The flooding in LaPlace caused by Hurricane Isaac could be a preview of things to come in Baton Rouge as Louisiana continues to lose parts of its coastline, a spokesman for a coastal preservation group told the Press Club of Baton Rouge recently.
As the coastline continues to erode, cities such as Baton Rouge that were once considered inland communities will become more vulnerable to storms such as Isaac, said Val Marmillion, managing director of America’s Wetland Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that promotes coastal protection.
“Baton Rouge is no longer north of the problem,” Marmillion told the Press Club. “When we began this discussion, Baton Rouge really wasn’t on the map. It’s only 10 years later, and now it’s become painfully obvious that Baton Rouge is in the middle of America’s wetland.”
Marmillion predicted that in just a few years, because of coastal erosion, East Baton Rouge Parish will be officially designated as part of the coastal zone. If that happens, he added, permitting for development will become much more complicated, and property insurance rates will rise.
“Everybody in Baton Rouge needs to wake up and realize that you are next on the list,” Marmillion said. “The next LaPlace can happen in Baton Rouge ... it impacts the lives of every single person in Baton Rouge.”
The construction of levees along the Mississippi River has limited the river’s ability to collect sediment that flows to the coast and replenishes wetlands. As a result, those wetlands have eroded, with acres of coastline vanishing into the Gulf. The disappearing barrier islands and coastline have reduced the obstacles for major storms as they move on shore, leaving inland communities more vulnerable to wind damage and flooding.
The problem has persisted for generations, as Marmillion reminded listeners by reading from a December 1897 National Geographic article about the Mississippi River Delta. The article conceded that land loss would result from the levee system, but essentially dismissed the impact as a necessary evil.
More than a century later, the consequences of that land loss are vividly clear, said Marmillion. “We’re in a constant storm,” he said, adding that the ongoing crisis transcends the urgency of any single hurricane that might visit Louisiana. “It’s not a normal day in paradise down in Louisiana.”
A problem as massive as coastal erosion argues for sustained federal involvement. Several years ago, the estimated price tag for saving Louisiana’s coast was $14 billion; the price tag agreed upon by a wide consensus of experts is now $50 billion. As coastal restoration projects are delayed, the costs will probably continue to rise. And as coastal communities become increasingly vulnerable, costs for hurricane recovery efforts will increase, too.
“This is a huge problem for the taxpayer,” Marmillion said.
Marmillion’s appearance at the Press Club coincided with the American Wetland Foundation’s release of a new report urging renewed federal, state and local attention to coastal restoration.
The report recommends resolving conflicting federal policies that delay the implementation of coastal restoration projects. The report also suggests tax credits and other incentives, such as mitigation credits, for private landowners who complete restoration projects.
While the report acknowledges the important role of local communities in advancing coastal restoration, the scale of the challenge will continue to require a strong federal commitment to preserving the coast.
Marmillion was not optimistic that Congress will provide what’s needed anytime soon.
“We’re in a toxic political environment where Republicans and Democrats take great joy in tearing each other down,” he told the Press Club.
But Marmillion said the alternative to action — the possible loss of an immensely productive region of the United States — seems unthinkable to a nation that thinks of itself as a superpower.
Here’s hoping that Louisiana can attract some attention to the continuing threats to its coastline, even when a hurricane isn’t poised to strike.