New Orleans Seeks Sustainability As It Rebuilds from Hurricane Once Again

New Orleans is a city on the frontline of the climate crisis. After suffering two major hurricanes in less than two decades, its residents are taking the knowledge they have gained from those painful experiences to prepare for the future.

Locals are looking for solutions that will make the infrastructure of their beloved city more resilient while protecting communities that represent the rich culture and traditions that make it unlike any other in the U.S.

President Joe Biden visited Louisiana on September 3 to assess the damage from Hurricane Ida, which made landfall on August 29. He expressed empathy for the suffering of residents, emphasized the need for resilient infrastructure, and encouraged the city to "build back better."

Steve Cochran, associate vice president for coastal resilience at the Environmental Defense Fund, told Newsweek that how America deals with climate change in New Orleans has meaning beyond the city limits.

"To the extent to which we notice this is an American issue," Cochran said, "the extent to which America begins to deal with climate and with those related disparities, is the degree to which a place like New Orleans can survive appropriately."

Most of New Orleans' climate-related problems stem from its geography and topography. Located in southeastern Louisiana, it is surrounded by the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, and has historically been susceptible to flash flooding, tropical storms and hurricanes.

It's average elevation varies between one to two feet below sea level.

"It is an island," Cochran said. "The only way to get out of New Orleans is by a bridge."

Climate and weather have played a critical role in the history and development of the city.

"During the course of over 300 years, it's had probably a dozen major storms, several of which completely destroyed the city," Jesse M. Keenan, an associate professor of real estate at Tulane University, told Newsweek. "People over the years have a lot of social knowledge about how to respond to disasters, and that helps them be able to cope."

In the days before Hurricane Ida, thousands fled their homes to escape. While evacuations took place across the state, at least 200,000 people decided to stay. Some stayed to protect their property, assess damages or support family members. Most remained because they lacked the transportation or financial ability to leave.

Of those who stayed, 26 died.

"No one fled this killer storm because they were looking for a vacation or a road trip," President Biden said in his post-Ida speech.

But others decided to stay and ride out the storm, as some residents of New Orleans had done as Hurricane Katrina approached in August 2005. One of those people was Mousa Hamdan.

Hamdan in is the president of Jet Life Recordings, an independent record label based in New Orleans. He has lived in the city since he was a boy.

"This is our second time seeing this type of storm," he told Newsweek. He described the experience as "12 to 16 hours of fear."

"The most memorable thing for Hurricane Ida is the amount of wind," Hamdan said. "I remember stepping out on the porch in the middle of the storm. You hear this whistling sound, the rain was just pounding, and the sky was so dark that you could not see."

Hurricane Ida Flooding
Residents wade through flood waters after their neighborhood flooded on Aug. 30, 2021 in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in LaPlace, La, 29 miles west of New Orleans. Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Once the hurricane passed, his community was left to recover. Recognizing the need, he helped to organize We're Fueling the City, a week-long event where free food and gasoline were given out.

In just a few days, organizers and volunteers had given away more than 1,200 gallons of gas and served some 2,000 meals to those in need.

Hamdan had a simple description for his efforts and those of his fellow volunteers.

"We're just letting people know that there are others out there trying to help," he said.

As local leaders organize to provide community support, other stakeholders take on the critical challenges facing the city's infrastructure.

"Over about 10 years, every parish in Louisiana had a disaster declaration because of flooding," Cochran said. "It affects every development decision, investment, and insurance decision. It is at the heart of thinking about living at any level."

The city is bolstered by both natural and manmade defenses. Towards its southeastern border lies a natural "line of defense," consisting of marshes, shelves, barrier islands and forests. Closer to the city are artificial defenses, including flood walls, highways, railroads and levees.

For much of its history, these regional barriers mitigated the damage of severe weather events. But as the population grew, practices like swampland drainage, groundwater pumping and levee building on the Mississippi River became more prevalent. Over time, this led to subsidence, a gradual sinking of the land.

New Orleans loses 1-2 inches of elevation and between 10-30 square miles of marsh each year, while neighboring sea levels continue to rise. Both natural and artificial defenses are compromised as climate change intensifies, placing the city in an increasingly vulnerable position.

In response, solutions such as the Coastal Master Plan have come to the forefront.
Initiated in 2005 with statewide support, the Coastal Master Plan provides a long-term blueprint for coastal protection, restoration, and flood risk reduction projects across Louisiana's coast.

It includes diverse strategies like structural risk reductions, sediment diversions, and ridge restoration to address the threat of massive land loss. Cochran, who also serves as director of Restore the Mississippi River Delta, emphasizes the importance of using the natural ecosystem for protection.

"A big aspect of the plan is rebuilding those multiple lines of defense, putting back in systems that can not only be built but can also be sustained," he said.

The main goal of these projects is to mitigate the risks of a changing climate. Experts project these efforts can reduce the destructive effects of storm surges, revitalize essential ecosystems, and recover some of the land that have been lost.

"Under our very best circumstances, with all the resources that we might aspire to, we're still going to lose some additional land across the coast," Cochran said, "but it won't be anything of what it would be if we weren't taking action."

Alongside conversations on land restoration are those concerning real estate development. Stakeholders have created a vision of "sustainable real estate," which is characterized by the resilient construction of homes, intelligent zoning laws, and a reduced environmental footprint.

"It can speak to both environmental and social sustainability," said Keenan, who teaches an Advanced Sustainable Real Estate class. "Sustainable Real Estate relates to low-impact, environmentally friendly real estate that is affordable and accessible."

"[New Orleans] is going to have to zone and densify the highest elevation areas," Keenan said, "concentrate a lot of infrastructure investments in the areas that are most defensible in the long-term."

Real estate development has contributed to a major increase in local housing prices since Hurricane Katrina. Prices in historical neighborhoods, closer to the city-center, have risen as high as 60%. Simultaneously, the value of properties in the surrounding neighborhoods and counties has remained stagnant or even decreased.

As local infrastructure investments increase, so does the value of renovated and low-risk properties protected by that infrastructure. This has dramatically reduced the availability of affordable housing in the heart of New Orleans.

"There's a certain paradox, "Keenan said. "When you look at a city as economically unequal and poor as New Orleans, there's only so much that you can pass on to taxpayers and ratepayers. You could invest billions into the energy grid, but that means your utility bills are going to go up, and there's a lot of people who could barely afford to pay."

This leads to gentrification, and the loss of even more affordable housing.

"The more houses that get damaged, the more families looking for new homes," Hamdan said. "So what happens is, all the people that are looking for new homes drive up the cost of living and rental properties. It's forcing people out without putting them out physically. It's forcing them out financially."

Stakeholders at all levels acknowledge the inequality. President Biden referred to it during his visit, vowing to "make sure this relief is equitable for those hardest hit, no matter who you are."

Official responsibility for climate change preparation is dispersed between local, state, and federal stakeholders. But there are serious organizational and operational weaknesses in the system.

"There is no decision-making in place that makes sure local communities have a say in what happens with their communities, where they go," Cochran said, "so we're going to have to make all that up."

He said finding successful solutions will require cooperation on all levels.

"Systems are going to have to recognize the value that people give to their home, their culture and their community along these coasts," Cochran said. "Not just pick people up and move them, but figure out how to do that in a way that honors those things as much as possible and lets people be a part of the decision making."

Hamdan said the key to a sustainable rebuilding of New Orleans starts with its residents.

"The more of the original New Orleanian people who stay," he said, "the more the culture will be able to sustain down here."