Living in Louisiana

“Times are not good here. The city is crumbling into ashes. It has been buried under taxes and frauds and maladministrations so that it has become a study for archaeologists… but it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio.”                         Lafcadio Hearn, letter to a friend, 1879

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Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Thomas

Yesterday I served food to a woman who hadn’t eaten in nine days, and to another woman shaking from hypoglycemia. I was volunteering in Walker, Louisiana at a church, a temporary site where people can sign up for DSNAP benefits. These people are the working poor and most have lost their homes and jobs to the unprecedented flooding of Louisiana over the last two weeks. Seeing these people in person rather than on the news was a powerful experience, and it reminded me of why I’m doing this, why I’ve gone out on a limb, with a husband, a 3-year-old, and a house note, to start Sustaining Our Urban Landscape, SOUL, yet another NGO in New Orleans.

We have been hit hard for the second time in 12 years. And we’ll get hit again, likely soon. Hurricane Katrina was a 100-year-storm. The nameless floods that we are presently recovering from are 1,000-year-floods. The next one just may be a 2,000-year-event, and we must be prepared.

Our bodies and souls and bank accounts can’t keep doing this. We can’t continue losing our homes, and businesses and shirts, just to build it all back…. the same way.

We  must take a step back, zoom out and strategically rebuild as a system. Then we can safely  live through the floods and hurricanes that are a part of life here in Louisiana. Sure, we’ll have to take a week off and dust ourselves off. But if we rebuild so that we can live harmoniously with the forces of nature, and the manmade repercussions of climate change, then our future recoveries will be a lot swifter and easier on us.

We need a massive reforestation of Louisiana. Mature, native, water-loving trees like Live Oaks and Bald Cypress drink up to 1,000 gallons of water per day and should be as common and beloved a site in our urban and rural landscapes as Saints bumper stickers. One huge impetus behind founding SOUL is the very large goal of replanting New Orleans, the most deforested city in the U.S.! But rural Louisiana suffers from deforestation as well, largely due to short-sighted development of subdivisions and commercial areas that raze the forest and level the land before construction. Trees are essential to our resilience as they absorb stormwater into their root systems and transpire it back into the air. A mature tree produces enough oxygen for ten people, and can lower our air temperatures by up to two degrees. The benefits of trees are endless, and our futures rely on them.

It’s time to respect the gravity of gravity. It there’s one thing we can always count on, it’s that water will always travel downhill. Thus, it is vital that water has an unobstructed path to its nearest floodplain or basin. Rural Louisiana has many flood plains and small water bodies like creeks that are bisected by roads. During heavy rains these spots turn into dams and cause massive flooding as water seeks a lower point of gravity.

New construction should be raised to a level accommodating a 2,000-year storm. Considering how quickly our disasters are growing in intensity and frequency, it only makes sense that we should build new homes and businesses according to future storm levels. We’re recovering from a 1,000-year flood, so let’s rebuild to a 2,000-year disaster this time. Many of the structures that were damaged were built at grade on slab. Cities must stop allowing development that ignores our hydrology and natural history, for the sake of developers maximizing their profits.

We need to integrate “green infrastructure” into every aspect of our lives. If you’re not already familiar with this term, it refers to infrastructure that mimics natural systems and harnesses stormwater at its source. Essentially its goal is to get water back into the ground and into the water table.

Like grey infrastructure, such as canals and roads, green infrastructure must be built at a meaningful scale and properly integrated into the systems we call cities and parishes. This could mean a city repaving its streets with permeable asphalt, or grading streets so their water drains into a detention area, NOT toward homes and businesses. When we cover the earth with impermeable surfaces like concrete and rooftops, water can’t get back into the ground to the water table; eventually the water table shrinks and subsides, taking our topography down with it. If the water can’t permeate the ground, then it floods during large rain events.

Every new street, parking lot or sidewalk should be constructed of materials that water can penetrate. Every road should be part of a larger comprehensive drainage plan, eventually sending water back into the water table.

All of the above concepts are pretty simple. But they involve changing our consciousness around resilience from the citizen level to the Governor’s mansion; and they require the decision makers at the city, state and even regional levels sitting down to the same table to address our road, hydrology, and forestry systems as interconnected and reliant on one another.

One thing is for sure, we citizens of Louisiana want to stay in this strange, beautiful gumbo of a place we choose to call home. But we can’t keep crossing our fingers that we won’t have to shoulder another disaster that didn’t have to happen.


What is SOUL going to do? SOUL believes that a healthy and substantial urban forest is critical to New Orleans’ ability to live harmoniously with stormwater, perhaps our most central challenge. But like grey infrastructure, such as canals and roads, the urban forest and other forms of green infrastructure must be built at a meaningful scale, and properly integrated into the system we call a city. This is not happening in New Orleans. SOUL intends to change this, and is dedicated to strategically reforesting New Orleans, one neighborhood at a time.

Click here to learn more about our reforestation program. If you are interested in sponsoring a tree planting event or supporting the organization, please contact Susannah Burley.

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