State planning for long-term stability and resilience | U.S. Green Building Council
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The Resilience Policy and Program Administrator for the state of Louisiana shares the strategies they are using to achieve long-term resilience.

Louisiana is a disaster-prone state. The state’s Office of Community Development (OCD) manages a federally funded long-term recovery portfolio that will soon exceed $17 billion, stemming from hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike, Isaac and two separate cloudburst flooding events affecting wide swaths of Louisiana in 2016.

Each of the state’s 64 “parishes”—our unique terminology for counties—has been under a flood-related major disaster declaration since 2005. In short, resilience is more than a technical term in Louisiana. It is a philosophy lived by our citizenry through repetitive disaster events and difficult, often tedious recovery experiences.

Through these experiences—and with the expectation that disaster events may occur with increasing frequency and intensity over time—Louisiana has learned the value of resilience planning at multiple scales, and has learned how the state can play a vital role in planning across jurisdictional lines for the long term. Moreover, Louisiana is a laboratory from which others can learn. With repetition comes experience, and with experience, expertise.

Pool technical expertise and resources for maximal impact

After hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, Louisiana passed legislation creating the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA). The authority was to work toward coastal flood risk reduction via structural interventions (e.g., levees, locks and pumps), wetland restoration projects and nonstructural programs (e.g., residential elevations and voluntary buyouts and commercial building-scale flood-proofing).

Beginning in 2007, and continuing on five-year intervals, CPRA has and will continue to release a Coastal Master Plan specifically envisioning restoration and risk-reduction programs and projects—and their expected benefits—at a coastwide scale and on a 50-year time horizon.

Last year, OCD launched a new initiative called Louisiana’s Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (LA SAFE), which uses modeling data developed for the state’s Coastal Master Plan and applies it to community development and resilience planning at parish and regional scales. Armed with an acute understanding of how the state expects its landform and surge flood risks to change over time, LA SAFE has started work in six initial parishes to begin developing an understanding of future demographic and economic shifts as the natural environment changes.

As people and communities react to future disaster events, housing needs will change, new transportation nodes will need to be built as others are rendered obsolete, new industrial opportunities (especially in the emerging water economy) will present themselves and social and cultural networks will evolve. LA SAFE is an initial effort to plan for those changes at multiple scales and across jurisdictional lines.

Think bigger with organization and coordination at the watershed scale

After the flood events of 2016, Louisiana reached another inflection point. We have come to more fully understand that the state’s risks and resilience challenges are not limited to storm surge and other flooding caused by tropical impacts, nor are risks limited to a coastal geography. Louisiana is prone to floods of all kinds—surge, riverine and flash. Accordingly, resilience-building plans and projects need to account for the full array of flood risks and must be developed statewide; the City of New Orleans’ Resilience Strategy is a good example.

OCD’s next significant initiative will be to develop modeling data around a more complete understanding of flood risks, followed by planning and project efforts across watersheds. This will require jurisdictions to coordinate among themselves, as well as across local communities, parishes, regions and the state. While the events Louisiana has faced in recent years have left indelible scars, they have also provided ample motivation to think and act at unprecedented scales and time horizons.

Language matters

While thinking and coordinating across jurisdictions and scales is vitally important, it is more important to remember that with all the experience and expertise gained in Louisiana, ultimately the focus must remain on creating better long-term opportunities for the state’s communities and people. One of the more ambitious efforts currently under way is to resettle the entire community of Isle de Jean Charles. The Island once encompassed more than 22,000 acres. Today, only 320 acres remain.

Through this resettlement, Louisiana has the opportunity to facilitate a structured retreat that is thoughtful, equitable and maximizes opportunities for past and current residents. Further, this work can also serve as a model for other states and communities facing similar challenges in establishing a proactive relocation framework to assist communities throughout the nation and across the globe facing ongoing land loss and increasing flood risk.

To contemplate something as deeply emotional as abandoning a generational home, relationships matter. Louisiana has emphasized building relationships with the Island’s residents and has prioritized self-determination in its development of the resettlement project. It takes time to speak with people, on porches and in living rooms—it is labor-intensive and taxing for practitioners and community members alike. However, through this process, a common language is developed, through which values, understanding and principles are established.

With a foundation in place, the state, its partners and the community itself can begin to realize both the long goodbye of losing an island, while also experiencing the rebirth of Isle de Jean Charles in a new, higher and safer upland home.