Bayou residents worry about future protection
By Nikki Buskey, Staff Writer
November 3, 2011
Bayou residents are worried that the state, in the midst of overhauling its master plan for coastal protection and restoration, may write off smaller coastal communities in peril due to coastal-land loss.
The state has used tough language when it comes to the updated master plan, emphasizing that there's not enough time or money to save every community. Difficult choices will have to be made, officials have said, and soon.
“Change will come to coastal Louisiana whether we like it or not,” said Leslie Suazo, a communications manager with Brown and Caldwell, an environmental engineering firm. Suazo is doing outreach for the state's master plan process.
State officials met with bayou residents at the Dulac Community Center Wednesday night to address their concerns. The meeting was hosted by nonprofit organizations Bayou Grace, the Dulac Community Center, BISCO and the United Houma Nation Indian tribe.
The state Legislature requires a master-plan update every five years. A draft update is due in January, with a final version to be presented to the state Legislature in March.
Since 1932, coastal Louisiana has lost 1,883 square miles of wetlands that provide vital storm-surge protection, the equivalent of wiping the state of Delaware off the map. The Terrebonne Basin has lost the most, a total of 460 square miles of land, in that same time period.
State officials have traveled the coast in recent months to get public input on the new plan. During those meetings, officials have said the state plans to take a more-realistic approach and make the hard decisions required. They say there's not enough time or money to save everyone.
The state expects a windfall of coastal-restoration and protection money via oil-spill fines and increased oil revenue due starting in 2017. That could come out to between $20 billion to $50 billion over the next 50 years, said Natalie Snyder, a state Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration planner. But all the projects currently corralled under the state's master plan would cost more than $250 billion to build.
“We're in a situation where there are going to be tough choices ahead,” Snyder said. “I don't want you guys to sit around and think that someone is going to protect you when they're not.”
The state's goal is to distill the current plan's thousands of restoration projects into an ambitious but achievable list that can be used to solicit federal help.
The state plans to use a newly created prioritization tool, or a computer model intended to take the politics out of decisions by considering risk reduction, environmental benefits and cost. That will allow the projects that give the “most bang for their buck” to rise to the top, Snyder said.
But it's not just about money. The state also has tasked a committee with identifying important cultural areas that merit protection, Snyder said.
Bayou residents at Wednesday's meeting say they worry the “tough decisions” might mean sacrificing smaller Native American and fishing communities in lower Terrebonne to protect other parts of the state.
Many asked for a stronger role in determining what would be done to protect their communities.
“No community should be traded off. This isn't a trade off. It's a sacrifice,” said Janie Luster, a member of the United Houma Nation and a Dularge resident. “We're asking for a seat at the table.”
If it's determined that some communities can't be saved, Snyder said the state will consider options, including relocation.
“Nobody wants to see a culture destroyed,” Suazo said. “We can talk about home elevations or flood-proofing measures to help you.”
Clarice Friloux, a Grand Bois resident and member of the United Houma Nation, stressed that bayou residents should be given a seat at the table with the politicians, engineers and scientists in picking projects.
Many pointed to the sacrifices Terrebonne Parish has made to the industry that powers America, allowing oil-and-gas canals to be dredged. Those same canals allowed salt water to destroy the marshes that protected local communities.
“With all the barrels of oil that have flowed through here, I think we should get back some of what we lost,” said United Houma Nation member Kirby Verret. “Nobody should be expendable.”
Larger communities like Houma are more threatened than many residents think, and they'll be more vulnerable if bayou communities are allowed to slip away, said Alan Gibson, a Dulac resident.
“People in Houma don't realize we're the barrier island for them now,” Gibson said.
The new master plan is still being written, Snyder said, and it remains unclear which projects will make the cut and which communities will be left out.
An all-day meeting will be held in Houma in January, when the draft report is due, to ensure everyone gets their chance to weigh in, she added. You can learn more about the master plan at coastalmasterplan.la.gov.
Residents at the meeting stressed that bayou communities must have a voice in the state's master plan or risk losing everything. That means attending meetings, talking to state representatives and the people involved in the planning process.
“If you don't call, don't talk, don't tell them, these people will think, ‘OK. They're satisfied. They're willing to move,” United Houma Nation Chief Thomas Dardar said.
“Not doing anything right now is the worst thing you could do. If we do nothing, you will have to move. That's certain.”