Climate Change, Climate Crisis, Hurricane Katrina, İnfrastructure, Joe Biden, Louisiana

Climate Change, Climate Crisis

Want Proof We Need a Civilian Climate Corps? Look No Further Than Louisiana

Gulf Coast communities are on the frontline of climate change. A program now being debated in Congress could put people to work building a more resilient South

7/27/2021 3:01:00 PM

Gulf Coast communities are on the frontline of climate change . A program now being debated in Congress could put people to work building a more resilient South

Gulf Coast communities are on the frontline of climate change . A program now being debated in Congress could put people to work building a more resilient South

, Sunrise is calling on Biden to expand his CCC vision by budgeting to employ millions of people at $15/hour or more, with benefits and training to find stable jobs in a future green economy. The oil and gas industry supports as much as 10 percent of jobs in Louisiana and even more in the Lake Charles region, which is crowded with petrochemical plants and refineries like the one where Lamb worked. If, as Biden intends, the U.S. is to generate 100 percent of its power from renewables by 2035, these workers will need alternative jobs and training to find their place in the new economy.

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Donna Lamb, on the porch of the ponderosa.Sam Van PykerenWhile marching with Sunrise, Jenna Hanes, 24, found the message of “good jobs” resonated with more Louisianans than the idea of fighting climate change, which many feel they cannot afford to consider. “People feel forced to choose between putting food on their table and getting rid of the petrochemical plants,” she says, but with CCC jobs as an alternative, “workers can gain skills for the future, that aren’t in an industry that’s going to eventually die.”

That could brighten the outlook of locals like Lamb’s 20-year-old son Jaylin, a semi-professional basketball player who loves his hometown but struggles to imagine a future there: “The best thing to do, coming from Lake Charles is to get out of Lake Charles,” he says.

“I see the CCC as a way to provide income for all of us who are doing this work already,” says Rogelio “Rojo” Meixuro, a 24-year-old undergrad from Houston who decided to march with Sunrise after working 20-hour days doing unpaid mutual-aid work during February’s

winter storm, which knocked out the electric grid across Texas and killed at least 57 people. “They need to start paying us for the work we’ve been doing just to survive. For too long we’ve seen environmentalism be about conservation. That mindset is over. We can no longer conserve what we have completely damaged. We need to innovate.”

 ON A BALMY YET BREEZYsummer day, 12 AmeriCorps members ride out on boats into the coastal wetlands of Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish. They are assisting state employees and a partner organization, Common Ground Relief, with restoring a sliver of the state’s nearly 8,000-mile coastline. After a quick training, they are dropped at different parts of the Hopedale Canal, working in knee-high water to plant smooth cord grass. Sticky muck grabs at their shoes, and many find it easier to move on their knees. Small fishing boats speed through the canal, their wakes reaching the submerged workers’ shoulders before smacking into the land.

Watching from behind mirrored sunglasses, Jeremy Rodriguez shakes his head. Those waves are one of many causes behind the erosion that they’re here to fix. Small boats are nothing compared to the commercial barges that share these canals, or the growing storms eating the coastline away, or the flood-control systems and agricultural water diversions that have also allowed Louisiana’s wetlands to erode into the sea. From 1932 to 2016, the state lost an area of land larger than Rhode Island, at rates as high as a football field’s worth every hour.

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Aiming to increase the amount of healthy wetlands, the state’s agriculture department has a Coastal Wetland Re-vegetation Project, which Rodriguez co-manages. Those wetlands provide important wildlife habitat, and can serve as buffer zones that absorb storm surges during hurricanes, lowering the waves that inundate cities and towns. The protection is difficult to quantify, but one University of California, San Diego study found that annual storm damages are reduced by an average of $1.8 million for every square kilometer of wetlands. A simulation by Mississippi State University researchers suggested that in some areas,

Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge was actually reduced by 1 foot for every 1.5 miles of wetlands it traversed.Half of Louisiana’s 4.6 million residents live in coastal communities, and 30 percent of U.S. seafood comes from the region. As Louisiana’s land disappears, so too do its livelihoods and lives. “2020 was insane, as far as hurricane season goes, [and] it’s supposed to just continue to get worse,” says Rodriguez, a 33-year old New Orleans native who became a conservation specialist after watching Hurricane Katrina devastate his hometown in 2005.

