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Louisiana's master plan represents a strategic retreat from vulnerable areas

A fisherman leaves the dock at sunrise along Bayou Lacombe (John Snell) A fisherman leaves the dock at sunrise along Bayou Lacombe (John Snell)
LAFITTE, LA (WVUE) -

Gary Allen lost his home in the one-two punch of the 2005 hurricanes in the Jefferson Parish community of Jean Lafitte.

“A tornado or something hit it for Katrina,” Allen said. “Then, Rita come and flood everything. After the water went down, I came back. Wasn't nothing left."

Since 1932, scientists say Louisiana has shed 1,900 square miles of land - an area approaching the size of Delaware. Few places rival the land loss south of Lafitte in and around Barataria Bay, where islands, marsh and ridges once provided natural defenses against tropical storms and everyday tides.

"The problem is, you're building levees,” Allen said. “You gotta stop the water from coming in. That's the problem. If you could slow it down, you wouldn't get as much in here, you know what I'm saying?"

The state plans to slow down the water over the next 50 years by building levees and flood walls and by stitching back together some of those natural features. 

"This is so complex,” said R. King Milling, chairman of the America’s Wetland Foundation. “It's the largest, most complex civil works issue facing any state probably ever in this nation.”

While supporters of the master plan sometimes refer to it as the world’s most science-based environmental restoration project, not everyone along the coast wins.

“The thing that struck me is what's not there,” said Mark Davis, director of the Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy at Tulane University. “There’s not a promise to restore everything for everybody.”

Davis said the plan represents a recognition that, “We’re facing a wold of limitations and we're going to have to make some pretty tough decisions at the state, local and federal levels."

While the plan embraces ambitious efforts to restore or protect parts of coastal Louisiana, it also represents a strategic retreat from areas that cannot be saved.

“The choices are not going to be to save a town, but to save an area that has relationships and importance to relationships in another area,” Milling said.

Lafitte, for example, loses the hurricane protection levee - a feature of the 2012 plan which would have offered 100-year protection from tropical storm surge. Instead, the plan contains a $200 million tidal levee of only about half the height at 7.5 to 8 feet.

While the settlement from the 2010 Gulf oil spill provides about $9 billion to Louisiana over the next 15 years or so, the master plan is far from fully funded.

“I don’t want Lafitte, Crown Point and Barataria to be thought of as, it was a wonderful place to live, but it's not here anymore,” said Jean Lafitte Mayor Tim Kerner.

Kerner still hopes for a taller levee someday in the future, but points out the shorter levee would have generally protected the community over the last 30 years.

"From Hurricane Juan to now, we wouldn't had a drop of water in this area," he said.

The master plan is a concession to limited resources and limited time.

"We make no bones about it,” said Bren Haase, chief of the research division at the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “We're not able to restore our coast to a historic level of what the landscape looked like in the 1930s or the 1950s, or even the 1990s, for that matter."

Even after spending billions of dollars outlined in the master plan, CPRA staff members said the state would only slow the rate of land loss in the medium-level scenario for sea level rise.

"You're still losing somewhere on the order of 2,000 square miles (over the next 50 years),” Haase told a recent CPRA board meeting.  “So, there's still a significant amount of loss."

For some people in the most vulnerable areas, the solution could be to go up. The plan would elevate roughly 26,000 structures and provide voluntary buyouts to 2,400 homeowners in the most vulnerable areas. The state estimates that hundreds of homes in St. Tammany Parish, for example, could quality for future buyouts.

However, it has no specific funding for buyouts today.

"This is a really dire situation, and our goal is to do the most good for the most land area and the most people that we possibly can," Haase said. 

As for the suggestion that the plan paints a dark view, Haase calls it optimistic.

“I think, again, it's an honest plan.  It's not promising everything to everybody in an unrealistic manner."

Copyright 2017 WVUE. All rights reserved.

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