Lessons in resilience: Louisiana braces for Laura as it observes 15 years since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

Steve Cochran

As Louisiana and Texas prepare for Hurricane Laura to make landfall, our primary focus is on the safety of those in its path.

Laura will hit the Gulf Coast as we remember the destruction Hurricane Katrina brought fifteen years ago on August 29. One month later, Hurricane Rita devastated the area that Laura now threatens.

Like many of you, I watched in horror as the news broadcast images of my hometown of New Orleans under water and its residents stranded on rooftops. Katrina claimed the lives of nearly 2,000 people, flooded more than a million homes and caused $161 billion in damages. The storm displaced hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom never returned to places where they had lived their entire lives. Everyone here suffered, and as is too often the case, communities of color bore a disproportionate share of that suffering. For example, a Black homeowner was three times more likely to live in a flooded part of town after Hurricane Katrina.

While I won’t go into the extensive history of all the factors that contributed to Katrina’s destruction (Tulane professor Andy Horowitz has a new book, Katrina: A History, 1915-2015, that does that pretty well!), the loss of Louisiana’s wetlands greatly exacerbated the disaster.

Since the 1930’s, the state has lost 2,000 square miles of wetlands — equivalent to the size of Delaware — that once provided New Orleans with a vital buffer from storms. Louisiana could lose an additional 4,000 square miles in the next 50 years, making communities even more vulnerable.

The storms we face today and the anniversaries we observe are stark reminders of why we must restore and protect Louisiana’s coast with urgency. Louisiana has made significant progress since Katrina and Rita, and we must build on that progress before it’s too late.

1. Katrina was the wake-up call, and Louisiana listened.

Following Katrina and Rita, our state came together to not just recover, but to rebuild better before the next storm and to address our land loss crisis.

Policymakers created the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, a state agency charged with overseeing a unified approach to coastal protection and restoration. In 2007, the agency developed the Coastal Master Plan, a first-of-its-kind climate adaptation plan based in science and developed with public input, to identify and build projects that could better protect communities, infrastructure and wildlife. The plan, which is updated every six years to account for the latest science and modeling, has secured the support of Governors and legislators across both parties and delivered billions of dollars invested in vital coastal restoration and protection projects across the state. EDF has worked alongside nonprofit partners in Louisiana for more than a decade to advance large-scale coastal restoration projects from the plan, including sediment diversions that would reengage the Mississippi River to again build and maintain tens of thousands of acres of wetlands around New Orleans. These sediment diversions represent Louisiana’s best hope for maintaining a sustainable and productive delta for future generations and wildlife.

2. Louisiana has become a model for climate adaptation and resilience.

In addition to coastal restoration, Louisiana implemented an innovative program called LA SAFE (Louisiana's Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments) that engaged over 3,000 residents from its most vulnerable coastal communities to develop solutions for a more resilient future. This work resulted in $41 million dollars to community-based projects ranging from floodproofing homes, creating safe harbors for fishing boats and even relocating one neighborhood.

Recently, Governor John Bel Edwards signed two executive orders that truly demonstrate how far the state has come and how seriously it is taking its land loss and climate crises.

The first puts resilience at the heart of state government. Led by a newly appointed Chief Resilience Officer, state agencies from education to transportation and healthcare will develop strategic plans to build greater resilience within their department’s operations and strategies. The second order establishes a Climate Task Force charged with helping Louisiana achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The rate of sea level rise will literally determine which communities in Louisiana can survive, so the stakes couldn’t be higher. While Louisiana has lead on climate adaption and resilience planning, the state can now also provide a model for how to lead on climate mitigation as a traditionally energy-dependent state.

3. Louisiana can increase equity and economic opportunity through coastal investments.

Investments in coastal restoration and protection will protect lives, property and limit damages from storms. If done right, they can also build greater equity and economic opportunity for communities that need it the most. The Data Center’s Coastal Index demonstrated how the state’s growing water management sector is creating good paying jobs, even when more traditional sectors, like oil and gas, falter.

And a recent economic analysis found that construction of sediment diversions could create nearly 4,000 jobs and increase regional sales by $3 billion. It’s important that contractors do everything in their power to hire and source locally and that government apply appropriate pressure to ensure they do. Local community colleges have developed coastal programs and degrees to provide workforce development and training to meet the demand for these jobs. We can continue to grow that effort.

As Laura makes landfall in Louisiana, we are reminded that we must act with urgency to prepare for a future with more hurricanes and higher seas.

In Louisiana, that means working to create a smaller, but sustainable and bountiful delta and doing so in a way that is as just and equitable as possible. This is also true beyond Louisiana. Any state with a coastline should have a plan for how to confront a similar future, and many states from New Jersey to Florida are making significant strides on that front.

Nothing can take away the pain and loss that Katrina and Rita dealt our region. The storms forever changed us. We must remember that moment in our history, so we take the steps necessary to never repeat it.