Rising optimism for sinking land? Stories from Louisiana

by Charlotte Rasche, Masters Candidate at KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Resilient Cities 2018 volunteer

How can a government take action if roughly every 100 minutes an area the size of football field is drowning?

In Louisiana, the coastal landmass is disappearing under water. An interplay of factors is contributing to this development, including natural sediment subsidence in the Mississippi river delta, rising sea levels and hurricanes. In addition, industrial development along the coast is modifying the natural hydrology and previous, unsustainable water management practices exacerbate land sinking.

In response to increasing land loss and flood risk in low lying areas, the Louisiana Office of Community Development – Disaster Recovery Unit (OCD-DRU) with a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is currently investing in two key efforts: LA SAFE – the Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments, a group of leaders and organizations committed to working with communities to take proactive steps towards mitigating and avoiding risk, and the resettlement of Isle de Jean Charles.

In the years to come, the people in coastal Louisiana are set to face further so-called “blue challenges”. Yet, at the Resilient Cities 2018 congress, Dakota Fisher, Resilience Program Analyst at the Louisiana OCD-DRU presented a hopeful perspective. He and his colleagues are determined to tackle these economic, social and cultural challenges.

It is now generally agreed that it is vital to reshape water management, as water is threatening homes and livelihoods. This task is being undertaken in Louisiana through various avenues. The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority oversees the Coastal Master Plan for the State of Louisiana that implements land restoration and structural risk reduction projects such as building more efficient levees.

From another perspective, the LA SAFE initiative aims to reshape water management through a human centered process. To successfully adapt to changing conditions and implement new projects, it is indispensable to have citizens on board. Citizen engagement and participatory development involves now more than 70 community meetings to ensure those who are affected have an active role in shaping their future.

As Rachelle Thomason, Coastal Community Resilience Program Associate at the Foundation for Louisiana explained, this is “a narrative-change project”. She is calling for a shift in the way that the people of Louisiana see water today – namely as a threat.

It is difficult to cultivate a sense of hope and agency among those who face the risk and reality of permanently losing their homes. While the LA SAFE project focuses on adaptation to live with water, the case of Isle de Jean Charles is a very different story. It is the first community-scale, climate change-induced resettlement project in US American history.

Over the course of less than three generations, 90 percent of the land has disappeared, and the remaining 10 percent will in the coming decades. This makes resettlement the only viable option.

This project is a unique one. Resettlement has happened, but it is the first attempt by the federal and state government to address climate change issues. It can be a model for future efforts – and is particularly challenging in a very conservative state where the prospect of the federal government leading a relocation is not a palatable concept. As Dakota Fisher explained, it makes the community engagement and relationship building process all the more critical. Local stakeholders need to be the ones to define their new community, and all ideas and concepts have to be taken into account.

The ongoing projects yield valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities of adaptation and relocation efforts – not only for the US state but for regions and cities around the world which are confronted with similar conditions and outlooks.

This blog post is based on the Louisiana adaptation: From mitigation to retreat session at Resilient Cities 2018.