What Will Happen to Coastal Towns as Sea Levels Rise?

Here’s a conundrum faced by Timmy Kerner, mayor of the tiny town of Jean Lafitte on the Louisiana bayou: How do you protect and preserve a small community from steadily rising waters that show no sign of turning back? At first, Kerner worked to build interest and investment for the construction of a levee that could hold the bayou at bay. But at a cost of more than one billion dollars to preserve the living conditions of 7,000 people, he didn’t get much state, federal, or privately financed support.

So he changed his approach. Instead of taking a long-term view and trying to convince his audience to invest deeply now for benefits decades down the road, he switched gears and began pouring his energy into creating a community with a higher asset value. Instead of protecting the sinking land, he started pursuing efforts to build on it.

If that sounds counterintuitive, place yourself in his position. As sea levels rise, the responsibility for protecting and preserving coastal communities will fall to leaders of these communities first. How will the leaders and citizens of increasingly threatened towns and cities take action to move, seal off, rebuild, or drum up broader interest in their towns? What angle will they pursue to protect their unique traditions and lifestyles?

In Louisiana, a fourth of the state’s wetlands have already disappeared, and state planners believe the total amount of land lost to rising sea levels will double in 50 years. According to the US Geological Survey, a football field’s worth of wetlands disappear along the Louisiana coast every 100 minutes. This catastrophic rate is the highest on the planet, and as the ecosystem sinks under the influx of salt water, thousands of houses, people, and small coastal communities are likely to be either flooded out slowly or swamped by a hurricane between now and 2060.

So one critical question faces every mayor, city planning commission, and community leader in 2018: should culturally important areas, buildings and infrastructures be preserved or abandoned? For some, the first part of the answer is clear: cut back on the oil drilling, laissez-faire regulation, overdevelopment and CO2 emissions that are creating the problem in the first place. And this option is underway as parish governments and landowners begin suing energy companies over the destruction of lost land. But these efforts are unlikely to bring results at a rate that can slow the degradation of commercial fisheries, wildlife habitats, and a stretch of coast that supplies 24 percent of the nation’s waterborne commerce.

As always during a crisis, every solution that makes even remote financial and practical sense will find its way into the discussion. This article illustrates one experimental example: a 48 million dollar grant that will be used to relocate 100 residents of a sinking community to a sugar farm 40 miles north. Will it work? The answer remains to be seen, and future of this community—like the community of Jean Lafitte-- hangs in the balance.

Read the article, join the conversation, and contact our office to share your thoughts and ideas.

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