Growing Returns

Looking to history to fix Louisiana’s land loss crisis

Tyler Ortego reaches over the side of his boat and grabs the top of a wooden stake that protrudes just above the waterline. Lifting it high, he reveals a dark cluster of what looks like small rocks, attached to the stake’s muddy end.

“Oysters,” he says and smiles. Read More »

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Mississippi River flooding and Hurricane Barry could have inundated New Orleans. Here are four actions we need to take before that happens again.

The Bonnet Carré Spillway will finally close this week after two separate openings totaling an unprecedented 120 days. The spillway was built to protect New Orleans and surrounding parishes from Mississippi River flooding as part of the Mississippi River and Tributaries system designed after the Great Flood of 1927.

This comes on the heels of another first when, earlier this month, Hurricane Barry was the first tropical storm to make landfall while the Mississippi River was at flood stage. This one-two punch — tropical storm combined with high river — was previously only a nightmare scenario with the potential to send storm surge upriver, overtopping levees, inundating the city and surrounding region, and shutting down globally significant commerce.

Mercifully, that scenario did not occur—Barry shifted westward, river levels never reached projected heights and rainfall diminished. However, the river remains dangerously high into the thick of hurricane season. During Hurricane Katrina, storm surge in the river increased the water level by 13 feet, but the river was so low that it wasn’t a threat. The combination hurricane-river flood scenario could play out again – and next time we may not be so lucky.

Louisiana floods in three ways: 1.) From water flowing down the Mississippi and other rivers; 2.) From storm surge and rising seas from the Gulf of Mexico; 3.) From rainfall, now increasing in intensity and overwhelming existing drainage systems. With Barry, for the first time ever, we faced all three threats at once, and climate change will only compound them.

Going forward, we must learn to live with water. On the Mississippi River specifically, the current management system no longer meets the needs of the future. Here are four strategies to help us get there:   Read More »

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Attention Congress: Investing in nature can help our flood-ravaged nation

Call 2019 the year of the flood.

This spring large swaths of the nation experienced moderate to severe flooding – and the rain isn’t stopping. In California, record rainfall and snow persisted into May. In Louisiana, for the first time ever, the Army Corps of Engineers just released water through its Bonne-Carré spillway twice in a single year to avoid flooding. And hurricane season is just beginning.

Photo Credit: NOAA

The deluge of floods is hardly a coincidence.

Land-use changes and extreme weather driven by climate change are delivering a one-two punch that heightens flood risk. We’ve increased impervious surfaces – think asphalt and concrete – and at the same time we’ve removed wetlands, prairies and forests, which can absorb water and slow runoff. We’ve also built hard infrastructure such as bridges, urban and agriculture drainage networks, and even, ironically, flood “protection” projects that often alter watersheds, floodplains and stream hydrology and increase the severity of floods.

So how do we better protect critical infrastructure and communities in the face of increased flooding? Read More »

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Hurricane season is here. What past storms can tell us about reducing risk.

With the start of another Atlantic hurricane season, coastal residents from Texas to New York should hope for the best and prepare for the worst. While the current prediction is for a close-to-normal 2019, prior years have demonstrated that it only takes one storm to bring widespread devastation.

In 2018, Hurricane Michael became the first Category 5 storm to hit the continental U.S. since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Communities are still recovering from the unprecedented 2017 Atlantic Hurricane season, which caused $282 billion in damages, including $92.2 billion in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands from Maria and $128.8 billion from Harvey in Texas.

Through this devastation, we have learned several important lessons about how to better prepare for and react to storms to reduce damages and hasten recovery.    Read More »

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Three ways nature can help rebuild and protect communities following Cyclone Fani

My upbringing drew me to work in coastal hazards. Though I work on coastal resilience in Louisiana, I spent much time throughout my childhood and adult life in Odisha, a state with a 300-mile coastline along the Bay of Bengal. Odisha is part of the bay’s infamous cyclonic zone that stretches across the Bangladeshi lowlands, and its coastline has been subjected to devastating storms and floods intensified by the effects of global warming and sea level rise. Read More »

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Repeat opening of Bonnet Carré Spillway is a sign we need to manage rivers differently

Earlier this month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carré Spillway north of New Orleans for the second time this year to relieve pressure on the Mississippi River levees and protect communities in south Louisiana from catastrophic flooding.

