At the height of the 2021 hurricane season in Louisiana, on Sunday August 29, a soft-spoken coastal ecologist named Bren Haase watched Hurricane Ida roar ashore with government and military officials gathered inside a central command at State Police headquarters in Baton Rouge.
“We were making sure equipment and people were out of harm’s way, coordinating pumps and other assets, and getting regular updates from our contact at the National Weather Service and trying to determine where the storm may come ashore,” says Haase. “We have been through this before but that doesn’t eliminate the anxiety and the stress. Every storm is different and you really don’t know what the storm is going to do until it hits.”
Ida ended up tying the record set by Hurricane Laura a year earlier as the strongest hurricane ever to hit Louisiana. As it passed, people outside Louisiana heard a lot about the threat to oil and gas platforms and refineries. They heard about the damaged electric grid that left New Orleans without power for days.
But then as now, as Louisiana enters another hurricane season, hoping it won’t bring the third straight year of monstrous storms, Haase was focused on the infrastructure he himself oversees—part of a $50 billion plan to save much of the state’s coastline from disappearing off the map.
The Louisiana Coastal Master Plan, as it’s called, is a moonshot bet, the state’s last best chance to slow the self-destruction caused by three centuries of human intervention in the environment. First, beginning in 1717, when the French built levees to protect New Orleans, came the channelization of the Mississippi River behind levees and dams. In preventing floods, it also starved the communities and wetlands of southern Louisiana of the rich, land-building river sediment that once kept the whole spongy region from naturally sinking into the Gulf. Next, in the 20th century, came the oil and gas industry, which sliced the wetlands to pieces with canals that provided the sea more paths to surge inland.
And now comes climate change, caused by burning coal, oil, and gas, which is raising sea level and intensifying hurricanes—and thus accelerating the loss of land to the sea. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that Louisiana’s coastal parishes lost more than 2,000 square miles of land between 1932 and 2016, an area larger than Delaware. The losses are most rapid, the USGS says, when a major hurricane hits, and a football field can be lost in minutes.
Haase directs the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, or CPRA, formed in 2005 in response to the damage done that year by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The agency draws money from state and federal sources, but it saw a $13 billion windfall from settlements after the 2010 BP oil spill.
It’s using that money to dredge sand offshore and pump it toward the coast to rebuild a network of disappearing barrier islands. It’s creating new coastal marshes with muds dredged from adjacent bay bottoms and populating them with native species. It’s strengthening levees across the state—but it also intends to engineer two large cuts in the levees along the Mississippi below New Orleans. The cuts would divert part of the flow of the river into a pair of bays that were once wetlands.
Those diversions, which could begin as early as 2024, are the most ambitious element of the coastal plan—and also the most controversial. The torrent of fresh water could cause more flooding and affect the livelihoods of saltwater fishers and oyster farmers in the bays. But the fresh mud from the mighty river is expected to rebuild tens of thousands of acres of coastal marshes, keeping the bays from becoming ocean.
In the 16 years since the CPRA kicked into gear, 60 miles of barrier islands and berms have been constructed, 365 miles of levees improved, and 54,903 acres of wetlands revived. These days, other U.S. states and cities are discussing ambitious coastal restoration plans too. But none has yet been able to move forward as Louisiana has. Even when the risks are real and communities whole-heartedly believe the science, bickering and infighting over just how to do it, or concerns about cost and pace has stifled resiliency projects across the country. Houston, Miami, and Boston have all considered plans for major storm barriers, but so far have not begun to execute them. The catastrophe of Superstorm Sandy in 2012 hasn’t been enough to galvanize New York.
“It’s been nine years since Sandy destroyed much of the coastal area of New York and New Jersey,” William Golden, a coastal ecologist at Stony Brook University, said last year. “And in those nine years since Sandy, there has been no regional plan to protect the people of New York and New Jersey from the next Sandy.”
But somehow Louisiana, a state with a notorious environmental record, occasionally the butt of jokes for its poor government services, has begun to carry out a monumental coastal restoration plan. In 2017 the plan was approved unanimously by the state’s legislature.
