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Quick funds for recovery need to be combined with long term plans - David O'Byrne comments on storm Ida

Grand Isle, with houses  flooded in 2002. Photo.
Grand Isle (where Ida made landfall), when it was flooded by a previous hurricane in 2002.

LUCSUS researcher, David O’Byrne, who has done extensive research on coastal restoration in Louisiana, USA, comments in the wake of storm Ida. It was one of the strongest to hit the state in terms of wind-speed, and struck on the same day, 16 years later, as Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1800 people. 

So far, storm Ida has claimed over 40 lives in different parts of the USA, and left major destruction and power outages affecting more than a million in its wake. Communities like Grand Isle and LaPlace are completely devastated.

Judging on the impacts of the storm, what can you say about Louisiana’s restoration and protection efforts?

If you look back 16 years, a lot of progress has been made. Though the details of the devastation from Ida are still coming in and the recovery process is just getting underway, it appears that the impacts of Ida will not be as severe as with hurricane Katrina. This is in part due to the characteristics of the storm itself, which, though its wind speeds were higher, was a smaller storm that produced less storm surge. But it is also probably due to the improvements in protection systems, especially around the New Orleans area, which received $15 billion investment after Katrina. Nevertheless, because of the widespread nature of the wind damage, this will be a very painful and expensive storm to recover from.

When it comes to restoration there has been a lot of activity. There are now billions of dollars’ worth of projects underway to try to restore the wetlands, with sediment diversions being the most prominent example. But the land-loss that the state is trying to reverse has been going on for a long, long time, so it is very difficult to reverse, even if the state had progressed quicker. It is also unclear as to exactly how much protection wetlands provide in the face of storms like Ida, a lot depends on the character of the storm in question. Ida’s eye-wall (the strongest part of the storm) actually hit one of the largest beach and wetland restoration projects in the state, at Caminada Headland near Port Fourchon – the most important coastal oil port in the state. It will be interesting to see how this project held up.

When it comes to protection, more could have been done, and quicker, to fortify vulnerable areas. For example, some of the places that ended up flooding, where protection structures were over-topped, had already been identified as vulnerable and in need of improvement. But, as it is, the state has limited resources and improving infrastructure can be a long bureaucratic process. One also has to remember that Louisiana is one state out of 50 states in a federal system; it does not have the same capacity as the federal government to direct resources. 

President Biden has issued a major disaster declaration, and promised recovery funding. Can this promise make recovery quicker than in the case with say Katrina?

Federal funding is essential for any recovery process. It will certainly be needed after Ida and those worst affected should be prioritized, but the federal system is becoming strained. For example, the west part of Louisiana was hit by an equally powerful storm, Hurricane Laura, just one year ago, almost to the day, and they are still waiting to receive their federal assistance. Because New Orleans is a higher profile city – unfortunately for the people of south-west Louisiana – this might mean that things go faster for Ida recovery. These storms tend to be forgotten as soon as the name recedes from the headlines.

This raises serious questions about sustained recovery for communities in the area. According to the IPCC, powerful storms like this are becoming more frequent, they intensify quicker, and can be wetter and slower: all bad things for the hurricane prone parts of the U.S. If parts of the U.S are not to be in a permanent state of disaster recovery, some big changes are needed. There needs to be more money paid out, quicker, and targeted at those most in need. This needs to be combined with large-scale long-term plans to adapt to changing conditions. The U.S. is still a country with incredible wealth, but political spending priorities have not targeted these issues, while the economic system continues to re-distribute wealth upwards. 

There is a lot of talk about climate change forcing relocation in storm prone areas – do you think it will be possible to continue living along the coast in Louisiana in the future?

The issue of relocation is a very difficult and contentious one. Yet, relocation is already happening, with people migrating out of coastal zones. In the state’s current coastal management plan there is a program for voluntary buy-outs, where the state essentially buys houses from people who want to relocate from flood prone areas. But the value of these homes can be quite low, because of their flood-risk, which can make it harder for people to buy quality homes elsewhere. Another issue is that of who gets access to such schemes – we know it is harder for the elderly and the poor to access these kinds of programs and relocate. 

The state has also worked with targeted community relocation – the Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw community is in the process of relocating inland from their island home, which is nearly completely inundated. This has been a highly contentious process, where the priorities of the community, laid out in their own plans, have not been replicated as the state has taken over the process. It is difficult to move from your cultural home, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. At the moment, it seems that neither sufficient material resources nor adequate democratic institutions are in place to do it in a fair way and at the scale necessary. Ultimately, it will be a question of political struggle to win these changes and allow people to adapt to a changing and unpredictable climate securely and with dignity.