VX News: Your firm has been engaged in work related to resilience and adaptation in South Louisiana for some time. Given the extensive damage to that area from Hurricane Katrina, describe the nature and scope of your involvement, and the science supporting your work.
Steven Bingler: My firm, Concordia, was involved in the Katrina recovery. That was a single event. We’ve had many events since then, like Hurricanes Rita and Isaac. But now, the risk has gone beyond single events. The combination of land sinking—due to a number of factors, including the dredging of canals by oil companies—and sea levels rising, is creating a slower moving, but even more catastrophic event.
South Louisiana is one of the lowest topographies in the world. We are on the tip of the spear of sea-level rise. Vast expanses of land are right at or just above sea level, and a lot of communities are living in that low-lying landscape. With the projected levels of land subsidence and sea level rise, a lot of that area is going to be inundated. At this point, there is a lot of science around sea-level rise in South Louisiana. For the last 10 years, it’s been mostly about mitigating the rising water levels.
The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, a state agency, put out a coastal plan that has to be updated every five years, and an updated one is coming out this year.
The 2012 plan mostly called for mitigation strategies, including levees, marsh creation, and river diversions, which is about diverting silt coming down the Mississippi River out to the marshlands to build up land. The 2012 plan assumed that with all of these measures, there would be limited net land loss, and that we would somehow be able to mitigate the impacts of sea-level rise on the impacted communities.
The 2017 plan recalculates the actual sea-level rise with more updated information on ice melts and other factors, so now, the prediction has gone even higher.
The new plan also predicts an additional 2-4,000 square miles of land loss. That means that the mouth of the Mississippi River will move at least 35 miles north from Venice to Port Sulphur, and could even move all the way to Algiers, which is essentially the city of New Orleans. In 2100, the city of New Orleans—which is now 70 miles north of the Gulf—could be sitting on the Gulf of Mexico. In other words, what were the worst-case scenarios in the 2012 plan are now our best-case scenarios in the 2017 plan. We can no longer mitigate our way out of this situation.
VX News: If South Louisiana is no longer able to mitigate sea level rise, what‘s the fix?
Steven Bingler: We’re talking about adaptation. We have to acknowledge that we can’t fix this. Some 26,000 homes will be impacted, and in many cases we’re talking about some kind of retreat.
Mitigation and adaptation are two different solutions. The mitigation approach says, “We’re going to build enough levees, marshes and sediment diversions to actually stop this process.” Most of the people working on that are engaged with engineering projects designed to stop or contain the water. On the other hand, the people who are now gearing up to work on adaptation will include more urban planners, and social scientists, like cultural anthropologists, and sociologists.
It’s kind of like repotting a plant: You can’t just pull it up by the roots and jam it into the ground somewhere else. You have to take a big ball of dirt that includes all the minerals and nutrients that provide life to that plant along with it. But even when you do that, the chances of success are not as good as you’d like for them to be.
There are some close by examples where people have been forced to relocate—like in the 1930s, when whole villages had to be relocated for the Tennessee Valley Authority to inundate the land and create vast reservoirs—but not at the scale that is on the horizon in the next 50-75 years. It’s also important to note that scientists are not now prepared to make predicts after that time period—but to the extent that they can, the projections appear only to get worse, not better.
VX News: Given that Louisiana has not been politically inclined to embrace an environmental agenda, how are these latest scientific findings being received by the state’s political leaders? Is there consensus on an action and investment strategy?
Steven Bingler: Of the approximately $20.6 billion in non-state money currently on the table to fund these programs, a few billion came from the federal government, and the rest came from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement.
The Master Plan estimates that getting to the highest level of mitigation—though still not net-zero land loss—would take a $50-billion investment in today’s money. If you extend that over the next 30-50 years of implementation, it gets closer to $92 billion—and that’s just for South Louisiana.
Extrapolate that cost to Miami, or even Norfolk, Virginia, where some scientists have suggested that at some point in the 22nd Century, the Atlantic Ocean could be as far inland as Richmond. The World Bank recently predicted that the world impact of sea-level rise in this same timeframe could fall on 1.5 billion people, so the situation in South Louisiana is only the beginning of a series of slow-moving catastrophic events.
VX News: How has the information that South Louisiana is on the bleeding edge of a series of slow-moving catastrophic events translated into executive, legislative, or administrative action?
