Louisiana set to resettle thousands due to erosion threat

LOUISIANA • Louisiana is finalising a plan to move thousands of people from areas threatened by the rising Gulf of Mexico, effectively declaring uninhabitable a coastal area larger than Delaware.

A draft of the plan, the most aggressive response to climate-linked flooding in the United States, calls for prohibitions on building new homes in high-risk areas, buyouts of home owners who live there now, and hikes in taxes on those who won't leave.

Commercial development would still be allowed, but developers would need to put up bonds to pay for those buildings' eventual demolition.

"Not everybody is going to live where they are now and continue their way of life," said Mr Mathew Sanders, the state official in charge of the programme. "And that is an emotional, and terrible, reality to face."

The draft plan is part of a state initiative funded by the federal government to help Louisiana plan for the effects of coastal erosion.

That erosion is happening faster in Louisiana than anywhere in the US, due to a mix of rising seas and sinking land caused in part by oil and gas extraction.

State officials say they hope the programme, called Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments, or LA Safe, becomes a model for coastal areas around the country and the world threatened by climate change.

While the state has not come up with a cost estimate, the buyouts and resettlement could add up to billions of dollars. The federal grant for the initial phase cost US$40 million (S$54 million).

The idea hasn't gone over well with all the people it is supposed to help, some of whom want the government to do more to protect their communities instead of abandoning them.

"Are we doing every single damn thing we can? I don't think we are," 31-year-old Empire resident Richie Blink said.

Empire, a town 97km south of New Orleans on the bank of the Mississippi River, lost half its population after Hurricane Katrina, and now has fewer than 1,000 people.

The LA Safe programme defines as "high risk" land where, five decades from now, the expected depth of a 100-year flood will reach more than 1.83m.

According to state officials, 94 per cent of the land in Plaquemines Parish, which includes Empire, falls into that category.

Across the six coastal parishes covered by the programme, more than 59,000 people live in those high-risk areas.

The proposed buyouts and restrictions on future development would apply only to the parts of that land that are not protected by levees, and the state is not sure how many that may be.

Another town on the wrong side of the state's risk map is Leeville, a cluster of houses and trailer homes west of Empire that state officials say will soon be underwater.

"There's no way they can protect this," Mr Opie Griffin said, sweeping his hand out over what is left of the town, the bayou seeping in from all sides.

He had put his store up on stilts, perched almost 5m in the air, after Hurricane Gustav blew through in 2008. Now his carpark floods nearly every day. "Nothing I could do, except come to work on a boat."

But Mr Griffin is more worried about what's waiting for him somewhere else. "I'm almost 40. Do I want to start a whole new chapter in my life?" he asked.

"Where do you want me to go?"


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 24, 2017, with the headline 'Louisiana set to resettle thousands due to erosion threat'. Print Edition | Subscribe