During Katrina, much of the death and damage was caused by the massive storm surges that breached 53 levees and flooded 80 percent of New Orleans. Afterwards, the Louisiana legislature voted to create a coastal “Master Plan” that is spending $50 billion over 50 years to build or maintain 800 square miles of land. Much of the plan focuses on industrial-scale projects that create landmass through controversial processes like dredging (which has a huge carbon footprint) and sediment diversion (which could destroy shellfish habitat); only 2 percent of its budget involves planting grasses and trees. While Rodriguez knows that building up the land is essential, he believes in pursuing more re-vegetation as a cost-effective means of stabilizing land before it needs intervention. His agency restores 37 to 40 miles of coastline per year at a cost of $1 per linear foot, a tiny fraction of what it takes to shore up the coast with rocks or artificial materials.

The scale of the project is only possible thanks to volunteers coordinated by Common Ground Relief, a New Orleans-based nonprofit founded one week after Katrina made landfall. After seeing the carnage up close — homes consumed by toxic black mold; corpses floating on flooded city streets — the group decided to focus on coastline restoration, which they saw as crucial to preventing future floods.

AmeriCorp volunteer Calin Pons, 26, from State College, Pennsylvania, pulls a bag of grass plugs through the water. Wetlands serve as buffer zones that absorb storm surges during hurricanes.Sam Van Pykeren*During the June workday, CGR director Charlotte Clarke pilots one of the boats, wearing tarnished copper earrings and a camo hat embroidered with the words “Vanishing Paradise.” While Clarke was grateful for AmeriCorps’ help, she thinks CGR would be more sustainable with long-term, local volunteers. “Everyone I’ve talked to wants to be able to do this sort of work,” she says, “to protect shrimp and oyster beds [and] places for fishing, the literal land they grew up on.” If Louisianans had a choice to work in conservation as opposed to oil and gas, “I think everybody would be on board,” she says. Clarke sees the proposed CCC as a superior alternative to AmeriCorps, which pays some of its 75,000 volunteers just $4,000 a year and sends them all over the country. Her dream CCC would pay living wages to people restoring wetlands in their own communities, who are committed to seeing the change through.

Rodriguez wants more full-time employees, since Louisiana’s unpredictable weather means workdays are often called off and volunteer labor gets lost. With an annual budget of just $400,000, the re-vegetation project has four paid staff working on 8,000 miles of coast. “I’m stressed out,” says Rodriguez. “It feels like we’re putting a Band-Aid on a shotgun blast.” But the work is scalable, he says: With money to hire more people at competitive wages, plantings could “easily” double. The CCC could be one way to do that.

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By lunchtime, the AmeriCorps team has planted 7,000 stems of grass. Rodriguez commends their efforts, then describes visiting wetlands he’d previously planted to find grasses taking root, multiplying, and growing to six or seven feet tall, providing wave reduction and habitat. “We are making a difference,” he says, but given that Gulf storm surges are getting worse — Laura’s peaked at 17 feet, one of the highest ever recorded in Louisiana — more resources are needed: “The sooner the better, for sure.”

 AMONG THE STATED AIMSof Biden’s CCC are reforestation and increasing carbon sequestration in farming. While agriculture is currently one of the country’s largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, certain farming practices can actually capture and store (or “sequester”) atmospheric carbon dioxide in the soil, thus mitigating climate change. As with coastal restoration, there are already Gulf South groups doing this work. Ndn Bayou Food Forest (the “Ndn” is shorthand for “Indian”) sits in a small town called Rayne, between Lake Charles and New Orleans. The 11-acre property was purchased in 2017 by a non-profit called Louisiana Rise, which is governed by a council of Indigenous women. It originally served as home base for activists resisting the construction of a nearby oil pipeline, but since the pipeline was completed in 2019, “we’ve been working toward positive visions of what we’d like to see instead,” says Hadley, age 32, one of the land’s caretakers (who uses a pseudonym to avoid being identified by enemies they’ve made fighting oil projects).

Ndn Bayou looks nothing like a traditional “farm.” A colorful oasis amid hot, swampy grasslands, the one acre currently being cultivated is abundant with diverse plants and trees, many bursting with leaves and fruits that Hadley — in a sunhat, camo overalls, and galoshes — plucks and invites visitors to try. What makes Ndn Bayou a “food forest” is its focus on tree crops and perennial plants such as sunchokes and sweet potatoes, which can establish ecosystems that sustain themselves far more easily than monoculture farms. As the trees grow, the space underneath becomes ripe habitat for other plants; Hadley’s ideal is to have seven layers, ranging from underground tubers to climbing vines, and shrubs in the shade. The trees might one day feed pigs and other animals with fallen chestnuts and pecans.

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