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Signs of Progress as the Katrina Anniversary Approaches

Originally posted on Restore the Mississippi River Delta blog.

As we learn more about the impacts from Hurricane Laura, which hit our state earlier this week as a Category 4 storm, our thoughts are with our neighbors in southwest Louisiana and all whose lives were affected by this storm. You can find ways to support those in need here as they embark on their long road to recovery.

While we hold those affected by Laura in our hearts and reach out to support them, we also remember another devastating storm that forever changed our region in southeast Louisiana and coastal Mississippi 15 years ago on this day.

Hurricane Katrina sent a surge of devastation throughout the Gulf Coast and served as a fatal reminder of the power of water and the risks facing our coastal communities.

In southeast Louisiana, Katrina and the associated levee failures stole more than 1,500 lives throughout Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes and caused $160 billion worth of damage. A terrifyingly tall wave of storm surge was funneled through the now-closed Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, breaching the poorly maintained levee system and causing catastrophic flooding in the Lower 9th Ward, New Orleans East and St. Bernard Parish.

In Mississippi, that same 28-foot-tall wall of water left more than 200 people dead, submerging communities throughout Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties. Casinos that floated just offshore on barges were tossed hundreds of yards inland. Around 90% of the buildings along the Biloxi-Gulfport coastline were destroyed.

Our region was forever scarred.

The unparalleled trauma of Katrina exposed how, without proper protection, our coastal communities and cities teeter on the edge of destruction. It also showed the disproportionate impact of environmental disasters on Black and Brown communities that is only expected to be exacerbated in the future without structural changes.

In the past 15 years, we’ve made huge strides toward better protecting people and their livelihoods, but as unprecedented weather conditions — like tracking simultaneous storms Marco and Laura through the Gulf of Mexico — become commonplace, there remains an urgent need to do more.

Signs of Progress

In the months immediately following Katrina, Gov. Kathleen Blanco took a monumental step toward securing a brighter future for Louisiana’s coast. She created the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, the first state agency solely dedicated to managing the restoration and protection projects required to address our state’s ongoing land loss crisis.

That agency went on to create the first Coastal Master Plan, a revolutionary document and plan that includes $50 billion worth of projects aimed at building and maintaining a sustainable coast over the next 50 years to protect communities, wildlife habitat and vital infrastructure and jobs.

We’ve now seen three iterations of the Coastal Master Plan, updated with the latest science and modeling with a fourth on the way in 2024. Since the first plan in 2007, the State of Louisiana has secured $21.4 billion toward protection and restoration projects, and created 48,226 acres of land, 334 miles of levee improvements, and 60 miles of barrier islands and berms.

With the work of the Army Corps of Engineers, major improvements have been made to the $14.5 billion, 133-mile long levee system protecting New Orleans from storm surge.

But memories of Katrina’s engineering failures remind us that levees and floodgates alone can’t keep our communities safe. We need to also restore the coast that helps protect us. It is vital for us to invest in our natural lines of defense to maintain an effective storm surge barrier, from our swamps to our barrier islands.

As a state, we’ve recognized the importance of maintaining and strengthening those multiple lines of defense. In this year alone, the state is on pace to progress on 106 restoration projects and will invest a record $1 billion into fortifying Louisiana’s coast.

Fortunately, we’ve seen huge changes to the area surrounding the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet with the restoration of the ecosystem’s hydrology since its closure in 2009, highlighting nature’s ability to recover if we take the right actions.We’ve also seen progress around efforts to fund restoration projects like the River Reintroduction into Maurepas Swamp diversion, which was awarded $130 million by the RESTORE council earlier this year.

The Next 15 Years

While we are proud of the monumental signs of progress that goes beyond those in other areas of the country, this anniversary remains a somber reminder of the persistent need to act.

We can never erase the pain of Katrina or the losses the storm brought, but we can act with urgency to make sure more communities are better protected from the next storm.

To properly protect our region, we need to see the full restoration of the area surrounding the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet. Restoring the New Orleans East and Lake Borgne landbridges, the Golden Triangle marshes, the Bayou la Loutre Ridge and the Biloxi Marsh Oyster Reef must come to fruition.

Working together, each of these pieces will enhance the region’s protection as more large-scale recommendations from the Coastal Master Plan are realized.

The painful memories of Hurricanes Katrina, Laura, and Rita — a storm that also devastated southwest Louisiana 15 years ago next month — must also propel our efforts forward to protect lives across the state and the Gulf from storms.

So far, we’re inspired to see the unprecedented level of stakeholder engagement around these projects as they continue to move forward. We need that enthusiasm to continue with our eyes set on a brighter, more sustainable future.

How you can help, right now