America's Vanishing Coastline: Climate Adaptation and Decision-Making in Southern Louisiana

At the first Log Lunch of the spring semester, Katy Hall, associate professor at Williams-Mystic, and Natalie DiNenno ’18 presented “America’s Vanishing Coastline: Climate Adaptation and Decision-Making in Southern Louisiana.” The presentation was adapted from research DiNenno conducted for Hall’s marine policy class when she attended Williams-Mystic in spring 2017.

In the talk, Hall and DiNenno gave an overview of the land loss that is currently occurring in Louisiana. In an area that is already subsiding, climate change exacerbates sea level rise, flooding, and storm surge. With no future action, Louisiana could lose up to 2,250 square miles of coastal land in the next 50 years. The options for action are, however, limited. In accordance with the federal Coastal Zone Management Act, Louisiana has developed a Coastal Master Plan, the most recent version of which was approved in 2017. The $50 billion plan lays out projects that are intended to restore, build and maintain land. But as Hall and DiNenno point out, the plan leaves out some of Louisiana’s most vulnerable and its efficacy is, at best, uncertain. DiNenno showed two images of a beach in Grand Isle, taken 6 months apart, in which it is painfully obvious that beach renourishment simply won’t work long term.

If restoration won’t work, then it seems obvious for us to ask why Louisianans can’t—or won’t—just retreat from the coast. Louisiana’s coasts are home to incredible amounts of biodiversity and unique cultures, not to mention economic activity. Hall and DiNenno profiled two native tribes who live in some of the most vulnerable parts of the coast. In 2001, the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi Chitimacha Choctaw Indians learned that the single road to their island would no longer be protected through the Coastal Master Plan. Since then, they have been planning a retreat, and 17 years later have entered the final stages of this process. They don’t want to leave, but what choice do they have? Their island, which was once 32,000 acres, is now a mere 320, and shrinking by the hour. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development National Disaster Resilience Competition awarded the state of Louisiana $39 million to fund the Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (LA SAFE) program. Funding from this grant has been dedicated to the Isle de Jean Charles tribe, but the Dulac/Grand Caillou Band of Biloxi Chitimacha Choctaw Indians has so far not been included. During the Williams-Mystic Louisiana field seminar, students visited Dulac and met Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar, who DiNenno later interviewed for her project. Hall showed images of the Dulac cemetery and spoke passionately about the incredible loss that is being suffered by these people.

Hall concluded with the assertion that “we value what we understand, and we protect what we value.” In Louisiana, this means that if people value oil and energy, they will protect those interests. But if understanding and value were to shift in favor of culture and people, it would be a different story. While Williams College students may not be able to protect Louisiana, she said, they can fight for what they value both here in Williamstown, at home, and wherever they may go after college.