LSU professor argues Louisiana's coastal plans will not protect residents from hurricanes

Coastal Retreat
Published: Mar. 2, 2017 at 10:40 AM CST|Updated: Mar. 2, 2017 at 12:51 PM CST
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(WVUE) - Polls have consistently showed Louisiana's plans for restoring its vanishing coastline enjoy widespread public support across the state.

However, an LSU law professor specializing in climate issues argues the Coastal Master Plan fails to protect communities in South Louisiana from future hurricanes.

"This is the same way people don't like to face illness, threats to their health," said Edward Richards of the LSU Climate Change Law and Policy Project, who believes it reflects a state of denial.  "It's bad news."

Like the 2012 version, the 2017 draft master plan spells out a $50 billion vision for restoring and protecting coastline, stitching back together barrier islands and marsh through dredging projects, protecting shorelines, and diverting sediment into the marsh.

Richards argues the plan fails to protect against storm surge from large hurricanes, "which is what most people are concerned about when they think let's spend money to restore the coast."

He points out a giant swath of south Louisiana has less than one foot of elevation.

"Most of Southern Louisiana could be under 9 feet of water in a category five hurricane."

Coastal advocates traditionally argue that every 2 1/2 miles of marsh knocks about one foot off the surge from a hurricane. See:

However, Richards points out, research from NOAA and others shows other factors influence the size of the surge in a given hurricane, including its winds, direction and duration.

The Gulf of Mexico, and the shape and shallow slope of the land make South Louisiana extremely vulnerable to surge, he said.

"They (coastal wetlands) really have remarkably little effect on surge when we're talking about country that's flat for tens of miles inland from the coast."

Yet, generations of families lived in coastal communities without experiencing catastrophic flooding.

"The problem is you're building levees, you gotta stop the water from coming in," said Gary Allen, a Jean Lafitte resident.  "If you could slow it down, you wouldn't get as much in here."

The Lafitte area, now more exposed as wetlands to the south have disappeared, has flooded half a dozen times since Hurricane Juan in 1985.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent roughly $14.5 billion dollars on the new Hurricane Risk Reduction System for metro New Orleans, including new flood walls, levees and gates.

Richards points out the local agencies now responsible for the new levees lack the means to adequately maintain them.

"That would be my number one priority for protection would be to spend the available money on protection in an area where we know we need protection."

The master plan is arguably the most detailed, science-based environmental restoration ever attempted, accounting for subsidence, sea level rise and other factors that will influence the coast in coming decades.

Planners openly concede they have no silver bullet, but argue the plan offers a future for a coast in crisis.

"We make no bones about it, we're not able to restore our coast to what it looked like in the 1930s or the 1950s or even the 1990s for that matter," said Bren Haase, head of planning for the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

Professor Richards argues rising seas will, over time, swamp new areas of land created under the plan.

"All of that is fundamentally denying the science that they've now put into the plan," Richards said.

Some geologists point out coastal marshes can, in effect, adapt to some climate change as they accrete vertically in response to sea-level rise and subsidence.

Plans to divert the river into the marsh have raised alarm bells among commercial fishermen and charter boat captains, many of whom fear fresh water will devastate salt water species.

"Even the plan's own science shows that they'll destroy wetlands for decades and maybe, ultimately, build wetlands," Richards said.

Supporters have argued that a failure to act would result in the complete collapse of the coastal estuaries that serve as nurseries for one of America's most lucrative fishing spots.  They point to areas such as Wax Lake south of Morgan City, where a man-made channel cut from the river in 1947 built a new delta even though it was never designed for that purpose.

Richards makes no apologies for disagreeing with the state's leading coastal scientists and questions the effect of river diversions on navigation.

"I think what's going to stop the river diversions is that whenever you divert water through a crevasse or other major diversion, you slow the flow and you create a sandbar in the river."

Louisiana will net about $9 billion over the next 15 years from settlements related to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

However, the state is tens of billions of dollars short of reaching the $50 billion goal.

Richards said Louisiana "is depending on the kindness of others" to fill in the gap at a time when the federal government is cutting back on discretionary domestic spending.

"They call it the 'Isle of denial' for good reason," Richards said.  "If you're going to live in New Orleans, if you're going to do research in New Orleans, you have to essentially buy into the notion that it's a special place that isn't reached by geology or climate change. It's a normal human reaction."

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