontchartrain Hurricane Levee projects now have legs and will eventually offer some peace of mind to property owners who’ve endured repeated storm flooding.

But these investments will still leave many coastal communities unprotected. The town of Jean Lafitte in Jefferson Parish, for instance, regularly bears the brunt of storm surge when hurricanes target Louisiana. Yet it has been left out of massive federal allocations to help improve its storm resiliency. The CPRA has endorsed upgrades to the ring levee that surrounds the town, but the money needed to build it — $1.4 billion — won’t be available anytime soon.

Elsewhere, the state has moved to relocate Indigenous communities that lie outside of storm protection systems rather than continue to wage a losing fight against subsidence, regular coastal erosion and worsening storms. 

Compounding this gloomy outlook for Louisiana’s hurricane-prone areas is what appears to be the collective retreat of insurers who increasingly refuse to cover properties that are all but certain to see repeated storm impacts. Other coastal states report the same scenario with officials hard pressed to find solutions.

These aren’t just tourist destinations with seasonal appeal. Louisiana’s coast features critical energy infrastructure that powers a considerable portion of the nation. It’s also home to the state’s fruitful seafood industry. Major interstates and commerce-heavy waterways also stand vulnerable.

It’s clear there is no easy, cheap, quick or sweeping fix in store for our beleaguered coastline. But that shouldn’t deter us from doing what we can, such as embarking on the CPRA’s bold, recently approved $50 billion strategy.

The start of hurricane season should remind people well beyond our borders why Louisiana’s coast restoration efforts matter. It’s a scenario that could soon come to a town near you.

Greg LaRose is editor of Louisiana Illuminator and has covered news in Louisiana for more than three decades.

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