The Booming Industry Emerging From Louisiana’s Vanishing Coast
Here’s how a shrinking state is paving the future of building.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because your city could soon be skyscraper-deep in water.
There’s no better seat in the house to witness the disappearing act of Louisiana than from a puny plane, flying 3,000 feet over the Mississippi River. The sallow green marshes below look more like scattered jigsaw pieces than a proud coastline. According to my pilot’s outdated map, we’re supposed to be soaring over the grazing cows and family farms of Plaquemines Parish. But instead, there’s only wide-open water — in fact, the Gulf of Mexico is quickly gobbling up Louisiana’s eroding shores.
A football-field-size chunk of Louisiana vanishes every hour, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Which has given this deep-red state urgency in the battle against climate change. A growing coastal restoration industry is bringing a gust of long-term jobs to rural Louisiana, helping the state climb out of a deep budget hole and appeasing swathes of unemployed voters in the region who supported Donald Trump’s campaign, by a margin of 19.7 percent, to “bring back” jobs to the U.S. The water management sector — which encompasses all of the state’s coastal rehabilitation, protection and urban water planning efforts — is growing faster than any other industry in Louisiana’s coastal zone, with nearly 30,350 jobs and counting, even eclipsing the state’s economic linchpin, Big Oil.
According to a 2016 study by the nonprofit Greater New Orleans, this fledgling water workforce will grow by more than 20 percent over the next 10 years, creating more than 13,600 snazzy new titles like conservation technician, civil engineer and environmental scientist that pay an average of $69,277, well above the national average salary. “Louisiana is one of the first to turn the issue of climate change from an environmental one to an existential and economic one … through the cutting-edge jobs of the future,” claims Greater New Orleans’ executive vice president and chief operating officer Robin Barnes. Which is the city’s way of putting up a NOW HIRING billboard.
The same hands that laid miles of gas pipelines and built massive oil rigs — hands which have been out of work as of late — will now rebuild the state’s sullied shores.
It’s a strange twist of fate: Much of the talent for fixing the coast already exists in Louisiana, says Barnes — in the oil patch. The same hands that laid miles of gas pipelines and built massive oil rigs, hands which have been out of work as of late, will now rebuild the state’s sullied shores. The expertise is the same, since skills in urban planning, construction and architecture transfer nicely across the coastal restoration industry. And as the price of oil and natural gas slumps, greener industries like coastal restoration are hoping to fill the void that Big Oil left. “Down here, ‘climate change’ is a bad word, but the reality of sea-level rise is something that no one can deny,” says Deb Abibou, restoration programs director at the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.
Just outside of the small, sleepy town of Galliano, where the bustling city of New Orleans dissolves into the old bayou, the $216 million Caminada Headlands is a 14-mile restoration project of shiny new coastline. It comes courtesy of a fleet of yellow ’dozers (as bulldozers are called in Louisiana) and freshly hired crews of dredge operators, construction engineers and estuary experts. During a stroll down the beach built partly with geotubes, local resident Joni Tuck tells me that the new land will help protect natural habitats and bolster the shipping industry, eventually paving a path for Louisiana’s future in offshore wind. The croaking of frogs still fills the salty air in Galiano, but in the past year, a mini skyline has sprouted across the horizon. That’s Port Fourchon, a sprawling shipyard of workers who live onshore and stand at the ready to work, says Tuck, who works at the nearby Greater Lafourche Port Commission. “We want to be prepared for what’s to come, to stay ahead of the curve,” she notes, as we breeze through the superhighways of salt water on an airboat.
Granted, Louisiana’s investment in coastal restoration is still something of a gamble, says Mark Davis, director of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy. Big economic predictions can be “soft,” and coastal restoration is an area that has long lacked reliable data: “It is hard to really separate wheat from chaff.” Plus, there’s no telling if this new industry will end up truly fortifying Louisiana’s economy, and, more important, if it will even save the state from drowning. “There is no silver bullet that is going to save the coast, no magical methodology,” admits Tuck. Still, Louisiana’s rapidly receding coast could theoretically — and ironically — act as a boon for the economy.
Meanwhile, troubled coastal cities around the world are taking note, says Bren Haase, head of planning for the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. With a playbook in place, Louisiana already boasts a 50-year, $50 billion plan to rebuild the state’s coasts, one that’s grounded in decades of data and science; it’s also being translated into several languages, including Vietnamese, Spanish and French, for other countries to reference. Flush with billions of dollars from the settlement in the catastrophic BP oil spill, the Coastal Master Plan could hold key clues for other places facing a similar fate in the future, says Haase, including flood-risk areas like New York, London, Singapore and Kiribati. Moreover, Louisiana’s coastal restoration sector is fueling high-tech projects like artificial oyster reef creation, advanced hydrologic modeling and geosynthetics, which will help shore up the state’s defenses against behemoth hurricanes and oil spills.
But in many ways, the Bayou State is scrambling to keep pace with rising sea levels of apocalyptic proportions — and it won’t be long before Louisiana’s borrowed time runs out.