Steven Bingler: At this point, it’s still pretty new. It’s only now that there’s a paradigm-shift taking place from the assumption of mitigation to the reality of adaptation. For instance, the Coastal Restoration Protection Authority has been focusing most of its efforts on mitigation. Now we are also working with the state to develop a more comprehensive adaptation team.
The adaptation project we are currently working on was funded by HUD through Natural Disaster Resilience Competition grants, which were issued about a year ago. In the case of South Louisiana, the state’s Office of Community Development, Disaster Recovery Unit won a $93 million grant that is entirely focused on adaptation of coastal communities to erosion caused by rising sea levels and soil subsidence.
These are forward-thinking, risk-based approaches to adaptation that involve a lot of moving pieces and complex organizational skills over the long haul. Although we are serving as consultants, OCD-DRU Policy Manager Mat Sanders is managing both of these projects and he would be a great source of additional information.
VX News: Has the governor of Louisiana prioritized Southern Louisiana's adaptation challenge?
Steven Bingler: Yes. There are dozens of scientists working on it, which the state is paying for. The other evidence is that, for the $93-million HUD grant, our client is the State of Louisiana’s Office of Community Development.
VX News: What is the role of your firm, Concordia, in the adaptation effort?
Steven Bingler: Our role is to assist with engaging the community in this process and to help the process be more bottom-up.
There are a lot of people in the community who don’t want to hear this news, as you can imagine. There are a lot of people who, even when they hear the news, don’t believe it. We’re talking catastrophic change in some places—whole communities relocated. Nobody wants to hear that his or her community is going to relocate. You can imagine the dilemma. And you can imagine what a strain it puts on the political system: Are you going to be the mayor that tells your community that they’re going to be underwater in 50 years?
VX News: Make the case for why community engagement is so important to this work, and share your firm’s approach to it.
Steven Bingler: The reason it's important is that people's lives are now at stake. This is not a rezoning plan for affordable housing. This is not a new highway coming through your community. This is the relocation of everybody that you know and love. And it can be done in such a way that everybody just scrambles and goes wherever they can find a place, or it can be done in such a way that people can maintain their social integrity.
It’s still very early on in the game. Right now, we’re looking into the bottom-up components of this strategy. Of course, there are going to have to be some policy changes, and a lot more funding mechanisms will have to be found, to figure out how to do all this. But we can’t look only at how this work will be done from the top down. One of the highest risks is whether communities are going to be willing to accept this inevitable change. People don’t want to deal with these issues until their feet start getting wet. And South Louisiana is one of the first places where people’s feet are starting to getting wet.
VX News: What are the qualifications of Concordia to do this work?
Steven Bingler: We’ve been doing community engagement for more than 30 years, and we’ve built strategies for how to do it. Everywhere we’ve worked over the years—including in California —we’ve learned more about the delicate process of engaging communities so that their voices can be heard—so that everybody’s voice can be engaged, and you don’t have one guy standing up at the microphone speaking for everyone. Our process brings the community in.
The first part of our work in Louisiana was in Plaquemines Parish (a parish is like a county). We had funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Foundation for Louisiana to figure out a climate-change adaptation strategy for one parish to start, rather than working with all six parishes at once. We had community meetings throughout the parish in which we asked, “How would you like to be engaged in this work? What would be the best way for you to be involved?” And they said: “Plaquemines Parish is not just one thing; it’s multiple things. There are multiple regions within our parish.”
The wants and needs of people in the lower part of the parish, which borders on the Gulf of Mexico, are very different from those in the northern end of the parish, which borders the city of New Orleans. They’re different populations. They have different cultures, different backgrounds, different economic systems, and different needs. The community determined that there were five regions within their parish, and that there needed to be five planning processes happening simultaneously as well as the parish-wide planning process. And that’s how we’re doing it—the way they told us to do it.
VX News: Lastly, what are the lessons from this work for jurisdictions on the west coast of the Pacific?
Steven Bingler: There’s a really important lesson, which is: Start now. We are at least 75-100 years behind in planning for the catastrophic level of change that is about to happen, not only in our state, but also in our country and all around the world. Sea-level rise is a slow-moving hurricane. The devastation is predictable, and we could plan for it if we decided to. Whether we will decide to is the question.
There is a tool with maps that have been developed by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association that show the levels of inundation for many of the major the cities in the nation. Go check out that website and see where your own city, or your own house is. See what Long Beach and San Pedro will look like in 2100, and start planning for that.