Over and over, communities on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast see climate change in action: from record-breaking heat to devastating storms to saltwater intrusion creeping up the Mississippi River.

Now, a new map of long-term vulnerabilities proves what many Louisianans already know: this state is particularly endangered. In fact, Louisiana parishes make up half of the Top Ten list of the most vulnerable counties in the United States, according to the U.S. Climate Vulnerability Index

The Index’s findings last week followed on the heels of an important review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which found the Greenfield Grain Terminal would harm historic places in St. John the Baptist Parish – another conclusion that confirmed the hunches of longtime residents. 

When it comes to climate, St. John the Baptist Parish is the most vulnerable county in the country, according to the Climate Vulnerability Index. 

Iberville comes in second, with St. Landry Parish, Tangipahoa and Acadia taking fourth, sixth and seventh place, respectively. Counties from other Southern states – Kentucky, Texas and South Carolina – fill out the other half of the Top Ten.

The new database and mapping tool, developed by the Environmental Defense Fund and Texas A&M University, pinpoints which places in the nation are most vulnerable to climate change and explains why. For instance, census tracts in St. John Parish found that the parish’s climate vulnerability is driven by the health impacts of air pollution and economic disparity. 

To create the rankings, researchers analyzed more than 70,000 U.S. census tracts using 184 sets of publicly available data measuring different social, economic and health factors. These factors include baseline vulnerabilities that reduce community resilience, such as lower life expectancies and infant mortality, lack of access to healthcare, redlining — being barred for loans and services — in certain urban areas, crime and prison statistics, poor transportation and government communication. All of these indicators are affected by climate-change risks, such as increasing extreme weather events and projections of climate-related infectious disease.

Take St. John the Baptist Parish, which lies 30 miles upriver from New Orleans. Its concentration of industrial facilities, like that found on the East Bank’s “Cancer Alley,” increases St. John’s vulnerability, according to research published in Environment International, alongside the U.S. Climate Vulnerability Index online dashboard. 

The report connects everyday struggles to disasters, when those struggles are exacerbated. Before climate change is factored in, St. John residents are disadvantaged by the long-term impact of air pollution on their health. When a climate disaster occurs, residents of the parish are left most vulnerable in the state. This life-and-death vulnerability to extreme weather events is exacerbated by financial resources such as access to personal vehicles to flee disasters, access to health insurance and proximity to a hospital. 

The Index’s findings could help residents fight off industry across the Mississippi, in St. John’s West Bank, which remains agrarian, in part from disinvestment but more recently as a result of residents organizing and filing lawsuits to preserve their communities. 

Plus, the Index shows how climate change piles one more layer onto the layered harms of history: all the top-ranking places in the Climate Vulnerability Index are communities with longstanding, disproportionate burdens of environmental and health exposures, said Grace Tee Lewis, senior health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.

“Climate is magnifying those existing disparities,” Tee Lewis said. 

‘Maybe this will make people listen.’

The Banner sisters stand in their cafe in Wallace amid photographs of their ancestors. Photo by La’Shance Perry / The Lens

Last week, River Parishes residents shared the Climate Vulnerability Index results on social media and asked their followers to use the results to push for reforms.

“St. John the Baptist Parish ranks as most vulnerable to climate change,” reads a post from The Descendants Project on Instagram. Residents should “call upon policy leaders and industry alike to ensure the issues identified in the Index are addressed,” the nonprofit urged, in a statement to press.

The Descendants Project was founded in 2020 by twin sisters Jo and Joy Banner to protect their hometown of Wallace, a historically Black community on St. John’s West Bank that was founded shortly after the Civil War by a group of formerly enslaved Black soldiers returning from military service.

Joy Banner, who is now running for the District One seat on the St. John the Baptist Parish Council, said that she was both taken aback and relieved by the Index’s finding.

“It’s shocking, it’s frightening. But there is relief,” she said “The relief in it is that maybe this will make people listen. Maybe we will not be gaslit any longer. Maybe it will wake people up and we’ll see some real action to correct the vulnerabilities and take care of our community.”

The Descendants Project views the threat of industry as a threat to the village of Wallace and its history. The nonprofit has spent the last two years filing lawsuits and rallying residents to organize against the proposed Greenfield Grain Terminal.

Greenfield plans to build a massive, 222-acre grain-terminal complex in Wallace that would include more than 50 silos, at least one of which would be as tall as the Statue of Liberty. The elevator envisioned by Greenfield would be even taller, matching the height of the Superdome in New Orleans. 

Earlier this year, the Descendants Project organized a wildly popular petition, now totaling more than 13,000 signatures, demanding that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deny Greenfield’s permit. 

Late last month, the Corps confirmed their fears – that the project could harm the area – in an evaluation of historic places within St. John’s West Bank, even extending into St. James Parish.

