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How can states build resilience to sea level rise? Look to Louisiana

Associated Press

According to a new report released last week from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), sea levels along the U.S. coastline are projected to rise by as much as a foot by 2050 — as much sea level rise in 30 years as was seen in the last century.

While these projections are alarming, the passage of last year’s bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure package afforded state governments a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get out ahead of this looming threat and invest in the future of their communities — not just through roads and bridges, but through projects that strengthen their natural infrastructure and build long-term resilience to climate change.

For vulnerable areas, these investments have been sorely needed: In 2021 alone the U.S. suffered a staggering 20 climate disasters that each cost at least $1 billion in damages, all together totaling $145 billion and resulting in the tragic loss of 688 lives. The most costly was Hurricane Ida, which caused $75 billion in damages and left a trail of destruction from Louisiana to New York. While Ida did cause serious damage, Louisiana’s years of careful planning and sound investments following the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 prevented something far worse, saving untold lives and billions of dollars in recovery costs.

As states grapple with how to invest in infrastructure while safeguarding communities against the intensifying impacts of storms and sea level rise, Louisiana’s successful resilience efforts stand as a proven template for the entire country.

Over the last several decades, Louisiana has felt the acute impacts of climate change on a scale that few other regions can comprehend. Even setting hurricanes aside, the state has long been hemorrhaging coastline at an alarming rate: a football field’s worth of land is lost every 100 minutes. The New Orleans East Land Bridge — a critical barrier protecting an estimated 1.5 million people from storm surges — is set to vanish in 50 years if nothing is done. Every square foot lost to the Gulf of Mexico means greater and greater risk to those who live in a hurricane’s path — and as intensifying storms continue to wear away at natural barriers, coastal communities are increasingly at the mercy of extreme weather.

In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, the Louisiana State Legislature recognized these mounting risks and with bipartisan support created the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), an ambitious new agency tasked with coordinating local, state, and federal efforts at coastal protection and restoration. To accomplish this mission, CPRA was charged with developing a Coastal Master Plan to guide its work, updating it every six years to account for the latest science and changing conditions.

As native Louisianans and coastal sciences experts who have both driven coastal resilience efforts at CPRA — one as a former senior scientist, the other as its current executive director — we have witnessed firsthand the horrific damage of hurricanes and storm surges.

We have also seen the tremendous potential for proactive investments in science-backed solutions to protect vulnerable populations, restore natural ecosystems and support long-term economic stability.

Since its creation in 2007, CPRA and its partners have dredged and pumped more than 164 million cubic yards of sediment to benefit 51,625 acres of coastal habitat, created 72 miles of coastal barrier islands and berms and improved 353 miles of levees.

Just last month, in an effort to shield more communities from increasingly intense hurricanes and sea level rise, the Louisiana CPRA committed $1.3 billion in its annual plan to critical coastal restoration and protection projects over the next year — the largest ever investment in coastal climate resilience by any state.

And other states are taking note and learning from Louisiana. Nearly 15 years after Louisiana’s legislature unanimously passed its first Coastal Master Plan, Florida, New Jersey and Virginia and other states have followed suit, releasing or working to release the first of their coastal resilience master plans. Continued learning from Louisiana is essential to ensuring these states have science-based and publicly-informed plans in place for implementation.

Central to these plans are solutions that leverage nature as a vital tool for building climate resilience in the form of so-called “natural infrastructure” projects like the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion project, which imitates the Mississippi River’s natural processes to build up protective coastal areas. Natural infrastructure initiatives like these are cost-effective, self-sustaining alternatives to traditionally engineered flood management — and benefit both ecosystems and coastal communities. Dredging projects like the Lake Borgne Marsh Creation Project can rebuild wetlands and barrier islands to provide a natural buffer to storms, all while restoring fish and wildlife habitats, providing jobs and economic opportunity and limiting the future costs of climate disasters.

At the federal level, key provisions in the infrastructure package earmark $47 billion to invest in climate resilience, which includes natural infrastructure. We know from FEMA that for every $1 invested before a disaster, $6 is saved in disaster recovery. By investing in similar nature-based solutions, guided by a science-based coastal resilience plan, states can fortify and rebuild coastlines in a way that is sustainable for both people and wildlife, all while saving billions of dollars in future damages.

Most importantly, these projects can extend a lifeline to towns and cities already struggling with the mounting costs of climate impacts.

The sobering reality of climate change is already here, and while we can’t entirely prevent its impacts, we do already have the knowledge and tools to protect ourselves. With stronger storms and intense floods becoming more and more frequent, we can’t afford to stand on the sidelines and allow our vulnerable communities to bear the consequences. Policymakers from coast to coast have a unique opportunity to learn from Louisiana’s hard-earned achievements and invest now in the long-term safety and resilience of their communities.

Bren Haase is executive director of Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA).

Natalie Snider is a former senior scientist at CPRA and current associate vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Tags Climate change adaptation climate resilience Louisiana Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Natural Disaster sea level rise

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