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A Real Chance to Fortify Our Coastlines Against Worsening Storms

New funding is providing unparalleled opportunities to invest in climate resilience by building natural infrastructure to protect vulnerable communities.

People walking down a flooded street in Delcambre, Iberia Parish, La., during Hurricane Laura.
A flooded street in Delcambre, Iberia Parish, La., during Hurricane Laura, Aug. 27, 2020.
Hurricane season has arrived, but for communities along the coasts still recovering from last year’s devastating season, it has felt inescapable. Economic forecasts are painting a stark picture of the costs of worsening extreme weather — a recent report projected that coastal Louisiana faces $5.5 billion in annual damages due to climate change — and for policymakers looking to prepare, it can feel nothing short of overwhelming.

While it’s clear that America’s coastlines are in crisis, some states on the front lines of climate change are teaching us lessons for preventive action that the rest of the country can take advantage of now. New infusions of state and federal funding are providing unparalleled opportunities to invest in climate resilience, and it’s up to state and local leaders to learn these lessons and ensure that funds go toward effective solutions in the communities where they are needed the most.

The passage of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) last year provided a nationwide shot in the arm to these efforts, unleashing billions in new federal funding to states that can be put toward climate change resilience projects. Ongoing projects in Gulf Coast states that build natural infrastructure through strategies like sediment diversions, living shorelines and barrier island restoration provide a reliable model for how other states can use this money and other federal funds to bolster their own coastal areas.

Through its Coastal Annual Plan, for example, Louisiana recently approved a record-breaking $1.3 billion for coastal resilience projects, which will go toward rebuilding wetlands and protecting communities vulnerable to land loss and sea-level rise. It’s a long-term, ongoing effort: In the wake of 2010’s catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Gulf Coast region received an infusion of funding for coastal restoration. These initiatives have included crucial investments to protect against storm surges, sea-level rise and tidal flooding — impacts strongly felt in all coastal states.

More than 100 such projects are currently underway. The Golden Triangle Marsh Creation Project, for example, is working to restore ecosystems impacted by the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), a federal shipping channel that destroyed and degraded tens of thousands of acres of protective coastal habitat and contributed to the destruction inflicted during Hurricane Katrina. Communities in and around New Orleans that were devastated by MRGO impacts are still awaiting large-scale coastal restoration projects that will help restore coastal habitat and protect communities from climate impacts.

As two longtime advocates for coastal restoration and sustainable development, we know all too well the risks of letting these priorities fall to the wayside. It has become increasingly clear in recent years that the next devastating storm is always just around the corner, and no state or community can afford to stand by and wait in a defensive crouch. While it’s encouraging to see investments already being put to work for the benefit of coastal communities and ecosystems, it’s incumbent upon leaders in statehouses and city halls to ensure that additional high-impact, high-priority solutions are vigorously pursued as quickly as possible.

Voters have been unequivocal about their support for investing in these kinds of solutions: An overwhelming 97 percent of coastal Louisiana voters say that officials should work to maintain as much of the coast as possible, and 70 percent say that stronger hurricanes and increased coastal flooding are already personally impacting them.

By investing now in natural infrastructure projects that protect the areas most vulnerable to storms and sea-level rise, we can safeguard towns and cities, rebuild ecosystems and save billions of dollars over the long term. No state is immune to the impacts of extreme weather, and policymakers around the country should take advantage of lessons learned across the Gulf Coast and invest now in proven solutions that strengthen our collective climate resilience.

Amanda Moore is the director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Gulf Program. Arthur Johnson is the CEO of the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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