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Confronting Climate Change, Louisiana Shifts Toward Retreat

As coastal communities succumb to sea-level rise, managing population migration and decline has become a new focus in the state.
Coastal waters flow through deteriorating wetlands on August 25th, 2015, in Saint Bernard Parish, Louisiana.

Coastal waters flow through deteriorating wetlands on August 25th, 2015, in Saint Bernard Parish, Louisiana.

Louisiana's coastline is disappearing at a rapid rate: Every hour-and-a-half, the state sheds another football field's worth of land, the oft-repeated statistic goes. But it's not just land that coastal areas of the state are losing. Between 2000 and 2010, parishes that were hit hardest by storms saw massive decreases in population—St. Bernard Parish, just east of New Orleans, for one, lost 46 percent of its residents—leaving those who stay to make do with scarce job opportunities, neglected schools, and crumbling infrastructure.

In the face of rising sea levels, the state has begun to integrate a new strategy for confronting climate change: retreat. These first experiments in relocating those most vulnerable to climate change indicate the need for programs that incorporate retreat as one of a range of mitigation and adaptation strategies, ensuring that populations that remain aren't left without the resources to become resilient.

Earlier this month, the state's Office of Community Development and the non-profit Foundation for Louisiana released a widespread blueprint, Louisiana's Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (LA SAFE), that outlines the full consequence of the changes taking place on the coast and a range of possible tools with which to address them, but perhaps even more importantly, to accept them. Even if the state builds all of the levees, pumps, and floodgates outlined in this and previous plans, "complete protection is impossible," according to the 1,500-page document, which focuses on the six parishes surrounding New Orleans that were hardest hit by Hurricane Isaac in 2012. Some parts of the region, which sits at the marshy intersection of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, "will become uninhabitable, requiring resettlement."

The plan, developed through a year-long process in which 3,000 coastal residents participated, and funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), suggests a number of ways to move people out of harm's way: discouraging "permanent residential development" in high-risk areas while encouraging development in "receiving communities" for people fleeing the coast, expanding optional buyout programs, and developing and maintaining safe escape routes.

"The LA SAFE process was really the [state's] first direct engagement around retreat," says Steve Cochran, who leads the Environmental Defense Fund's coastal resiliency work. The state's other recent major climate strategy—a $50 billion plan to preserve and restore the coast—included "very little discussion of retreat in any fulsome way," Cochran says, instead focusing on infrastructure designed to keep as many areas habitable as possible.

There are, of course, numerous reasons to shy away from retreat. It's hardly a successful platform for politicians, and those at the local level tend to raise concerns about encouraging losses of people and property taxes. Residents fear abandoning their homes, communities, and ways of life and subsistence that depend on coastal environments. "It's hard to swallow when you say 'relocation,' regardless of the situation," says Arthur Johnson, chief executive officer of the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement & Development, a New Orleans-based non-profit focused on coastal rehabilitation. "There are a lot of factors involved—family, history, culture, heritage—that are different for each individual in the community."

But as the LA SAFE plan clearly elucidates, retreat is happening, with or without the state's help. The difference between the Louisiana coast today and the one envisioned by LA SAFE is who gets to move and how. "Those who move are often those with the financial means and social networks to do so," the report states. "While in many cases, lower-income populations—those most vulnerable to severe impacts when disasters occur—remain behind and in locations more prone to significant flood risks." Such a version of retreat doesn't just leave low-income populations vulnerable to storms, it leaves them vulnerable to the loss of jobs, services, and infrastructure that comes with population decline—especially when the part of the population in decline is in the highest tax bracket.

Avoiding such inequities of haphazard retreat requires not just managing the process of retreat, the report suggests, but managing the effects of it on those who stay behind. In addition to standard recommendations like elevating homes and improving stormwater management, the plan proposes shifting away from "volatile" industries like fishing, oil, and gas, instead providing job training in industries like ecotourism, coastal restoration, and renewable energy. It recommends expanding after-school programs to teach children about the region's environment and culture, and increasing mental-health services to address the psychological impacts of repeated disaster. Johnson says that introducing these various other options alongside the option of relocation during LA SAFE's community engagement process made it easier for residents to accept.

"In the past [relocation] was maybe only brought up when there was no other option," Johnson says. "But being a part of a series of palatable options made it more palatable than just saying 'you have to move or you're going to drown.'"


Managing retreat is increasingly on the table in other parts of the country too. In February, the Hawaiian Office of Planning released a report on the strategy, focused largely on the feasibility of large-scale buyouts, in which vulnerable properties are bought with government funds at fair market rate and then demolished—with the land often conserved from future development. A number of cities and towns across the country have employed similar programs in recent years: an AP analysis of data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and HUD last week showed that federal and local governments have spent more than $5 billion on buying tens of thousands of flood-prone properties over the past three decades.

So far, buyout programs, while expensive, have mostly been limited in scope, addressing a block at a time rather than full communities. Many disaster experts say that a broader and longer-term approach to retreat is necessary. "There's an ad hoc retreat happening in the world around us. In the aftermath of Katrina for example, a lot of people didn't go back, properties were abandoned," says Katharine Mach, a professor at Stanford University's Woods Institute for the Environment. She anticipates that, in many vulnerable areas, it's just a matter of time before the pressures toward retreat will mount from all directions. "If you can't afford insurance or get a mortgage, [that] could intersect with government nudges or explicit support for relocation."

Louisiana's adoption of retreat as a strategy to address land loss does not mean, though, that mass relocations are on the immediate horizon. "The state has made very clear we are not going into communities and forcing people to relocate," says Liz Williams Russell, the coastal community resilience director at Foundation for Louisiana, the non-profit that co-produced the report. "It was very important that that was not a message."

The risks of embracing such a message in Louisiana have already been made clear. In 2016, the state received funding from HUD to resettle the indigenous communities of Isle de Jean Charles, an island 80 miles southwest of New Orleans that has lost more than 98 percent of its land mass since 1955. After a years-long back and forth with the Office of Community Development, only half of the 40 families that were living on the island when the process started have begun the relocation process under the state's proposed $48 million plan, while some members of tribal leadership have publicly withdrawn themselves from the planning process, refusing to leave the island.

As the backlash from the Isle de Jean Charles relocation continues to unfold, the LA SAFE project is explicit in its rejection of a top-down approach to retreat. "What we've intended to do is kick off a long-term conversation that needs to happen in individual, respective communities. And ultimately the future of those communities needs to be left with folks on the ground," says Mathew Sanders, the resilience program and policy administrator for the Office of Community Development.

Community leaders involved with the process say that the approach was, overall, a success. "They put a lot of trust in us," says Colette Pichon Battle, executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, which works with black and indigenous communities on the frontline of climate change. "I think people were really surprised that it worked, because the processes prior have been so awful," she says, referring to the rebuilding and resiliency projects in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Ten major projects are already under way in the six parishes included in the plan that the plan's engineers hope will serve as replicable examples of tools for managing retreat. Only one of the projects explicitly embraces retreat—a voluntary buyout program in Terrebonne Parish. Beyond these projects the plan remains, for now, a series of suggestions, with implementation, particularly on the issue of retreat, unclear. "LA SAFE began to have that conversation," Cochran says. "But we're not there yet. It's a really hard conversation to have."