Time to Join Forces

Baton Rouge and New Orleans need to work together to increase resilience.

One of the biggest lessons Baton Rouge is learning in the wake of the August floods is that resilience isn’t just a coastal concern. The two massive floods that devastated both northern and southern regions of Louisiana make it clear that growing vulnerability to flood risk is a critical statewide issue.

All but 12 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes have received federal disaster declarations in 2016 alone. More than 111 municipalities were affected in the August floods — some with more than 90 percent of their housing stock inundated. The intense rainfall and subsequent floods have been described as “unprecedented.” Though this may be true, it is unlikely to remain so.

Understandably, facing the catastrophic losses resulting from these floods, government officials and residents alike want to expedite recovery and return to normal as soon as possible. However, we can’t afford to proceed with blinders on – we must contend with the fact that the “normal” of yesterday no longer exists. We must prepare for tomorrow by building safer, more resilient communities designed to withstand more frequent rain and flooding events of increasing severity. We must avoid replicating vulnerabilities in our infrastructure and housing stock and address the chronic conditions of socioeconomic disparity, racial division and environmental decline that exacerbate the impacts of disaster.

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Clinging to the status quo puts hundreds of thousands of residents in danger and deprives them of the opportunity to proactively protect their livelihoods, families and assets.

Luckily, our neighbors in New Orleans and the coastal regions of our state are well-versed in the language of resilience and have taken great strides in developing and implementing resilience-building measures. From the many and often painful lessons learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the creation of the world’s first, award-winning city Resilience Strategy, New Orleans has made a robust commitment to building resilience and is beginning to see positive outcomes as a result.

In addition to the protection and restoration efforts associated with the state’s Coastal Master Plan, coastal communities are also proactively building resilience by supporting conservation and restoration of natural barriers; elevating homes, businesses and infrastructure; directing development away from high-risk areas; raising local funds to construct structural protections; and updating regulatory standards for development in flood plains.

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Baton Rouge and other regions of the state have much to gain as we plan for recovery and rebuilding by drawing upon these advanced resilience-building efforts to inform our own strategies and adapting them to our specific contexts and risk profiles. A few key features that stand out as foundational to a successful resilience building effort include defining resilience broadly, institutionalizing resilience and prioritizing equity.   

Traditionally, resilience refers to the capacity of a system to maintain or recover functionality in the event of disruption or disturbance. The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, which supported New Orleans’ plan, insists that such resilience is achieved via measures that extend far beyond hazard mitigation to include social cohesion, economic parity, public health, strong multimodal transportation networks, environmental sustainability, and efficient and transparent government.

This broad definition encourages development of resilience-building projects that accomplish several goals simultaneously — reducing vulnerability to severe weather, for instance, while also providing a community asset such as a park that may be equipped with educational resources that can be tied into curriculum at a neighborhood school.

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This is a shift away from a narrower attempt to anticipate the impacts of disaster events such as hurricanes and oil spills.

As HUD’s deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Community Planning and Development explained at Center for Planning Excellence’s 11th Annual Smart Growth Summit, resilience is built through policies, programs and projects that deliver multiple community benefits, improving everyday life while also reducing vulnerability to disaster.

When the systems, networks and assets we all rely upon are strong and well protected, cities and people are better able to prepare for and weather chronic stresses, such as economic downturn or climate change, and acute disruptions, such as a severe weather event or chemical plant explosion.

New Orleans has exemplified this approach by designing projects that not only reduce exposure to hazards, but also engage youth, create jobs and improve equity. Amidst heavy budget constraints at every level, we must learn from these examples and adapt them to our own rebuilding efforts in Greater Baton Rouge and throughout the state.

According to the One Year Progress Report, one of the first steps toward implementation of the Resilient New Orleans plan was the creation of the Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Sustainability. The work of this office is supported by a multidisciplinary team whose expertise includes planning and design, community outreach, water management, transportation and mobility, and energy and hazard mitigation.

Furthermore, the city of New Orleans has incorporated resilience goals across sectors and functions, reorganizing programs and processes as needed to do so. Making resilience a broad-reaching and permanent fixture of daily business will help propel New Orleans’ efforts over the long term.

Resilience building endeavors at all scales will be sustained and elevated by the provision of dedicated offices and expert staff empowered to transform organizations, programs and practices.

Perhaps the most important feature of New Orleans’ resiliency plan is its focus on equity. In Baton Rouge, the corrosive effects of long-standing economic and racial disparity were brought into stark relief this past summer with the shooting death of Alton Sterling and the subsequent shooting of six police officers. Three of those officers, Montrell Jackson, Brad Garafola and Matthew Gerald, lost their lives, and another remains in serious condition.

Our community continues to mourn these losses and struggle with the implications of these tragic events. The August floods followed, both wreaking further devastation and reminding us of the ways we are able to come together in times of need. These events have illuminated the weaknesses in our social fabric, the vulnerabilities of our infrastructure and the changing nature of our environment.

Our coastal and New Orleans neighbors can surely empathize with the thousands here for whom the future seems uncertain. The confluence of violence, social breakdowns and natural disaster speak clearly and poignantly to the need for robust resilience-building measures that address these issues in tandem.

The need to build resiliency on a larger scale throughout the state is yet another reason for the Baton Rouge – New Orleans Super Region to join forces, exchange knowledge, coordinate efforts and align resources. 

Jessica McKelvie Kemp is the vice president for policy and advocacy at the Center for Planning Excellence (CPEX) in Baton Rouge. She is responsible for advancing CPEX’s mission in public policy for the CONNECT coalition and issues related to planning throughout Louisiana. The CONNECT coalition is dedicated to advocacy for expanded mobility choices that connect people to jobs and affordable housing in the Baton Rouge-to-New Orleans Super Region.


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