Katrina and Rita “concentrated people’s attention,” says David Muth of the National Wildlife Federation, who has served as an advisor to the plan for nearly a decade. “We knew the problem was literally existential and that we’d have only one chance.”
Some would call the chance of success slim. In 2020, a paper published in the journal Science Advances concluded that seas were rising and land subsiding fast enough in the Mississippi Delta that the remaining 5,800 square miles of Louisiana's coastal wetlands—most of the land south of Interstate 10—were probably doomed. “What it says is we’re screwed,” lead author Torbjörn Törnqvist, a Tulane University geologist, told the New Orleans Time-Picayune.
But coastal restoration could still slow the loss.
“Our coast is sinking and there is simply not enough money and not enough resources and not enough sediment to do everything we want to do to save it,” says Haase. “The coast from tomorrow is going to be different than the coast from today, so we have a choice to make. Do we allow those changes to dictate to us how and where we live, or do we try and manage them the best way possible and live on and enjoy our coast on into the future?”
"I don't want this place to be empty"
No one likes to be on the coast of Louisiana more than Albertine Kimble. She lives in a modest peach-colored home perched on 23-foot stilts in a patch of swampy forest in Plaquemines Parish, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, one of the most vulnerable places on a troubled coast. On a typical late summer day Kimble might be found stalking through the swamps collecting alligator eggs to sell to licensed ranchers, fishing the inshore for red and black drum, mounting a stuffed duck from a recent hunt, or preparing ice-cold glasses of sweet tea for guests in her treetop-level home. A strand of fairy lights made of shotgun shells decorates the living room. Her coffee table rests on an actual alligator head.
Life here takes resolve. Kimble lives outside the perimeter of barriers, floodgates, and levees that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built after Katrina to protect New Orleans and its suburbs. The relentless string of hurricanes over the past two decades helped flush thousands of inhabitants from Plaquemines Parish and repeatedly deluged Kimble’s own seemingly well-protected home. Its stilts were only 14 feet high when Katrina hit in 2005, and the 17-foot surge washed inside. She spent much of the following month in an airboat retrieving bodies that had floated out of cemeteries. Still, there was an aspect of the storm she celebrated.
“Water came over the levee in Katrina and put river sand in my mailbox,” Kimble says. “I was so happy because I knew it meant life.”
Plaquemines was built of silt, clay, and other sediment washed down creeks and rivers from Oklahoma to Ohio, Minnesota to Missouri, and carried seaward by the Mississippi. In its final 60 miles of meandering toward the Gulf, the river slowed and deposited sediment. Nowadays such material is trapped behind upriver dams or shot far out to sea by the levee-flanked river. The land, no longer replenished, has withered. On maps Plaquemines once resembled a handsome cauliflower; it now looks more like an emaciated string bean.
This is why Kimble has become one of the most ardent supporters of the Coastal Master Plan and its proposed pair of diversions along the river in Plaquemines. They would funnel muddy water through huge cuts in the levees into adjacent bays. The Mid-Breton diversion, on the east side of the Mississippi, could build almost 16,000 acres of new wetland over a 50-year period in Breton Sound, creating wildlife habitat and storm protection for New Orleans and other cities, at an estimated cost of $800 million. The Mid-Barataria diversion, on the west side, would divert up to 15 percent of the river at times of high flow, typically in winter and spring. It would create up to 30,000 acres of land in Barataria Bay over 50 years, at an estimated cost of $2 billion.
“Right now, we are letting our biggest asset go right out into the Gulf, and I see the end of Plaquemines Parish coming without utilizing the river and building these diversions,” says Kimble. “I want people to come back to Plaquemines. I don’t want this place to be empty.”
Nothing can build back land like the river itself, Haase says: “We believe we can use the power of that river to mimic the process that built southern Louisiana in the first place.” But rebuilding what once was inevitably means changing what’s there now.
The "sacrificial lambs"
The lower Mississippi used to be flanked on both sides by a wide belt of high ground, where the river’s regular floods piled rich natural levees. On this fertile land, plantations developed that relied on enslaved Black people. After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, many formerly enslaved people remained on the same land and formed vibrant communities.
