Tales from the Cab — Risk & Restoration in SE Louisiana

June 4, 2013

Lower 9th Ward, New Orleans, post-Hurricane Katrina. Image: Prince Roy/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Last week, I met with some of the leading minds in conservation, re-insurance, and engineering (including from the US Army Corps of Engineers, Deltares, Munich Re, CH2MHILL and the World Bank) to talk about the role of natural defenses — such as wetlands — in reducing risks to people from coastal and riverine flooding.

But one of my most comprehensive conversations on coastal hazards came with my cab driver, Emmanuel, on the way to New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong Airport. I was blown away by Emmanuel’s perspectives on the role wetlands used to play in southeast Louisiana; his enthusiasm for restoring them (using funds from the RESTORE Act and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill fines); and his deep first-hand knowledge of insurance and federal policy regarding flooding.

Emmanuel lives just west of New Orleans. He’s had damage to his home from multiple hurricanes; he replaced his roof after Katrina and got a payout pretty quick after Isaac.

While he argues that insurers are “just in it to make money,” he thinks that Allstate has treated him pretty well — responding quickly and making needed payouts. He knows exactly how his property has been re-zoned by FEMA — he’s actually in a less risky zone because the levees have been strengthened near his house. And he raised his home by three feet in an effort to avoid further flood damage.

But Emmanuel still wonders why his insurance has gone from $900 to $1,300/year in the past few years. He appreciates that all American taxpayers have been subsidizing and thus lowering the insurance rates for the people who live on coasts in risky areas, but removing those subsidies still hurts him.

He’s says he’s seen families nearly priced out of buying a new home because the insurance was set to increase 25-fold. (He told me that in the end these families got a variance and their rates did not increase too much. Of course, that means that we’re still subsidizing those risks).

He was a math major in college and he thinks that when you can’t see the numbers that insurers can say how risky or expensive an area is without too much scrutiny — he called it “make up any numbers they want.” I might say that a lack of transparency breeds mistrust.

In fact, because of Katrina and Isaac, his house is in better shape (because of insurance payouts and levee investments) than it used to be. A silver lining for him — though he knows that a lot of people got hit hard by these storms, and there were no silver linings for many.

Then Emmanuel talked about the protective role of marshes for Louisiana. The water sure didn’t used to come up this far when we still had all those marshes, he said, adding: “Twenty years ago if a storm like Katrina would have hit, it wouldn’t have been so bad because of those coastal wetlands.” He was incredibly passionate about the loss of the state’s marshes — and he wanted to know what it would take to restore them.

We talked a lot about the massive effort needed to re-route the sediments from the Mississippi River so that the soil from the Midwest feeds those marshes (instead of artificially spilling offshore) and they can start to rise again. We talked about how, when rivers are left more intact — as with the Atchafalaya Basin — that marshes will grow and provide protection even against sea level rise.

And as the ride ended and we drew up to the airport, we agreed that the RESTORE Act and the fines from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restore those marsh and oyster reef ecosystems — and provide one more line of defense between Emmanuel and the water that will come again.

Storm clouds (and oil plumes) can sometimes have silver linings. If Emmanuel is any gauge, the people of the Gulf Coast might be ready to take advantage of them.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

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