On a recent hot and humid summer afternoon on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I head west in my rental car on I-10. It is eleven years nearly to the day since Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast. Debris has been removed and many of the levees and floodwalls have been repaired. And houses have been fixed or rebuilt.
Yet residents of the Gulf Coast continue to struggle not only with destructive weather and coastal land loss, but with the tension created between preserving their community and protecting it.
I have returned to the Gulf Coast for the first time since 2010, when I was here with the Institute for Sustainable Communities. After Katrina, we worked with city government and nonprofit leaders, building their capacity to better serve their community and help it to be stronger and more resilient.
In my current position with Public Agenda, I am continuing to work in the region, building public engagement infrastructure. This summer I traveled across the Gulf Coast to see how community leaders are doing since the devastating storm. And I witnessed firsthand the tension created by efforts to build community resiliency in the face of climate change.
In Gulfport, Mississippi, I visited Turkey Creek, a small community established by freed slaves. In this historically African-American community, words like sustainability, resiliency and climate justice mean something very different for residents like local activist Derrick Evans than what local government officials claim they mean. Regardless of the intent behind them, many residents view resiliency efforts as a constant struggle to not be planned out of existence. “The most unsustainable type of community is one for which someone else has different plans for its future,” Derrick says.
Residents of bayou communities in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes share this sentiment. There, in between stories about the history of the land and the unique culture, peppered with Cajun jokes, I discussed with residents how things have been since I was last working in the area. One of the residents, Patty Whitney, or Miss Patty, described sustainability from her perspective:
“I live in the same community my great-great-great grandfathers and grandmothers lived. No matter the ethnic group, for most of the ethnic groups in our area we’ve been there for significantly long periods of time. We have been sustained by our communities, within our communities. With the coastal land loss problem, for us the word ‘sustainability’ means will my grandchildren be able to live in this same community? We’re losing land at the rate of one football field of land every 36-40 minutes, so I have to be involved because if not the heritage that I love so much the culture that I love so much will no longer be there in the next 20 years.”
I left Terrebonne parish and headed to Plaquemines parish on the southern-most tip of the state. There, I met Chief Myrtle Phillips in her ancestral community, Grand Bayou—a remote Native American fishing village located on barrier islands.
As we took a boat through the islands, I was saddened to hear a similar thread from community to community—things are perhaps worse than they were in 2010. Although much of the money and resources have largely dried up, the depth of the problems have increased.
On my way to New Orleans I stopped by the Lower Ninth Ward. Made famous by its near total devastation, it is truly inspiring to the see how much of the community is rebuilding. Houses are being repaired, stores are popping up and schools are being rebuilt. This neighborhood has nurtured some incredible leaders, including Pam Dashiells, a community activist for environmental justice. Although, Miss Pam passed away in 2009. she was and is an inspiration to many in the movement to rebuild better and stronger. I remember when she spoke with me about rebuilding the Ninth Ward and what people don’t understand when they ask, “Why bother?”:
“The watchword is rebuilding to the land as it is, to the climate, to the place. Accepting the fact that we are at the confluence of three bodies of water and working from that. I got the question this morning, “Well, why would you do that?” We all get these questions all the time. And the answer is because we love this place. Cause it’s a great place and because there is no safe place. New York is an island. Washington, DC is on a big river. We are the canary in the coalmine here on the Gulf Coast and not just the Lower Ninth Ward either.”
“We love this place.” Communities along the Gulf Coast have been home for many residents for generations. In their efforts to protect these communities, developers and officials must respect and seek to understand the reaction many community members have to sustainability and resiliency efforts.
As we’re again inundated with headlines about flooding disasters in Louisiana and throughout other communities along the Gulf, the tension between preserving and protecting is unlikely to go away. Now, more than ten years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast, as cities continue to rebuild and repair the physical infrastructure—homes are being rebuilt, levees and floodwalls repaired—there is increased urgency around the need to strengthen the civic infrastructure as well. These are communities that have been connected by land and culture for centuries and are now increasingly in danger of losing their homes and their way of life.