LAROSIS, La. — After Hurricane Katrina, an ambitious and expensive system of levees, walls, storm gates and pumps was installed around New Orleans to protect against the kind of floods and horrors that scarred the city and country so deeply in 2005. And then Hurricane Ida last week , exactly 16 years later, those hopes were largely fulfilled. The flooding was minimal.
But 60 miles away, in the small community of Larose, the situation was different. Near William Lowe, an Ida storm surge struck a modest causeway maintained by the Lafourche Parish government near his elevated home, causing water from a nearby canal to spill over his floorboards. Days later, his neighborhood was still under water and he and his family traveled to and from the house by boat.
“You’ve ruined lives here,” Mr. Lowe, 49, said, holding back his tears. “If you go to the Dollar General, you have people standing outside roaring because they have nothing.”
In the working-class Bayou country south and west of New Orleans, local government officials have been trying for decades to get federal funding for a system similar to that in New Orleans, but without success.
And as Ida moved north, bringing more death and destruction to places like New York City, advocates of the project in the coastal parishes of Lafourche and Terrebonne were left wondering what its fate would be at a time when larger and more famous places become more and more popular. likely to compete for storm protection funding.
As sea levels rise and a warming ocean brings more terrifying storms, the battle for hurricane protection in southern Louisiana is just the latest example of a growing dilemma for the United States: which places to save and how to decide.
Until recently, that question may have seemed like the plot of a dystopian movie, or at least a problem to leave for future generations. But as disasters become more severe, the cost of reconstruction has skyrocketed. Extreme weather has caused more than $450 billion in damage across the country since 2005; the number of disasters causing more than $1 billion in damage reached 22, a record last year.
The Government Accountability Office has warned that these charges may be unsustainable. Still, demand continues to grow: When the Federal Emergency Management Agency introduced a new program to help cities and states prepare for disasters, requests far outstripped the amount of money available.
The increasing frequency and severity of hurricanes poses another dilemma: Even if the money could be found for projects to protect places like Larose, such efforts are a good way to spend public money, especially as the need for climate resilience across the globe. land grows and coasts disappear every year?
“Many of these places won’t be around for long,” said Jesse Keenan, a professor at Tulane University who focuses on how to adapt to climate change. As disasters worsen, more people are being pushed to leave those cities, he said, and the number of people who benefit from storm protection systems is decreasing, making those systems harder to justify.
“It will be difficult for many of those projects to work out,” said Dr. keenan.
Officials in Louisiana, a state still suffering from the repeated beatings of last year’s record storm season, don’t see it that way. They argue that investing now in projects like those in Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes will save the federal government money in the long run by reducing cleaning costs, with fewer emergency aid claims filed by businesses and families, and fewer insurance claims under the National Flood Insurance Program. .
It’s a shift from a reactive to a proactive stance, said Reggie Dupre, executive director of the Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District. mr. Dupre said the government needed to change its thinking quickly on the Louisiana coast. Hurricane Ida destroyed the buildings and infrastructure in his parish, mainly due to strong winds. But if it had gone a few miles to the west, he said, the storm surge would have claimed many lives, too.
“We don’t want to wait,” said Mr. Dupre. “We don’t want body bags everywhere.”
Known as Morganza to the Gulf, the project aims to protect 250,000 people from flooding, proponents say. But unlike the New Orleans system, the Morganza system has yet to receive significant federal funding, despite being first approved by Congress in 1992. Local officials have already spent nearly $1 billion building parts of it. , pending that the federal government eventually promised its $2 billion share of the costs.
The levee system received its first $12.5 million in federal funding this year after years of debate about how much it would cost versus how many people it would benefit.
“I don’t really believe people understand how many people live there,” said state representative Tanner Magee, who represents the parishes of Terrebonne and Lafourche.
He said people outside the area also don’t understand how much of the nation’s oil — nearly one-fifth — is refined in the state, much of it along the coast.
“It’s a working coast, it’s not like it’s some Florida beach town,” Mr. Magee said.
Those who have lived in southern Louisiana for years without protection have understood for some time that they are on the wrong side of the cost-benefit equation.
“It’s the same scenario year after year,” said Michael Jiles, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Plaquemines Parish and former director of the parish’s public services.
The locally funded levees are not enough to protect Mr. Jiles’ neighborhood and surrounding areas, where residents see their homes flooded over and over.
It’s no mystery to Mr. Jiles why his neighborhood hasn’t received the same protection as New Orleans to the north, or the neighboring parish of St. Bernard, which is protected by a flood wall.
“Population and economic power,” he said, adding that in his part of Plaquemines Parish, on the east side of the Mississippi River, many residents live below the poverty line.
Garret Graves, a Republican congressman from Louisiana, said the federal government’s approach to funding conservation projects after Katrina was to “really focus on the population centers.” Most Plaquemines lacked population density to rank high on that scale.
And there was incentive to protect New Orleans, Mr. Graves said. When the residents decided to rebuild or relocate, the federal government approved the hurricane protection system as a way to persuade them to stay.
“The White House really felt an obligation to let people know that there was not going to be a Katrina version 2,” said Mr. Graves. He said Ida could urge the federal government to fund similar projects outside that system.
The contrast between the two Louisianas – inside and outside the protection system – is stark. Just after Hurricane Isaac in 2012, Mr. Jiles took a break from clearing his swampy home to stand on the embankment that separates Plaquemines, submerged in several feet of water, from neighboring St. Bernard Parish, which was dry.
While standing on the embankment, Mr. Jiles recalled, he could “see both worlds.”
Without adequate protection, the community will not survive, said Mr. jiles. People began leaving the area after Hurricane Katrina, promising to return if the levees were raised. With each storm, more people left.
“Gradually it will be eliminated,” said Mr. jiles.
The same is happening in other coastal parishes, said David Muth, director of wave recovery at the National Wildlife Federation.
“The numbers speak for themselves: people vote with their feet on where they want to live,” said Mr Muth. The cycle is perpetuating itself: As more people leave, “it becomes increasingly difficult to justify massive investments in storm risk reduction,” he said.
‘We have to be realistic’
The state has recognized that not every community can be saved.
In 2016, officials began relocating residents of Isle de Jean Charles, a village in the southern parish of Terrebonne that has lost most of its land to rising seas and erosion. With a $48 million grant from the Obama administration, the state is building a new site for the village, called The New Isle, about 30 miles to the north.
The project is the first federally funded relocation project in response to climate change and is designed as a model for other communities to follow. The effort has not always been smooth sailing. But Marvin McGraw, a state spokesman, said the first residents could move in as early as December.
And two years ago, Louisiana released a sweeping blueprint for its coastal communities that envisioned that the government would pay some people living outside federal levees to move further inland. That strategy also called for new investments in cities further from the coast, to better prepare those cities for an influx of new residents.
“We need to be realistic about the current and future effects of coastal land loss and plan today to develop the next generation of communities in Louisiana,” Governor John Bel Edwards said at the time.
Whether the right solution is to build more shelters or move people, the communities on Louisiana’s coast deserve help, even if that aid doesn’t follow strict cost-benefit ratios, said Andy Horowitz, a history professor at Tulane, who wrote a book about Katrina.
“We could instead think about our values as a country,” said Dr. Horowitz. “We can build public works that protect people. We can support them in a humane way to move to a safer place. Or we can let them suffer and die.”