One such place is Ironton, which lies on the Mississippi’s west bank, directly south of where the Mid-Barataria diversion would cut through it. A draft environmental impact statement released last year by the Corps of Engineers largely supported the diversion, but acknowledged that “construction impacts on minority and low-income populations could be disproportionately high and adverse for the population of Ironton.” The freshwater flowing into Barataria Bay would also alter a thriving saltwater ecosystem of dolphins, brown shrimp, and oysters, dramatically affecting the fishers—Black, white, and Indigenous—who depend on it.
“When we are sitting here with a dead fishery, and have a bunch of bills to pay, how are you going to mitigate those damages?” Kindra Arnesen, who runs a family fishing business, belted out at a public meeting the CPRA held in Plaquemines in June 2021. “There are grave sites that I’m concerned about,” added Tracy Riley, a retired U.S. Army Major and president of the Plaquemines Parish NAACP chapter.
Despite an open planning process and numerous public meetings, many people in such affected areas feel the Coastal Master Plan has excluded them. Around 20 miles downriver from Ironton and a mile and half west of the river, Grand Bayou Village sits on low marshy land that’s in the process of disappearing into Barataria Bay. A community of Indigenous fisher people, the Atakapa-Ishak/Chawasha, live here in homes reachable only by boat.
In hurricanes, they used to evacuate as a community, steering their boats into dead-end bayous, where they would lash them together and to trees on shore. But “with degradation of the wetlands it is getting harder and harder to find those safe places,” says tribe member Rosina Philippe. She says that after Hurricane Katrina struck Plaquemines, no government officials came to visit, and one parish leader later admitted he had forgotten her people were still there.
It is oversights like this, and a history of colonization going back more than 500 years, that have Philippe and her people skeptical about government projects to save the coast.
“There have been so many atrocities and so many injustices, not just against us but all Indigenous populations, and we are never considered to be a part of the culture, we’re always considered to be subservient,” says Philippe. She believes the Mid-Barataria diversion will further inundate her community—and the Corps’ environmental impact statement backs her up.
The impact statement “does identify that some communities south of the Mid-Barataria sediment diversion will experience increased water levels due to operating the project,” says CPRA spokesperson Therese Walker. “However, it’s important to note that these communities, which include Grand Bayou, are outside of levee flood protection, currently experience flooding, and will face similar threats of increased water levels in the future, with or without the Mid-Barataria sediment diversion, driven by sea level rise.”
On the east bank of the river in Brathwaite, less than five miles from the proposed site of the other diversion, the Mid-Breton, Reverend Michael Jiles of the Bethlehem Baptist Church says his community also feels like “the sacrificial lamb.”
“The talk is the diversion will cause greater floods here, but we’ll just have to deal with it,” he sighs. A once thriving community of Black oystermen, Brathwaite has already dwindled since the river itself cut through the levee ten years ago, flooding a rich oyster area with freshwater, Jiles says. A sign outside his church reads: “Pray About It, Pray Your Way Through It, Watch Jesus Fix It.”
This is one of the most difficult challenges facing the CPRA: Confronting a diverse coastline and knowing that some people will inevitably be harmed by the restoration, as many are helped.
“The resistance is not surprising,” says Haase. “What we are talking about is effecting change and that is a scary thing to all of us.” But “whether we do a project or not,” he goes on, “the coast will continue to change.”
When wetlands were in the way
For more than 80 years now, the main agent of change in this region has been the oil and gas industry. These days much of the most intensive drilling has moved offshore, or to the Haynesville Shale, a rich gas field in the northwestern part of the state. But between 1937 and 1977 more than 6,300 exploratory wells and 21,000 development wells were drilled in Louisiana’s eight southernmost parishes. Nearly all those wells were in wetlands or inland water bodies.
“Coastal wetlands were simply in the way,” writes Tulane University environmental law professor, Oliver Houck, in a 2015 history. Faced with soft squishy ground that could “swallow a drilling rig whole,” the industry chose to dredge canals through the wetlands along the entire coast. The result was a vast spiderweb of canals and infrastructure that has not only hastened the demise of the coast, but also now complicates CPRA’s restoration efforts.