Jo Banner read the conclusions and again called on the Corps to deny Greenfield’s permit. 

“We must not let Greenfield erase our community’s vital history,” she said. “Telling the story of our ancestors is vital to a true telling of the American story and bolsters the economic health of our community through heritage tourism.”  

The Army Corps’ historic review, released late last month, found that the project would “adversely impact” five distinct historic places on the West Bank, including Whitney Plantation, Evergreen Plantation, Oak Alley Plantation, the Willow Grove Cemetery and the proposed Great River Road Historic District, which consists of the villages of Wallace, Edgard and Lucy. 

It wasn’t always easy for Corps evaluators, said Chris Cody, associate general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who has watched for over a year as Greenfield has tried to undermine and exert outside pressure on the review process. 

As early as June 2022, the National Trust for Historic Preservation urged the Army Corps to deny the permit for the terminal. “Build this anywhere else, please,” Cody said. “Civilized countries don’t do projects like this next to resources like this.”

In a statement to The Lens about the Corps’ review, Greenfield Louisiana showed no willingness to back away from the project. “The findings allow Greenfield to begin the process of working to mitigate impacts, ensuring environmentally friendly economic development can coexist with cultural preservation,” the statement read.

In November, the review’s conclusions will be discussed in a meeting that will determine the next steps in the process, to avoid, minimize and mitigate the “adverse effects” identified in the review.

Greenfield’s construction could ruin the “setting” of historic sites

Jo and Joy Banner’s Fee-Fo-Lay Cafe in Wallace stands ahead of the Sunshine Bridge, an important Mississippi River crossing. Photo by La’Shance Perry / The Lens

Within the town of Edgard, the Corps determined the grain terminal would disturb the view of the Whitney Plantation, a nationally significant interpretation of slavery, and diminish the elements that make up the museum’s historic character – including the agricultural setting around the museum, the uninterrupted sugarcane fields, that convey the property’s significance.

The review outlined similar harms for the Evergreen Plantation, a national historic landmark that operates as a working sugarcane farm. Evergreen’s integrity would be affected by the Greenfield project’s construction, with its day and night-time lighting, noise, traffic and vibratory impacts, according to the review. Even once the grain terminal was complete, the review found, its operation would “greatly diminish the integrity of the property’s setting,” causing further economic hardships at Evergreen, which funds its maintenance and preservation in part by earnings from film and television production.

In the town of Vacherie, 10 miles upriver, lies another national historic landmark, Oak Alley Plantation, that the Corps found would be adversely impacted by construction-related traffic on the Great River Road, formally Louisiana Highway 18, which is the route that tourists take to visit Oak Alley and other parts of Great River Road’s heritage tourism economy, including Whitney Plantation.

Basically, the review found that Greenfield’s proposed terminal would diminish the idyllic setting of Great River Road and its historic sites, “which are defined by their relationship with the river.” Setting was most important to understanding the Great River Road, according to evaluators, who also noted the road is currently being considered as a possible National Historic Landmark District, a prestigious distinction.

For the proposed Great River Road Historic District, the Corps found that the grain terminal would directly affect the setting, feeling and integrity of the district and its three villages. 

The Corps’ narrative about the district also seemed sympathetic to the perceptions of residents who argue that any industrial encroachment would ruin this uninterrupted span of Great River Road. “The introduction of a large facility in the central section of the district will … detract from the agricultural character of the district,” the Corps review concluded.

Visual and vibratory impacts to a historic cemetery

A headstone within the Willow Grove Cemetery for Walter Taylor, who died aged 40 years on August 30, 1927. Photo by La’Shance Perry / The Lens

At the end of West 5th Street in Wallace stands the Willow Grove Cemetery, a small, community-run cemetery that has been active since at least 1919, the date of the earliest marked burial. It’s also likely that people were buried outside the boundaries of the small, historic burial grounds, pushing the cemetery’s probable timeline even further back, to at least 1890.

Historically, the Willow Grove Benevolent Society, an African American social aid and charitable organization, made sure its members had proper burials here and often paid for tomb construction, the Corps review found, noting that the burial ground was also associated with the history of slavery and the ancestry of formerly enslaved peoples in the Wallace area.

If the Greenfield project moved forward – 300 feet from the cemetery – the century-old peaceful cemetery would be forever changed, the Corps review found.

Specifically, the visual and vibratory impacts of the grain terminal would “alter the cemetery’s integrity of setting, materials and feeling, all important characteristics of the Willow Grove Cemetery.”

Joy Banner applauded that reinforcement of local sentiments. 

“To see it in black and white that the vibratory impacts are adversely affecting the remains of the community’s loved ones is especially disturbing,” Banner said. “There’s no way to mitigate that type of adverse impact.”