Lo­cals face hard choices as Louisiana coast re­cedes

Kuwait Times - - BUSINESS -

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

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