• Journal
06.06.2019

Keeping Louisiana

How the state’s new climate adaptation plan changes everything.

Essay and Photographs: Virginia Hanusik

History has shown us that in a crisis, there will likely emerge an institution or individual that claims to be able to solve the problem single-handedly. In the era of climate change, a trend in “savior complex” thinking has dominated funding for resilience programs around the world.

Globally, the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program began in 2013 to connect urban centers with a shared knowledge network and tools to implement each city’s respective resilience strategy. In this case, resilience is defined as a city’s ability to bounce back from a disaster (both natural and man-made). From Bangkok to New Orleans, the program believed that philanthropy (from the wealth of an oil tycoon, nonetheless) was the answer to the climate crisis. In April, the foundation abruptly announced that it would be closing up shop on its resilience work by the end of the year (1). No savior there.

Salt Bayou Road, Slidell, Louisiana

Nationally, we have FEMA…and I don’t think many would consider them saviors considering their statement this year that their resources simply cannot keep up with the annual increase in damages from hurricanes, fires, and flooding (2).

Locally, in Louisiana, there is the Coastal Master Plan which was developed as a guide to sustain the coast by the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), the state agency in charge of managing the hundreds of engineering projects underway and projected throughout the state. Although needed, it was never guaranteed that the full implementation of the plan was achievable because of the price tag. The plan requires $50 billion in funding over 50 years, but even with the plan’s full implementation, it is likely the state will experience a net loss of land—and be faced with the increased coastal flood risk that comes from less land.

As the most flood prone state in the country, the connection between Louisiana’s culture and landscape cannot be separated. It is a deep and omnipresent relationship that stretches generations and has influenced the region’s economy, architecture, food, and pretty much everything else.

“As the most flood prone state in the country, the connection between Louisiana’s culture and landscape cannot be separated. It is a deep and omnipresent relationship that stretches generations and has influenced the region’s economy, architecture, food, and pretty much everything else.”

Lake Verret, Louisiana

It is because of this influence that the vast decimation of the coast is not just a physical environmental disaster, but also a cultural disaster. When land disappears it takes history and identity with it.

Like many coastal communities around the country, South Louisiana is experiencing an existential crisis as it reimagines a way to live with the landscape. Last month, the Office of Community Development along with the Foundation for Louisiana and other partners put forth a vision that would turn the state’s historical hardship, catastrophic flood risk, into a catalyst for economic growth, equity, and education.

Louisiana’s Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (LA SAFE) changes the way we think about development and provides not just a framework for imagining the future, but a toolkit for how to get there. The 204-page report outlines a grand strategy to protect coastal communities while simultaneously growing the economy and strengthening social equity.

“It is because of this influence that the vast decimation of the coast is not just a physical environmental disaster, but also a cultural disaster. When land disappears it takes history and identity with it.”

Lake Verret, Louisiana

I-10, Atchafalaya, Louisiana

Jourdan Avenue, New Orleans, Louisiana

The recommendations are summarized in 5 parts:

1. Manage Flooding and Subsidence
2. Plan for Safe and Affordable Development
3. Improve Mobility throughout the Region
4. Diversify Educational and Employment Opportunities to Strengthen the Regional Economy
5. Support Healthy Communities, Regional Culture, and Recreational Access to Nature

What makes this strategy so profound is that it provides options for communities and individuals, giving agency back to the people who have lived without it in high, moderate, and low risk areas. It’s a plan for equitable development that is more symbiotic with the natural world and accepts the fact that despite attempts to save as much land as possible, there will still be communities where relocation is the only option.

The story of poorer communities getting left behind after a disaster is not new. It’s a systemic outcome of a capitalist society where your geographic location, chosen for you by your income, makes you more vulnerable to environmental threats. In most cases, you contributed the least to the causes of these disasters, but you will certainly suffer the most and recover at the slowest rate (3). LA SAFE directly combats this injustice by calling out the historical trends in development that have left some communities more vulnerable to climate change than others.

Maybe it’s because the concept of climate change is so scary that we welcomed the savior institution that would fix all our problems. But the reality is that we have to save ourselves and do the work to make this new Louisiana (and every community impacted by climate change) an equitable place. While cities around the world are releasing their own resilience plans, there is no current standard for migrating millions of people away from the vulnerable areas close to water. The time has, unfortunately, passed for blue sky thinking. The urgency of the climate crisis demands bold, tangible plans for implementation immediately that brings communities to the table with the resources they currently possess.

Lake Verret, Louisiana

“The story of poorer communities getting left behind after a disaster is not new. It’s a systemic outcome of a capitalist society where your geographic location, chosen for you by your income, makes you more vulnerable to environmental threats.”

While LA SAFE isn’t a binding document, it does provide a holistic approach to all the moving parts Louisianians need to address in their continued fight against climate change. The region has the opportunity to lead the rest of the world and set an example by building an equitable adaptation network and realizing a new paradigm of living with the natural world.

Virginia Hanusik is an artist and writer whose work focuses on landscapes impacted by climate change. She has collaborated with designers, organizations, and state agencies in Louisiana and New York on climate adaptation strategies, and is currently working on a project about the architecture of coastal spaces throughout the United States. Her photographs of Louisiana have been exhibited internationally and featured in publications such as The Atlantic, Oxford American, Places Journal, and The Times-Picayune. You can find out more about her work on her website, read our interview with her, or follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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