On a recent morning in Baton Rouge, a thousand miles from where Senate Democrats were jousting with Donald Trump’s nominee to run the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about whether humans are warming the planet, the future of U.S. climate policy was being crafted in a small room in the east wing of the Louisiana Capitol. The state’s 7,700-mile shoreline is disappearing at the fastest rate in the country. Officials had gathered to consider a method of deciding which communities to save—and which to abandon to the Gulf of Mexico.
Bren Haase, chief of planning for the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), was presenting his team’s updated Coastal Master Plan. Five years in the making and comprising 6,000 pages of text and appendices, the document details $50 billion in investments over five decades in ridges, barrier islands, and marsh creation. Tucked into the plan was a number whose significance surpasses all others: 14 feet, the height beyond which Haase’s agency has concluded homes couldn’t feasibly be elevated.
In areas where a so-called 100-year flood is expected to produce between 3 feet and 14 feet of water, the plan recommends paying for homes to be raised and communities preserved. In places where flood depths are expected to exceed that height, residents would be offered money to leave. “We’re trying to make the best decisions for the most people,” said Haase, adding that Louisiana’s strategy could become a model for other states. “The plan is really a framework to make those tough decisions.”
As Trump’s administration prepares to unravel federal policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions, state and local governments are trying increasingly aggressive steps to cope with the consequences of those emissions. In New Jersey, a state program offers residents in flood zones the pre-Hurricane Sandy value of their homes, turning the land into a buffer against the next storm. In Alaska, entire coastal towns are petitioning the federal government for money to move inland.
But nowhere is the rush to adapt to climate change more urgent than in Louisiana. Levees built in the aftermath of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 reduced inundations but also the deposit of sediment that had offset the gradual sinking of the marshlands—a process that accelerated with the expansion of the area’s oil and gas industry. Meanwhile, canals built to service the oil and gas wells let salt water penetrate deeper into the marshes, killing vegetation and speeding erosion. Since 1932, the state has lost 1,800 square miles of land, roughly equivalent to 80 Manhattans. On top of all that, Louisiana must contend with sea-level rise. If it does nothing, the state is expected to lose as much as 4,000 additional square miles of land in the next half-century. Its residents have no choice but to retreat from the coast; the question officials are trying to answer is where that retreat can be postponed and for how long.
The federal government announced last year that it would relocate the residents of Isle de Jean Charles, a town of some 25 families that’s lost 98 percent of its land, at a cost of $48 million—the first such project to be funded by Washington. If the plan Haase presented in Baton Rouge takes effect, Isle de Jean Charles will become the precursor to a much larger effort.
“My early, early ancestors were kicked out of France, the British kicked us out of Canada back in the 1750s, and now Mother Nature is threatening to kick our people out of south Louisiana,” says Reggie Dupre, a former state lawmaker who grew up near Isle de Jean Charles, adding, “I’m trying to buy two or three generations.” Dupre helped create the CPRA after Hurricane Katrina and runs the local agency that oversees levees.
Elsewhere in the state the end could come sooner. Near the top of the list is Plaquemines Parish. The towns that dot the ever-narrowing strip of land have fewer people than they used to. In the 2000 census, Empire had 2,211 residents. Then Katrina hit; by 2010, census takers recorded a population of only 993. Many homes are trailers perched on cinder blocks.
If Haase’s 14-foot threshold takes effect, Empire could get a lot smaller. Davie Shoring, a Louisiana company that elevates homes throughout the state, recently raised a home in Empire 24 feet off the ground—because the authorities said that was the height required to protect against floods. (“There’s nothing particular about 14 feet,” says Tom Haralson, the company’s director of sales and marketing—going higher just costs more.)
One of the people who stayed in Empire after Katrina is Richie Blink, who serves as Plaquemines community outreach coordinator for the Restore the Mississippi Delta Coalition, a grouping of conservation and environmental groups. He says area residents survive by hunting and fishing. “They’re not going to do well in a random suburb somewhere.” Still, like many interviewed, Blink broadly agreed with what the coastal authority is trying to do. “You can’t fight nature, and we shouldn’t continue to invest in areas that are not savable,” he says.
Others are defiant. Darilyn Demolle-Turner, a member of the parish school board, says her constituents got by without government help after Katrina, and they can do it again. “Resettlement and relocation, it’s not an option,” she says. “We’re not just giving up because they say that we have to.”
Louisiana hopes to fund the Coastal Master Plan’s $50 billion cost partly with funds from BP’s settlement following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. But that’s expected to cover less than 20 percent of the tab; some of the rest is expected to come from the state’s cut of oil and gas revenue as well as grant funding. That means much of the project will hinge on Congress.
The state’s best hope for getting Capitol Hill to pony up may be Republican Representative Garret Graves, whose district extends to the coast. Graves is uniquely qualified to explain to his colleagues what Haase’s agency does, because he served as its chairman until 2014. He says winning GOP support for climate adaptation might not be as hard as it sounds. What matters is how you ask the question. “There’s a lot of taint or stink that goes along with, ‘Hey, we need to make investments to adapt to climate change,’ ” he says. “Within the Republican Party especially, as soon as you utter those words, there’s probably a bias.”
So, instead, Graves has been trying to emphasize that preparing for stronger storms and sea-level rise is fiscally prudent. According to the coastal authority, its plan would prevent $150 billion worth of damage over the next 50 years. “Many members of Congress believe we can’t afford to come in and make these investments in adaptation in these coastal areas,” Graves says. “I would argue that we can’t afford not to.”
After Haase finished his presentation in Baton Rouge, he and his team drove to New Orleans, where they summarized the plan for 200 or so members of the public who had squeezed into an auditorium at the city’s port complex. After Haase finished, his colleagues passed around microphones. There was no shortage of takers.
The plan should prohibit wetland development, Haase was told. It should provide more assistance for low-income households; do a better job reflecting the views of communities of color; and incorporate more recent projections of sea-level rise. And the parking outside the meeting should have been free. (This last point enjoyed especially broad agreement.)
Interspersed among the complaints were concessions of collective responsibility, admissions that public choices have consequences. “We’re the cause of most of this destruction of our wetlands,” said Charles Mestayer, who retired from the Army Corps of Engineers in 2009. “Move the people back inland. We cannot win this battle.”
Finally, beneath the arguments, there was loss. Kenneth Ragas was born 73 years ago in a town called Buras, where his family harvested oysters and grew oranges. He studied chemical engineering at Louisiana State University, but dropped out in 1965 to help his parents get back on their feet after Hurricane Betsy. After Katrina, he moved to Algiers, a neighborhood on the south side of New Orleans, and stayed there. He wasn’t alone. The area around Buras had almost 5,000 people in 1960. By 2010, it had fewer than 1,000.
“I’ve lived through the destruction of the marshes,” Ragas said quietly into the microphone. “The people in Plaquemines Parish deserve better than they’re getting.”
The bottom line: Louisiana has drawn up a $50 billion plan to cope with climate change. The challenge will be getting Washington to help.