Locals face hard choices as Louisiana coast recedes
Southern Louisiana, a picturesque stretch of shadowy swamps and broad Mississippi River delta, lies in the bull's eye of rising waters, sinking land and coastal erosion, losing thousands of acres of wetlands to the encroaching Gulf of Mexico each year. Fishing channels widen as barrier islands disappear, and unremarkable rainstorms leave roads flooded. Withered, blackened cypress and oak trees, succumbing to an invasion of salt water, turn once lush land into eerie ghost forests.
Some 120,000 people live on the most vulnerable shrinking lowlands south of New Orleans, fishing for shrimp and crawfish, harvesting oysters or working in the shipyards, oil refineries and petrochemical plants along the river banks and Gulf shores. They face difficult decisions over whether to stay and fight, or flee their diminishing land - yet even getting their attention to the looming threats is no easy task. Warnings that Louisiana is losing more than 10,000 acres - equal to 10,000 American football fields - of wetlands each year are often met with skepticism, distrust and resignation.
"Most people, they're trying to live their life," said Richie Blink, who lives in Empire, a town on a skinny stretch of river delta laced with canals to the Gulf. "They're worried about putting food on the table within the next two weeks and not what's going to happen 50 years from now." Many work in the energy or commercial fishing industries, where depressed prices are costing jobs, he said.
Blink, 30, volunteers with LA SAFE (Louisiana's Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments), a $40 million project funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It is asking coastal residents how they would like to adapt to changes predicted in the next 10, 25 and 50 years. The delta that fans into the Gulf of Mexico, formed from silt carried by the Mississippi River, is subsiding and is no longer replenished by the powerful waterway. Instead, the river is lined by levees, or raised banks, that rush its water past the delta into the depths of the Gulf.
Maps of southern Louisiana a few decades ago show a boot of land, not unlike southern Italy, that is all but gone now. Deprived of silt and fresh water, and sliced by hundreds of miles of deeply dredged shipping channels, the shrinking wetlands are growing less effective as natural barriers to storm surges from hurricanes, putting the area at higher risk of devastation.
"It looks pretty out here, but a storm comes along and half the land leaves," said Nicky Alfonso, 52, a commercial fisherman docked at Pointe ‡ la Hache between the Gulf and a river levee. "We're not the scientists, but we see what's happening," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "We're losing land." Many low-lying coastal regions in the United States face erosion and rising sea level, linked to climate change, but the Mississippi delta is particularly vulnerable because it is sinking as well.
It is subsiding an average of 9 millimeters (0.35 inches) a year, 50 percent faster than had been thought two years ago, according to Tulane University geologists, who described the coast of Louisiana as one of the "most vulnerable" in the world.
"We are in a race against time in Louisiana," Governor John Bel Edwards said in March, announcing LA SAFE - which he said could become a national model for threatened communities. "A few of our most vulnerable coastal communities will need to contemplate resettlement over the next 50 years, while others are likely to experience population and economic contraction as a result of ongoing land loss and sea level rise," he said.
One such community is an Indian tribe on Louisiana's Isle de Jean Charles, in the process of relocating with $48 million in government funds after losing most of its land to the sea. At recent LA SAFE meetings, held in schools and church meeting rooms in parishes along the coast, residents tossed around ideas to adapt to the shifting landscape, from elevating houses to promoting local seafood or building public transport.
LA SAFE works alongside the state's Coastal Master Plan, a blueprint of more than 120 projects to fight coastal loss in the next 50 years. Fully funded, the plan would cost $50 billion. An initial LA SAFE meeting in Plaquemines Parish, home to some 23,000 people, drew a crowd of 139 inhabitants. But a follow-up meeting centered on the parish's east bank drew fewer than two dozen, and a meeting at its southern tip just nine. — Reuters