After two years of planning, Louisiana’s Office of Community Development has decided how the state will spend a $40 million federal grant for coastal resiliency.
On Friday, Governor John Bel Edwards announced 10 new coastal resiliency projects in the six coastal parishes hit hardest by Hurricane Isaac in 2012: St. Tammany, Jefferson, Lafourche, Plaquemines, St. John the Baptist and Terrebonne.
The announcement is the culmination of a community-driven planning process that included 71 meetings with more than 3,000 Louisiana residents. It was not without moments of misunderstanding and political pushback.
The 10 final choices were narrowed down from dozens of options, and include stormwater management, affordable elevated housing, a voluntary buyout program, and a mental health and substance abuse facility to deal with the stress of repetitive natural disasters. Edwards said 2022 was the deadline for completion of the projects.
“Now is the time to start thinking innovatively about how to address the needs of our communities in an age of heightened flood risk,” Edwards said. “That’s what this is about.”
The projects are part of a statewide program called LA SAFE (short for Louisiana’s Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments), a joint initiative of the Office of Community Development and the Foundation for Louisiana.
LA SAFE was created in 2016 when the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s National Disaster Resilience Competition awarded just over $92 million to Louisiana. About half the money went to relocating the residents of Isle de Jean Charles in Terrebonne Parish. The rest went to LA SAFE, with the goal of generating innovative, community-based strategies for increasing resilience and mitigating flood risks.
The program’s $40 million is dwarfed by Louisiana’s primary coastal resilience plan, the Coastal Restoration Master Plan, which Tulane researchers say will require $92 billion in funding. But the two have distinct purposes.
The Coastal Restoration Master Plan targets the health of Louisiana’s coast as a whole, focusing on environmental engineering to slow the rate of subsidence. LA SAFE seeks to help communities develop strategies to cope with the environmental changes caused by subsidence and climate change-induced sea level rise.
“While our coastal restoration master plan is the country’s preeminent effort to reduce future land loss and flood risk along the coast, LA SAFE has taken the next step to illuminate a path forward for how communities can develop future housing, economic, social, and transportation needs as the environment changes over time,” Edwards said.
As Louisiana has learned over the past couple of decades, water management is staggeringly expensive. The state looks to LA SAFE’s relatively modest funding as an opportunity to develop blueprints that can be implemented by additional communities if and when more money is available.
“It is a model for the hard work of keeping communities safe and making them more resilient,” said Flozell Daniels, president of the Foundation for Louisiana. “This work is a reminder that here in Louisiana, we are just one of a number of communities around the world learning how to live with water. We sit in a leadership position.”
Louisiana is losing land the size of a football field every 100 minutes, according to the United States Geological Survey. And scientists say there is no longer hope that river diversions and other measures can build land faster than it is being swallowed by the Gulf. Even in a best-case scenario, with the Coastal Master Plan fully funded and 100 percent successful, cities and towns in Southern Louisiana are going to see devastating changes.
Communities will need to plan and prepare for more flooding and stronger storm surges and these projects are the trial balloons.
Projects vary widely across six parishes
Plaquemines, Jefferson, Terrebonne, and Lafourche parishes will each receive two projects, while St. Tammany and St. John get one each.
A “harbor of refuge” will be built where commercial and recreational fishermen can dock and protect their boats during a storm. ‘
The Plaquemines Medical Center will get $6 million to help bolster its mental health and substance-abuse programing. “These services will help disadvantaged populations living in at-risk, low-lying communities work through the emotional impacts of past disaster events and future increased flood risk,” LA SAFE’s proposal says.
The Gretna Resilience District Kickstart project will bolster stormwater management in a frequently flooded area of the city while simultaneously creating new recreational amenities. Improvements will help Gretna City Park and the 25th Street Canal retain more water during flooding events and provide new green spaces when it’s dry.
LA SAFE will also construct the Louisiana Wetlands Education Center. “The Center will promote preservation, conservation, and adaptation related to wetland ecosystems, using its location in the Lafitte area as an outdoor classroom,” LA SAFE’s proposal says.
The Emerging Industry Business Incubator will help people start new businesses, with an emphasis on alternative energy, coastal restoration, and eco-tourism.
“This is one of the real advantages we’re being offered by our experience here,” Edwards said at the Friday announcement. “We’re going to develop more expertise and more experience in how to live with water in a changing environment than anywhere else in the country… it will become an exportable commodity.”
The second project in LaFourche is the Resilient Housing Prototype. LA SAFE hopes it can be a model for new housing in northern, dryer communities that need to prepare for an influx of residents as people retreat from more vulnerable areas near the coast. The new development will feature clean-energy practices and incorporate smart stormwater management. Roughly half the units will be at market rate while the rest while be affordable for residents earning between 20 percent and 50 percent of the area’s median income.
One of the most controversial elements of coastal planning has been relocation. But LA SAFE is trying a model of optional buyouts for homeowners living outside of the Morganza to the Gulf levee system. LA SAFE says the initial project would involve only about seven households.
LA SAFE will also launch the Lake Boudreaux Living Mitigation project, which seeks to create 300 acres of terraces and marshland. This will help reduce storm surges before they reach the parish’s population centers.
The Safe Haven Blue-Green Campus and Trails project will develop stormwater management techniques to help divert flooding from a mental health facility near Mandeville. Techniques will include diverting “stormwater into existing forested land within critical drainage areas for detention benefits, while discouraging future development in these areas.”
It’s unclear exactly how LA SAFE plans to discourage new development.
The Airline and Main Complete Streets project has dual goals: help reduce traffic congestion and flooding in LaPlace. The goal of this project is to explore how stormwater management strategies can be incorporated into public infrastructure projects.
Michael Isaac Stein is a journalist based in New Orleans. He covers criminal justice and climate-related issues.