The reality of coastal land loss in Louisiana is eye-opening - especially if you have memories of what it once was, as I do. Parents can no longer show their children the places they once lived and played because the land has eroded away.
People can no longer reside where they are subject to growing risks and dwindling opportunities. The magnitude of change that has occurred just in my lifetime demonstrates that the idea of “holding the line” on coastal land loss is not a viable option for Louisiana. The well-known boot shape of Louisiana is no more. We have lost our sole.
The question we now face is not whether to accept this change – the change is ongoing and we are living with this loss and the pain that it brings. The question is how do we adapt to minimise future losses and preserve our unique cultures, histories, and communities? This is the question we have the power to answer.
The need for adaptation is not unique to Louisiana. Communities around the globe are experiencing more extreme heat waves, more frequent flooding, more intense droughts, and stronger storms. Though it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of these challenges, we must remember that humans are highly adaptable. We have adapted to major geographic, economic, and cultural shifts over the course of human history. Now we need to muster our collective adaptability and apply it at a scale larger than ever before.
Planning for adaptation is critical. Adaptive measures that are hastily made or uncoordinated result in wasted resources and people being left behind. Louisiana has taken important steps towards planning for climate change and land loss. It is one of the first states in the US to have a Coastal Master Plan. The plan features cutting-edge science and engineering and is setting standards globally for a state-level response to coastal land loss and growing flood risks. However, for many Louisiana communities, more localised, human-centered planning efforts are also needed to help navigate the challenges ahead of them. The changes in climate combined with subsidence have already resulted in tremendous losses of land and livelihoods. Communities are realising that they are invested in infrastructure that no longer meets their needs and is increasingly expensive to maintain. Many find themselves dependent on revenue programmes that inadvertently incentivise short-sighted development decisions, ultimately increasing flood risk and financial liability.
Bold action and new frameworks are needed to address this complex set of challenges in a manner that respects the complex needs of people and communities. A flexible, learning-by-doing approach is required. Some of these innovations are already underway in Louisiana. Isle de Jean Charles, an island off the coast of Louisiana, is one of the first communities in the US to use a resettlement program to adapt to climate change impacts. Their story is one of dramatic environmental transformation, loss and survival, pain and endurance.
In the 1950s, Isle de Jean Charles encompassed more than 22,000 acres. Today, only 320 acres remain. Despite the loss of 98% of its land, the island is still home to a diverse population. Most are long-time residents. Many belong to native tribal communities, including the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe and the United Houma Nation. Residents have deep ties to the island--its history, culture, and natural environment.
Isle de Jean Charles residents are well-versed in adaptation. Nearly 200 years ago, they learned how to live in an area the state of Louisiana considered “uninhabitable swamp land.” The island was only accessible by boat until 1953, when Island Road was built, connecting it to the mainland. Today, the road is often underwater and the island is disappearing. Areas where residents fished, hunted, trapped, and farmed for generations are now open water.
The island population has declined in recent years, as residents have been displaced by hurricanes and the increasing inaccessibility of schools, jobs, and other essential services. The residents remaining on the island face difficult and painful decisions about their futures. Isle de Jean Charles is one of several places across the globe already facing dire impacts of climate change and coastal land loss. It is unique in the US as a test case for saving other communities facing similar crises. The challenge is to develop an approach that addresses the complexities of a disaster that is unfolding slowly over time, while also respecting the need to preserve culture, social ties, economic viability, and individual
Unlike resettlement efforts associated with acute disaster events such as floods or landslides in which a largely intact community is presented with the same challenges and choices at the same time, Isle de Jean Charles and other communities affected by climate change are experiencing a chronic disaster that breaks down communities gradually.
As the sea inches up and the land washes away, some members of the community will reach their breaking point sooner than others. Wealthier residents will have the ability to relocate early on, minimising their losses, while those with fewer resources are left with fewer choices. The result is a fragmented community and diminished population often comprised of the most vulnerable residents.
Another challenge for resettlement is developing a proactive strategy that respects residents’ need for autonomy and cultural and economic continuity. Rather than reacting to disaster--an expensive response to tragedy, proactive planning is a cost-effective approach that prevents tragedy. Considering the scale of climate change impacts, the proactive approach is essential--but it’s not easy.
Convincing someone to relocate when they have a few feet of water in their living room or when a landslide has demolished their home is hard enough, but convincing someone to uproot their life when the sun is shining and a nice sea breeze is blowing through their windows is even more difficult. What alternatives can we propose that will make leaving home make sense? What new narratives can we create about the future that offer hope for new beginnings?
As part of a multidisciplinary team led by the state and supported by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Louisiana-based Center for Planning Excellence (CPEX) is working to answer these questions. CPEX is helping to facilitate a structured retreat of the Isle de Jean Charles community 40 miles north to higher ground. The programme will serve as a global model, establishing a proactive relocation framework for assisting communities facing ongoing land loss and increasing flood risk. The goal of the resettlement programme is to provide residents the comprehensive support needed to resettle in a manner that not only greatly reduces their flood risk, but also sustains their cultural values, community ties, and economic well-being.
This is a difficult process for everyone involved—there are no easy answers. The resettlement is voluntary, and residents will decide for themselves whether to participate or not. Perhaps the most important element of the programme design is commitment to a deeply collaborative process that is continually shaped by residents’ expressed values and concerns.
For Isle de Jean Charles residents who choose to leave, the resettlement option is intended to provide a way for them to move with grace and dignity, leaving behind what they must and taking with them their rich cultural history. Some of what they value about their current way of life will be transferable to the new site, but some will be lost. As one islander stated, “I have never fished in fresh water; I have only fished in salt water.” What outsiders may not understand is that the difference is not incidental—it is everything. It is the food they eat, the living they earn, the knowledge and experiences they pass on to their children, the environment and ecosystem they know and love.
This long goodbye has many dimensions. It is amongst the first of many more. The stakes of this effort cannot be overstated. We are only just beginning to ask the right questions. The way we adapt to climate change impacts will have profound effects on the trajectory of humanity. We can survive — and even thrive. But we need residents, citizens, scientists, climatologists, sociologists, activists, planners, engineers – and most of all, leaders —from every part of the world to invest in this endeavor. Collectively, we must flip the script from fear of change and loss to hope for a well-planned future that we design together.
*Camille Manning-Broome is the Senior Vice-President of the Center for Planning Excellence (CPEX) based in Louisiana, USA. This article is part of a series the Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions (ASSAR) project – University of Cape Town has made available for publication through Mmegi