A Massive Levee System Saved New Orleans. Can Other Towns Be Helped?
LAROSE, La. — After Hurricane Katrina, an ambitious and expensive system of levees, walls, storm gates and pumps was installed around New Orleans to protect against the kind of flooding and horror that so deeply scarred the city, and the nation, in 2005. And when Hurricane Ida hit last week, exactly 16 years later, those hopes were largely fulfilled. The flooding was minimal.
But 60 miles away, in the small community of Larose, the situation was different. In William Lowe’s neighborhood, storm surge from Ida overtopped a modest levee maintained by the Lafourche Parish government near his elevated house, sending water from a nearby canal up over his floorboards. Days later, his neighborhood was still waterlogged, and he and his family were getting to and from the house by boat.
“You’ve got lives destroyed down here,” said Mr. Lowe, 49, choking back tears. “You go to the Dollar General, you’ve got people standing outside bawling, because they’ve got nothing.”
In the working-class bayou country south and west of New Orleans, local government officials have been trying for decades to secure federal funding for a system similar to the one in New Orleans, to little avail.
And as Ida moved north, bringing more death and destruction to places like New York City, advocates for the project in coastal Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes were left to wonder about its fate at a time when bigger and better-known places are ever-more-likely to be competing for storm protection funding.
As sea levels rise and a warming ocean brings more fearsome storms, the fight over hurricane protection in Southern Louisiana is only the latest example of a growing dilemma for the United States: which places to try to save, and how to decide.
Until recently, that question may have seemed like the plot of a dystopian movie, or at least a problem to leave for future generations. But as disasters become more severe, the cost of rebuilding has skyrocketed. Extreme weather has caused more than $450 billion in damage nationwide since 2005; the number of disasters causing more than $1 billion in damage reached 22 last year, a record.
The Government Accountability Office has warned those costs may be unsustainable. Yet the demand keeps increasing: When the Federal Emergency Management Agency introduced a new program to help cities and states prepare for disasters, the requests far outstripped the amount of money available.
The increasing frequency and severity of hurricanes poses another dilemma: Even if the money could be found for projects to protect places like Larose, are such efforts a good way to spend public money, especially as the need for climate resilience around the country is growing and coastlines disappear further every year?
“A lot of these places aren’t going to be around that much longer,” said Jesse Keenan, a professor at Tulane University who focuses on how to adapt to climate change. As worsening disasters push more people to leave those towns, he said, the number of people who stand to benefit from storm-protection systems declines, making those systems harder to justify.
“It’s going to be hard for a lot of those projects to pencil out,” Dr. Keenan said.
Officials in Louisiana, a state still suffering from the repeated drubbings meted out by last year’s record storm season, do not see it that way. They argue that investing now in projects like the one in Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes will save the federal government money in the long term by reducing the cost of cleanup, with fewer disaster relief claims filed by businesses and families, and fewer insurance claims under the National Flood Insurance Program.
It is a shift from a reactive stance to a proactive one, said Reggie Dupre, executive director of the Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District. Mr. Dupre said the government needed to shift its thinking fast on the Louisiana coast. Hurricane Ida devastated the buildings and infrastructure in his parish, mostly as a result of heavy wind. But if it had gone a few miles west, he said, the storm surge would have also taken many lives.
“We don’t want to wait,” Mr. Dupre said. “We don’t want to have body bags all over the place.”
The project, known as Morganza to the Gulf, is designed, advocates say, to protect 250,000 people against flooding. But unlike the New Orleans system, the Morganza system has yet to get significant federal money, despite first being approved by Congress in 1992. Local officials have already spent nearly $1 billion building portions of it, in anticipation that the federal government will eventually provide its promised $2 billion share of the cost.
The levee system received its first $12.5 million in federal funding this year after years of discussion over how much it would cost versus how many people it would benefit.
“I don’t really believe that people understand how many people live down there,” said State Representative Tanner Magee, who represents Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes.
He said people outside of the area also don’t understand how much of the nation’s oil — almost one-fifth — is refined in the state, much of it along the coast.
“It’s a working coast, it’s not like it’s some beach town in Florida,” Mr. Magee said.
Those who have been living for years without protection in Southern Louisiana have understood for a while that they are on the wrong side of the cost-benefit equation.
“It’s the same scenario year after year after year,” said Michael Jiles, a pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Plaquemines Parish and the former director of public services for the parish.
The locally funded levees are not enough to protect Mr. Jiles’s neighborhood and the surrounding areas, where residents see their homes flood again and again.
It is no mystery to Mr. Jiles why his neighborhood has not received the same protections as New Orleans to the north, or the neighboring parish of St. Bernard, which is protected by a flood wall.
“Population and economic power,” he said, adding that in his part of Plaquemines Parish, on the east side of the Mississippi River, many residents live below the poverty level.
Garret Graves, a Republican congressman from Louisiana, said the federal government’s approach to funding protection projects after Katrina was to “really focus on the population centers.” Most of Plaquemines lacked the population density to rank high on that scale.
And there was an incentive to protect New Orleans, Mr. Graves said. As residents decided whether to rebuild or move, the federal government approved the hurricane protection system as a way to persuade them to stay.
“The White House really felt an obligation to make it clear to people that there wasn’t going to be a Katrina Version 2,” Mr. Graves said. He said Ida might push the federal government to fund similar projects outside that system.
The contrast between the two Louisianas — inside and outside the protection system — is stark. Just after Hurricane Isaac in 2012, Mr. Jiles took a break from cleaning out his waterlogged house to stand on the levee separating Plaquemines, submerged in several feet of flood water, from neighboring St. Bernard Parish, which was dry.
Standing on the levee, Mr. Jiles recalled, he could “see both worlds.”
Without adequate protection, the community will not survive, Mr. Jiles said. People began leaving the area after Hurricane Katrina, promising to return if the levees were raised. With every storm, more people left.
“Gradually it’s going to be eliminated,” Mr. Jiles said.
The same is happening in other coastal parishes, said David Muth, director of gulf restoration at the National Wildlife Federation.
“The numbers speak for themselves: People are voting with their feet about where they want to live,” Mr. Muth said. The cycle is self-perpetuating: As more people leave, “it becomes harder and harder to justify massive investments in storm risk reduction,” he said.
‘We have to be realistic’
The state has acknowledged that not every community can be saved.
In 2016, officials began the process of relocating the residents of Isle de Jean Charles, a village in southern Terrebonne Parish that has lost most of its land to rising seas and erosion. Using a $48 million grant from the Obama administration, the state is building a new site for the village, called The New Isle, some 30 miles to the north.
The project is the first federally funded relocation project in response to climate change, and was designed to be a model for other communities to follow. The effort has not always gone smoothly. But the first residents could move in as soon as December, according to Marvin McGraw, a spokesman for the state.
And two years ago, Louisiana released a sweeping blueprint for its coastal communities, which envisioned the government paying some people who live outside federal levees to move further inland. That strategy also called for new investments in cities further from the coast, to better prepare those cities for an infusion of new residents.
“We have to be realistic about the current and future effects of coastal land loss and plan today to develop Louisiana’s next generation of communities,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said at the time.
Whether the right solution is building more protection or paying for people to move, the communities in coastal Louisiana deserve help, even if that assistance doesn’t meet strict cost-to-benefit ratios, said Andy Horowitz, a history professor at Tulane who wrote a book about Katrina.
“We might think instead about our values as a country,” Dr. Horowitz said. “We can build public works that protect people. We can support them in a humane way to move somewhere safer. Or we can leave them to suffer and die.”