Louisiana spends heavily on building wetlands and levees to protect its eroding coast. Over the next three years, the state plans to put nearly $300 million into land-building alone. But as the true picture of sea level rise comes into view, officials may need to explore a less popular option: retreat from the coast.
Louisiana’s eroding coastline poses some very real threats to industries like oil & gas and the fishing industry. But there are also more than 10,000 people simply living along the disappearing coast. Until now, restoration has been their existential hope. Alongside the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), there are more than a dozen non-profits focused on coastal restoration. Only one group acknowledges another option in it’s name.
Simone Maloz is Executive Director of that nonprofit, Restore or Retreat. Despite the name, the group focuses on coastal restoration. The “retreat” part of the name was meant as a warning: restore, or else.
Maloz says the name was meant that way 16 years ago, when the group was founded.
“Back then it was a threat,” she says. “If we don’t do something now, we’re going to be forced to leave. And um, I think it’s become probably more of a reality than a threat.”
Before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but especially since then, Louisiana has been all in on protection and restoration. And until this year, officials believed there was a scenario under which they could halt, or even reverse, coastal land loss.
But now, “the rate of land-building will never match the rate of land loss,” says Karim Belhadjali, Deputy Chief of the CPRA.
That means Louisiana is losing land faster than any government agency or well-intentioned nonprofit can ever hope to build it back. At best, they’ll be able to staunch the bleeding. Belhadjali doesn’t yet know how much time his agency can buy the coast, but hopes to have a better idea in January, when the new version of Louisiana’s five-year “Master Plan” is released.
In the meantime, people living down the coast have some hard decisions to make. Simone Maloz says that in many ways, retreat has already begun.
“You can literally see those census shifts, that people are moving north,” she says. “You know, maybe they wanna live closer to their grandchildren in Thibodaux, right? Oh, their kids go to school in Houma, so they wanna move up the bayou. But those are the people that have the means to move.”
But as the climate continues changing, those without the means to move will find themselves increasingly in harm’s way. Even if a hurricane never hits Louisiana again, the coast is still sinking, and the seas are still rising.
Yet in six community meetings that state officials held last month, the word ‘retreat’ never came up. Unsurprisingly, it’s a politically toxic subject of conversation.
“There are no politicians on any of these coastal areas that wanna talk about people moving away,” says Ed Richards, an LSU law professor who works on coastal climate change and adaptation issues.
He says that while retreat is a valid solution, it’s largely off the table when it comes to state policy. The focus on restoration and protection—seen as fighting the good fight—is much more politically viable.
“As long as the religion of Louisiana is that we can fix this,” says Richards, “We don’t get to the next part, where you make that existential choice: wash away or move.”
And, he adds, there’s plenty of money to be made in the coastal restoration and protection industries, whereas retreat can hollow out local property values and tax bases.
Liz Koslov, a Ph.D candidate at New York University who studies climate-related retreat, says that people are scared to broach the topic for good reason. The idea is politically uncomfortable because it’s personally uncomfortable. Nobody wants to abandon their home. Even saying the word itself feels like a failure.
“We think of retreat as meaning giving up,” Koslov says. “That’s it, it’s over, you’ve lost the war.”
But there’s another way to think about it, Koslov says. Break down the word itself. “Re-” means “back to the original place, again, anew.” And to “treat” means to heal, or cure. Instead of connoting loss, Koslov says, retreat can mean letting neighborhoods go back to nature, for the greater good.
She’s been conducting field research on Staten Island since Hurricane Sandy. After the Oakwood Beach neighborhood there took on seven feet of water, the community got together, went to the state and asked to have their homes bought out, torn down, and turned back into wetlands.
The key, Koslov says, is that the community asked for it. If the state had come offering buyouts up front, the community likely would have resisted.
“But the fact that they came up with the plan themselves,” Koslov says, “And they heard about it from people they trusted, people they saw as like them, who were their neighbors—it made it have a very different dynamic.”
Community organizing may be the only way to get retreat taken seriously in South Louisiana, according to Koslov. And she adds that while home buyouts may cost more upfront than building land and levees, they are cheaper in the long run. As the people of New Orleans well know, levees need constant, expensive maintenance to remain effective. Retreat is the only solution that aims to move people permanently out of harm’s way, Koslov says.
But Louisianans still aren't sold. Karim Belhadjali, with the CPRA, says weighing these costs is difficult. They’re crunching numbers and will have a better picture when the new Master Plan comes out in January.
And Simone Maloz, of Restore or Retreat, adds that unlike in Staten Island, Louisiana’s coast is a working coast. People often earn their living on the water, or even feed their families via subsistence fishing.
So for now, the state’s coastal focus is still on letting people remain. Over 90% of Louisiana’s Master Plan budget is devoted to restoration and protection. And Restore or Retreat isn’t pushing the idea of moving, either.
“There is an element of reality, sure,” says Maloz, “In that not all these coastal communities can be saved. But that doesn’t mean you give up trying!” Building levees and wetlands can buy the coast some time while the people who live there figure out what to do next.
Until now, the threat of coastal land loss has been met with a choice. But the people of South Louisiana may have to accept that an either/or choice is will soon be off the table. The future will involve both restore and retreat.