Tulane researchers recently sought the answer to a question the coastal-restoration community usually avoids: What happens to people and towns if state fails in its efforts to prevent the Gulf of Mexico from swallowing southeastern Louisiana?

Their findings were not encouraging:

  • Even if the 50-year, $50 billion master plan works as intended, a large number of residents will be forced out of their homes by rising waters due to rising sea levels and sinking land.
  • Neither the state nor federal governments have begun studying how to help relocate or resettle families and businesses that will likely be displace.
  • The track record for such resettlements and relocation programs is dismal, as is public acceptance of their goals.
  • The need to relocate will fall most heavily on those least able to handle the crisis — disadvantaged minority communities living in areas with high flood risk.

The report, “Community Resettlement Prospects in Southeast Louisiana” by the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law & Policy, assumes communities that fall outside the protection of levees and floodwalls in the Master Plan for the Coast 2012 would eventually be forced to move. Southeast Louisiana, with an average elevation of 3 feet, is expected to experience up to 4.5 feet of sea level rise by 2100 because the delta that comprises it is sinking while the Gulf is rising.

The authors believe residents of this region will be part of a massive climate-driven migration despite the state’s coastal restoration and protection efforts.

“The mechanisms and plans in place for protecting coastal communities appear to be unsustainable, unfunded, unrealistic or insufficient,” they conclude.

In fact, the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority’s Master Plan concedes not all communities can be protected with levees and floodwalls. Instead, it proposes to spend $10 billion helping those outside such structural defenses adapt to rising flood risks with  “non-structural programs” such as elevating buildings and flood-proofing critical infrastructure.

But while the agency admits “voluntary relocation and acquisition measures” may become necessary, it doesn’t list which communities should be looking at those options. Instead, it offers only to “support citizens facing change and to handle disruptions with sensitive and fairness.”

The Tulane team said it simply looked at the maps forecasting sea level rise across the southeastern coast, then addressed the communities outside the levees and floodwalls.

The researchers said the history of forced migrations can be divided into two categories.

“Relocation” is the movement of individuals due to environmental hazards. The report points out this is already underway in southeast Louisiana as homeowners leave areas prone to hurricane damage and rising insurance costs.

“Resettlement” is the attempt to move entire communities – including small towns. And although the researchers point out resettlement is hard to do and seldom has been accomplished, it says that option likely “would be greatly preferred” in this region.

“People in this area have strong ties to place and community; the loss of either would be a tragedy,” it reports.

Yet the authors acknowledge elected officials – policy makers – shy away from initiating such discussions because their constituents’ love of place would make such efforts extremely unpopular.

The alternative is a piecemeal, voluntary migration as conditions worsen, insurance rates soar, and property values plummet. That might be what the future holds, given the nation’s practice of responding only to emergency events, rather than planning for forecast but slow-developing crisis.

“It is much easier to get assistance if there is an event, a sharp shock, like (Hurricane) Katrina,” said co-author Christopher Dalbom, program manager at the institute. “But sea level rise and subsidence is a slow creep.”

He said much of what’s being done is in reaction to specific events: “Houses that have seen severe repetitive loss are more likely to be bought out, maybe structural defenses increased.

“But on the anticipatory side, there’s not much that I am aware of.”

Bob Marshall

From 2013 to 2017, Bob Marshall covered environmental issues for The Lens, with a special focus on coastal restoration and wetlands. While at The Times-Picayune, his work chronicling the people, stories...