As a native New Orleanian, my entire life has been shaped by water. I was born in this city, whose culture and way of life are intricately connected to water and our natural coastal resources. My life with water continues as the Executive Director of the Water Collaborative. I work every day with partners across the city and the region to create and support solutions for everyone impacted by flood risks. We focus on equitable practices to sustainably live and thrive with water.
Like so many others, my family lost everything in Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in Louisiana on August 29, 2005, the day before my 16th birthday. Fast forward to 2020. We experienced the most active hurricane season on record, and that terrified many of us. The science tells us that storms are only going to get more intense with every passing year. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is, once again, predicting another above-average Atlantic hurricane season, which began June 1 and runs through November 30. Of the 13 to 20 predicted named storms, six to 10 could become hurricanes with three to five of those expected to be major hurricanes.
The Mississippi River built the delta on which we live and depend. It has shaped our culture and economy. But that same water is also threatening our livelihoods. Between sea-level rise, rapid land loss and the impending threat of storm surge, Louisiana’s distinctive coastal culture and its communities are at stake. Water impacts us all, and we have a responsibility to act now for a more sustainable future. Strategic water management and working with nature, both inside and outside the levees, is the best vehicle to address climate change, urban and economic development and environmental justice, simultaneously.
We need to do a better job of restoring and protecting our natural defenses, which are the wetlands that act as barriers for storm surge. And we need to recognize that Black, Indigenous and other communities of color are most at risk when the environment is threatened or damaged. Ironically, the same communities that are at risk have some of the best generational knowledge to help support the future of Louisiana’s delta and our long-term resilience.
Fortunately, there are several long-term coastal restoration projects underway, including the largest ecosystem restoration project in U.S. history and a game-changer for our land-loss crisis — the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion. This project will help restore the Barataria Basin by harnessing the natural power of the Mississippi River to divert over 300 million tons of sediment into rapidly vanishing wetlands. The diversion will restore the health of the entire ecosystem by building and maintaining thousands of acres to buffer our region from more intense hurricanes and sea level rise. Decades of research have led to this project, which will build more wetlands than any other individual restoration project in history. It is exactly the scale of project we need to address the very serious challenges we face.
As an organization, the Water Collaborative’s focus has always been on the health and wellbeing of people, communities and those who live off the lush Louisiana land. Historically, our work has centered on urban water infrastructure, but the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion is a giant leap forward for all water infrastructure as we un-engineer centuries of trauma imposed on our land and our people. Projects like these not only reduce flooding and storm surge, they heal and create new pathways for true resilience. They are rooted in our ability to prevent and change with our land. These projects also help us thrive and see a future that creates much-needed flood buffers, jobs, economies, and, most importantly, spaces for justice and equity to flourish without relinquishing our autonomy.
We must act on this opportunity to protect our coastal communities — which includes New Orleans — and our way of life. Last year’s record-breaking hurricane season and this year’s above-average forecast are reminders that this is the moment to get involved and help shape a more resilient future for our city and state, a future that uses water to our advantage.
The water isn’t going anywhere. We must all learn to live and work with it. And we must learn to harness its power to build and sustain wetlands that will protect us for generations to come.
Jessica Dandridge is the Executive Director of The Water Collaborative of Greater New Orleans.
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