Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tough Choices Profile #1: Lafitte

On Tuesday, the Corps of Engineers held a public meeting for review of particular alignments for the hurricane levee system being considered. I assume this refers to the 100 year levee system but the T-P's article doesn't specify. Most of the possible levee alignments leave the town of Lafitte outside of the major levee system, although a smaller levee could always be created for them. On Tuesday nearly 200 of Lafitte's 8000 residents showed up to a Corps meeting clamoring to be included within the levee system.

For your reference, here is Lafitte.

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As you can see, Lafitte is far below the metropolitan area (which ends basically where it says "Marrero"). Lafitte, a town in Jefferson Parish that is named after Jean Lafitte- a pirate who fought valiantly for the US in the Battle of New Orleans- is known for it's great fishing, seafood, and culture. Unfortunately, we can not afford to put Lafitte- and every other such community- behind a massive flood system. And here's why:

Truth be told, not just Lafitte but all of Southern Louisiana is very vulnerable to erosion, subsidence, flooding and hurricanes. It will always be an unnatural battle to try to create security from flooding when you live on a Delta so close to the coast. Most people agree, however, that despite the risk, the benefits of preserving coastal Louisiana make the flood protection projects and coastal restoration efforts "worth it."

I tend to subscribe to Oliver Houck's (Tulane Environmental Law Professor) basic vision for New Orleans and coastal Louisiana. We should build levees that are relatively small in geographic range and focused on specific population concentrations. But we should also realize that although levees are powerful tools, they have serious downfalls. (Check out my post on the Limitations of Levees). Extending the major levee system to outlying towns such as Lafitte only makes the whole region more vulnerable and the system more difficult to maintain. Fortunately, they are not the only gun in our arsenal to protect us from hurricanes. We must pour our efforts into preserving the coastal wetlands, which act as a powerful buffer for storms.

Now, you tell a community of hard-working people with centuries-old culture that they can't be part of a big levee system. It's hard, I know it. But these are the tough choices that must be made. Much of the opportunity to make these tough choices has been missed, as leaders failed to make comprehensive plans for metro New Orleans and other areas in the wake of Katrina and Rita. We can't afford to miss more opportunities to make coastal Louisiana sustainable.

So what is Lafitte's future? Hopefully, it's a rich one. If we as a state decide that communities like Lafitte are important for economic and cultural reasons, then we should advocate various protections for the people who live there-- accepting that they bear a higher risk than us and do necessary work in industries such as seafood and oil and gas that couldn't be done further north. That means supporting good land use planning and small flood projects- possibly including smaller "ring" levees. And it means supporting these communities if they do flood-- supporting them financially, helping them to rebuild smarter, and giving them options for relocation. Of course all of this must go hand in hand with massive coastal restoration efforts if we are to have any chance of long-term security whatsoever.

Those are my two proverbial cents on this heart-wrenching issue. Your commentary is encouraged!