In May 2020 the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that a CPRA restoration project on East Timbalier Island, a birding paradise in Terrebonne Bay visited in 1915 by President Theodore Roosevelt but later pocked with oil wells, would have to be abandoned. The island, home to a wildlife refuge, “has been so damaged by the oil industry,” the article said, “so tangled with forgotten pipelines, gouged by canals and pockmarked by oil wells, that the state has finally decided to cut its losses and end a decades-long effort to restore it.”
Nearby and more successfully, CPRA had spent millions of dollars trying to save 800 acres of beach and dune habitat on Caminada Headland, on the east side of Terrebonne Bay. The headland protects the important oil port of Port Fourchon, the hub for the offshore industry. The CPRA “does not actively enable the development or expansion of fossil fuels,” says Walker, its spokesperson. “However, we acknowledge the importance of maintaining our working coastline, which includes energy production.”
Through the taxes it pays and the BP oil spill settlement, the oil and gas industry has provided most of the funds so far for the restoration effort. Some environmental critics fault CPRA for its attention to the industry’s priorities.
Lieutenant General Russel Honoré, who served as commanding general of the U.S. First Army and famously helped restore order and dignity to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, now helps lead a grassroots environmental movement he calls the Green Army. He is highly skeptical of CPRA and the Master Plan, largely because he believes the oil and gas industry has too prominent a role in the agency’s decision-making.
“Say you want to control drugs,” Honoré says. “Do you invite the cartel to be on the planning board? Only in Louisiana.”
Yet the whole country has a stake in protecting Louisiana oil and gas, says Scott Eustis, an environmental activist whose grandfather drilled for oil in the wetlands. Now the community science director for Healthy Gulf, an advocacy group, Eustis says the CPRA deserves tremendous credit for fighting climate change head-on in a state where many people don’t even believe in it.
“It is the most Louisiana has ever done,” he says, “but at the same time it’s also way too little. CPRA has not reckoned with the need for racial justice, and they have not reckoned with Indigenous justice.”
On the other hand, Eustis goes on, “it is really much too simple to say the coastal restoration program is in service of the oil industry and that’s the only point. In Louisiana we have a lot of people who feel like the United States doesn’t care about us, so we have a lot of people who think that the only way the United States will support our coastal restoration project is if we can justify it by saying that it protects the oil and gas that flows through here. So, I think a lot of people in Louisiana see that loyalty to the oil industry pays off in D.C.”
Two steps forward
Eustis flew over the Louisiana coast after Ida hit last August. What he saw was remarkable, he says, and reflects well on CPRA’s work.
“All of the projects they built went through Ida just fine,” Eustis says, “and I think they could have knocked down that storm surge quite a bit.”
“As devastating as Ida’s impacts were,” says Walker, “Louisiana’s investments in coastal infrastructure since Katrina unquestionably saved countless lives and protected billions of dollars of property from damage by reducing the impact of storm surges on our coastal communities.”
She points to the 2016 CPRA restoration on Caminada Headland; it remained largely intact despite receiving a direct hit from Ida, as did nearby Trinity-East Island, completed a few months prior to the storm. Just to the east of Port Fourchon, however, Ida destroyed much of the barrier-island community of Grand Isle.
In May the National Weather Service forecast an above-average hurricane season in 2022, which would be the seventh above-average year in a row. In July CPRA announced the completion of its project to restore the other barrier islands in Terrebonne Bay, including one that had been caught in mid-restoration and badly damaged by Ida. A major program of repairs to Grand Isle is set to begin next month.
“We have always known hurricanes can set us back,” Haase said right after Ida hit. “Events like this only strengthen our resolve.” He’s working on the next update to the Coastal Master Plan, which is due in 2023. He’s focused on the next steps in a 50-year mission—a mission to hold onto as much as possible of the state south of Interstate-10. It may well be a moonshot for Louisiana, but it’s the only shot they’ve got.