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Confronting Climate Change, Louisiana Shifts From Resilience to Retreat

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Coastal waters flow through deteriorating wetlands on August 25th, 2015, in Saint Bernard Parish, Louisiana. 

Louisiana’s coastline is disappearing at a rapid rate: Every hour-and-a-half, the state sheds another football field’s worth of land, the oft-repeated statistic goes. But it’s not just land that coastal areas of the state are losing. Between 2000 and 2010, parishes that were hit hardest by storms saw massive decreases in population—St. Bernard Parish, just east of New Orleans, for one, lost 46 percent of its residents—leaving those who stay to make do with scarce job opportunities, neglected schools, and crumbling infrastructure.

In the face of rising sea levels, the state has begun to integrate a new strategy for confronting climate change: retreat. These first experiments in relocating those most vulnerable to climate change indicate the need for programs that incorporate retreat as one of a range of mitigation and adaptation strategies, ensuring that populations that remain aren’t left without the resources to become resilient.

Earlier this month, the state’s Office of Community Development and the non-profit Foundation for Louisiana released a widespread blueprint, Louisiana’s Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (LA SAFE), that outlines the full consequence of the changes taking place on the coast and a range of possible tools with which to address them, but perhaps even more importantly, to accept them. Even if the state builds all of the levees, pumps, and floodgates outlined in this and previous plans, “complete protection is impossible,” according to the 1,500 page document, which focuses on the six parishes surrounding New Orleans that were hardest hit by Hurricane Isaac in 2012. Some parts of the region, which sits at the marshy intersection of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, “will become uninhabitable, requiring resettlement.”

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