By Debra Knopman, Jordan Fischbach & David Groves, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Debra Knopman is vice president and director for RAND Justice, Infrastructure and Environment; Jordan Fischbach is an associate policy researcher; and David Groves is a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
Natural disasters have a way of concentrating minds and creating political openings for change that can otherwise be difficult to achieve under normal conditions. Indeed, infrastructure like subways, roads, bridges, tunnels, ports, water and wastewater systems, electricity and communications networks rarely make the news except when they fail.
The massive damage and disruption caused by “Super Storm” Sandy has created a rare moment when New York City, New Jersey and surrounding areas are singularly focused on the infrastructure they need in a changing environment – not just the infrastructure they already have thanks to the vision and investments of past generations.
It is actually a moment to look south – at how Louisiana has chosen to shape its post-Katrina approach to protecting coastal populations and restoring eroding coastal lands.
Louisiana’s 2012 Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast, approved by the state legislature in May, strikes a balance among protection, restoration, and natural processes. The master plan recognizes that economic damage from storms can be reduced through a mix of measures: not only relying on hard structures like levees and flood walls, but also by rebuilding coastal marshes where such lands can provide an additional line of defense, changing land use and elevating structures when economical, and surrendering land to the sea when not.
Louisiana’s regional approach represents a giant leap beyond the traditional planning methods used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop individual storm and flood protection projects.
Aided by its own small army of scientists and engineers, the state took a coast-wide and long-term view of its many options to reduce damage from storm surge and coastal flooding. At the same time, the state also sought to stem the accelerating loss of coastal lands that support commercial fisheries and other vital economic activity and provide a natural barrier to powerful storm surge.
Using a RAND model of storm surge flooding and damage along with models of other critical coastal processes, and a planning tool also developed by RAND, the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority led a process to evaluate hundreds of possible projects to understand their potential to reduce risk from storm surge flooding and their contribution to rebuilding coastal lands.
Alternatives consisting of dozens of the most promising projects were then evaluated for their cost effectiveness. These alternatives were also considered through the lens of different scenarios of sea level rise to help Louisiana take a long and prudent view of an uncertain climate future.
New York City and communities across the mid-Atlantic coast have a much larger population, vast amounts of economic assets at risk, and a more complex regional transportation system than Louisiana. Still, the fundamental choices for the region’s leaders are the same: protect vital assets with engineered solutions when necessary, take advantage of rather than fight natural processes, and concede the most vulnerable lands to the rising sea.
Thanks to Sandy, the region has the opportunity to embark on its own master plan and chart a course that will ensure its sustainability for the long haul.