by Daniel Cusick
Flooding in New Orleans’ historically Black communities was a problem long before Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city in 2005. And it’s only likely to get worse as climate change heats the planet, raises sea levels and increases the chance of major rain events.
Which is why locals are rallying around a new approach — one that marries economic opportunity with a greener approach to infrastructure that includes rain gardens, rain barrels and pavement that can help drain stormwater.
The strategy already is showing promise in iconic New Orleans neighborhoods such as Desire, Tremé and what is now called Musicians’ Village. Part of the appeal is that this approach can yield big financial dividends.
An economic analysis released yesterday by the Water Wise Gulf South Coalition found that for every $1 spent on green infrastructure in disadvantaged New Orleans neighborhoods, it yields $6 in social, economic and environmental benefits.
“We expect people — particularly Black and Brown communities — to be resilient following a natural disaster. What we really need is resilient green to prevent flooding damage and help communities recover faster and more equitably,” Angela Chalk, executive director of Healthy Community Services, a New Orleans-based nonprofit and member of the Water Wise Gulf South Coalition, said in a statement.
“It’s time for the local, state and federal government to start listening to our communities and invest in solutions to build equitable and lasting green infrastructure that creates enormous economic opportunity,” she added.
The 23-page economic feasibility study — done by the consulting firm Earth Economics of Tacoma, Wash. — is consistent with other studies on green infrastructure spending by independent researchers. And it aligns with cost-benefit analyses from the American Society of Civil Engineers on pre-disaster mitigation spending.
New Orleans, built below sea level on alluvial soils deposited by the Mississippi River, has always flooded, both from tropical storms and extreme rain events that can drop inches of water per hour over the city. Officials have long met flood risk with hard infrastructure and engineering solutions like levees, floodwalls and pumps designed to keep the bowl-shaped city dry.
“However, this aging infrastructure cannot effectively pump out all water when needed, resulting in frequent flooding, particularly in low-lying areas of the city that historically have been home to low-income communities of color,” the analysis found.
“Small-scale urban flooding is also a regular nuisance in neighborhoods that lack adequate storm drains and other drainage infrastructure, where blocked storm drains, illegal driveways that impair the drainage system, and extensive impervious concrete surfaces exist.”
To date, the Water Wise coalition has completed more than 140 green infrastructure projects in New Orleans’ Seventh and Upper Ninth wards, as well as in the historic Tremé district where jazz music came of age in the early 20th century.
Those projects — funded largely with private and foundation dollars — have created an additional 48,000 gallons of stormwater retention capacity, officials say, mostly through the removal of impervious surfaces and the construction of rain gardens, bioswales, stormwater planter boxes, pervious pavement and rain barrels.
It’s not enough, organizers say. While climate change is driving flood frequency and intensity to new levels, it’s often short of what’s required to trigger a federal disaster declaration. That dynamic shifts much of the recovery cost burden to flood insurance and private homeowners who may lack the resources to rebuild.
“If the government doesn’t invest in the infrastructure that Black communities need to safely manage stormwater levels, then those communities are forced to solve their neighborhoods’ flooding problems themselves. That’s just wrong,” said Jeff Supak, co-founder of Water Wise Gulf South.
The demand for green infrastructure spending in historically Black New Orleans communities dovetails with efforts by the Biden administration to push two massive infrastructure bills through Congress, including spending for disadvantaged and underserved communities.
“Our green infrastructure projects in NOLA — and the associated economic benefits of creating resilient climate infrastructure — can serve as a playbook for government officials to help scale projects like ours nationwide,” Supak added. “It’s the only economically viable path forward.”
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