It was the first time in the structure’s nearly century-old existence that it had been opened twice in the same year. When the Corps opened the spillway in February, it was the first opening in back-to-back years.

Corps Maj. Gen. Richard Kaiser recognized this unprecedented occurrence in response to the wettest period in 124 years, saying, “This is not business as usual.” What was designed as an emergency flood control system has increasingly become a default safety valve, as climate change and increased precipitation throughout the Mississippi River Valley only further stress the system.

This is a sign that we need to re-think how we manage our rivers and revisit operations of a system designed nearly a century ago. Read More »

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States are turning to data and interactive maps to help residents confront and manage flood risks

2019 has been an unprecedented year for flooding, even before the start of hurricane season. Despite the number of devastating hurricanes in recent years, a new University of Notre Dame study published in Climatic Change found that most coastal residents do not plan to take preventative action to reduce damages.

In addition to speeding up the recovery process, taking action before disaster strikes can help homeowners reduce damages, save money and even lives. For riverine floods, every dollar spent before a disaster saves $7 in property loss, business interruption and death.

So how can individuals, businesses and the public sector be incentivized to make proactive investments to reduce vulnerability before a disaster strikes? The first step is clearly understanding risks—now and in the future—and having concrete recommendations for how to mitigate them.

In the past, FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Rate Maps have been the source for this information; however, these probability-based maps have not resonated with most people as they rely on the obscure “100-year floodplain” concept. Being told you live in an area that has a 1 percent chance of flooding any given year does not inspire action, nor does it reflect the reality of a changing climate.

In recent years, states have stepped up with more robust tools that give residents a clearer depiction of risks and resources for how to reduce them. Three states stand out. Read More »

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Extreme wet weather in Louisiana and California highlights urgent need for newer, smarter strategies

Coauthored by Ann Hayden and Steve Cochran

It’s not often that communities in California and Louisiana face similar water challenges. California is better known for having too little water and Louisiana too much – both challenges exacerbated by climate change.

But record-setting wet winter weather led both states last week to release significant amounts of water from reservoirs and rivers to prevent flooding, underscoring the need for new approaches to build climate-resilient communities across the country. Read More »

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Immediate steps for North Carolina policymakers to reduce flood risks and build resilience

As the moment of crisis recedes in memory, it would be easy to shift our collective focus away from last year’s hurricanes. But we must remember that the work of rebuilding homes and livelihoods along the coast and across the coastal plain is really just beginning.

With two 500-year storms in a 23-month period, North Carolina policymakers and communities need to be better prepared for storms and flooding in the future.

In the aftermath of Hurricanes Florence and Michael, with rainfall totaling in the trillions of gallons, numerous recommendations were put forward to address the risks posed by flooding and extreme weather in North Carolina.

Those recommendations included targeted solutions such as clearing debris from rivers and streams that may address flooding in one community, but exacerbate it elsewhere. Others offered engineered approaches such as dams that can take decades to build, require state acquisition of private lands, and, once built, are fixed in place eliminating flexibility.

While some stream dredging or construction of levees in key locations may need to be part of a solution set, there are other immediate steps that we can take to reduce flood risks. Read More »

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Louisiana kids make a play for coastal comeback in Super Bowl ad

As millions of Americans prepare to watch the NFL’s season finale this weekend (despite most Saints fans boycotting it after an egregious “no call” in the Rams playoff game), a group of Louisiana children have been preparing an important message for state policymakers and election candidates – one that will air on local TV stations during Sunday’s big game.

The kids are using the ad to draw attention to a land loss crisis. Coastal Louisiana loses a football field of land to the Gulf of Mexico every 100 minutes because of the way the land and the Mississippi River have been managed, and now because of sea level rise.

Watch now, share with friends, and if you are from Louisiana, pledge your support for restoring the Louisiana coast at
RestoreTheCoast.org.
Read More »

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