New Orleans Could Be Underwater in 50 Years. Can Entrepreneurs Save the Day?

Crescent City Connection Bridge in New Orleans Louisiana.

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Why you should care

Because if nothing is done, the city will be facing another environmental threat.

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Just as New Orleans has started to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it faces another environmental threat: the gradual rise of the sea level.

 “If we don’t do anything, New Orleans will be underwater in 50 to 100 years,” says Andrea Chen, co-founder and executive director of Propeller, a New Orleans-based nonprofit incubator that’s tackling challenges the city might face from a changing ecology. In fact, it’s an issue that has motivated many entrepreneurs in the Big Easy, who have hit the drawing board to come up with ideas to protect the future of New Orleans while also rebuilding the city’s economy.

If sea-level rise continues the way experts predict — and it probably will — there will be a lot less outside of New Orleans, and the city will be much more prone to hurricanes.

Since it was founded in 2011, Propeller has helped launch more than 100 ventures, which collectively have generated $62 million in revenue and financing and created more than 270 jobs in New Orleans. Propeller’s work targets the water management sector with philanthropic support from JPMorgan Chase & Co. Some of the companies Propeller helps includes one specializing in underground rain harvesting systems and water-quality testing tools; another launched an environmental consulting company that has planted 100,000 cypress trees for storm protection.

“If sea level rise continues the way experts predict—and it probably will—there will be a lot less outside of New Orleans, and the city will be much more prone to hurricanes,” says Martin O’Connell, chair of the earth and environmental sciences department at the University of New Orleans. He explains that the Chandeleur Islands and the Biloxi Marshes—two coastal areas that currently protect New Orleans—are quickly eroding, which means there will be fewer physical barriers between the city and the next big storm.

New Orleans

New Orleans

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It’s up to the city’s innovators, he says, to come up with new inventions that can potentially save the day. And so far, startups are accepting the challenge. Take, for example Wetland Resources (also supported by Propeller), which is working on speeding up the process of planting hurricane-proof cypress seedlings from about seven minutes to 15 seconds. Another company, Urban Conservancy, which participated in Propeller’s Water Challenge in 2015, is helping to construct lawns that reduce flooding by using natural grass, which absorbs rainwater better than traditional paved lawns. 

New Orleans’ looming environmental challenges are also pushing educators to train the next generation of a workforce that’s fluent in environmental technologies, like coastal restoration, sustainable fishing and rebuilding habitats, O’Connell says. “As we try to stop southern Louisiana from disappearing over the next 50 years, there will be a great need to fill local jobs with trained people like this,” he says.

Propeller’s support is far-reaching, and the organization also plays a crucial role in supporting projects ranging from barbershops to vegetable markets to coding boot-camps.

“We wanted to ensure that the grassroots energy and momentum carried through in the months and years following Hurricane Katrina, even after the initial volunteers all went home and the media attention went away. We wanted this movement of people who were just seeing needs and filling them, we wanted that movement to grow,” says Andrea Chen, co-founder and executive director of Propeller.

For many entities in New Orleans, monetary support is vital in transitioning an idea from concept to reality. 

“Recently, one of our graduates was given a grant to plant trees to help restore a natural ridge line, which is another barrier to storm surge,” O’Connell says. “This is positive stuff, but if the adequate funds are not made available to make all of this happen, then we are fighting a losing battle.”

Needless to say, moving forward is better than standing still. “There’s this high-level issue, and we need more people innovating around coastal restoration,” Chen says. “If not, the local economy won’t exist, and we won’t exist.”