Thoughts on the Building Resilience Workshop V ~Ezra Boyd, PhD

Posted on March 20, 2014 By

Last week, the Building Resilience Workshop V brought together residents, community activists, NGOs, scientists, planners, and policymakers with an interest in building the resiliency of Louisiana’s coastal population.  Held for two days at the Lindy Boggs Conference Center, this year’s workshop examined the theme of “Communities on the Edge”.  While focusing on the dilemma of retreat & relocated or restore & protect for Louisiana’s coastal communities, the workshop included a variety of national and international perspectives.

From a technical-policy standpoint, three key policy issues dominated many of the presentations and panels:  house raising, community resettlement, and flood insurance reform.  However, the discussion inevitably strayed toward what was described as the “elephant in the room” meaning the unequal power relationships that have let a few stakeholders extract huge benefits from Louisiana’s working coast while shifting the costs of the damage from those activities to other parties, particularly residents.  More than just a hydraulic engineering issue, many panelists framed the barriers to a resilient coastal population and ecosystems as essentially a social justice issue.

When framed this way, the discussion of relocating or protecting takes on a whole new light.  In many technical respects, telling communities on the edge that have they to retreat from the rising sea and eroding coast makes a lot of sense.  Similarly, requiring someone’s living room has to be 15 ft. above the ground because their community doesn’t pass the cost-benefit analysis for levee protection makes sense when hydraulics and property values are the only factors being considered.  However, if the problem is essentially one of social justice, how does these policies contribute to solving that problem?

In fact, instead of resolving it, the argument that tearing apart communities, relocating working people from their working environment, relocating special needs populations from their safety net, relocating people to hazardous environments, adding to the stress and strain of a families recovery, exposing homes to greater wind speeds, dropping houses on construction workers, and creating mobility obstacles for the elderly and infirm contributes to the ongoing social injustice.  Indeed, the policy options of house raising requirements, community resettlement, and flood insurance rate increases do nothing to redress the underlying social  injustices.  Furthermore, they explicitly shift the costs onto citizens while not holding the responsible parties accountable for the catastrophic loss of resiliency across the Louisiana coast.
Among the workshop participants, the consensus was that any solution must be collaborative.  In this regards, collaborative solutions requires acknowledging that people do not simply give up their homes and communities in the face of a grave social injustice.  At the very least, those who strongly favor resettlement, house raising, and increased flood insurance premiums should acknowledge that these policies not only fail to address the root causes of the problem but, in many ways, contribute to underlying social injustice by the shifting costs  to residents and away from those who undermine the resiliency of the coast in the first place.

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