The Grass is Always Greener

New Orleans and the climate change catch-up game

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When the words green and Nola are connected in a sentence, let’s talk about the elephant in the room.  

Whether a person is from here, or has moved to New Orleans from somewhere else, it can be downright disheartening to live in a city where environmental best practices are as rare as an accessible Port-A-Potty during Mardi Gras parades. 

When something as basic as recycling is still MIA five months after Hurricane Ida, when littering is an accepted practice throughout the city and catch basins are constantly overflowing with building debris and trash, it ain’t that easy bein’ green, to quote an existential stuffed frog.  According to the finance company WalletHub, Louisiana ranks 49th in a recent survey on states rated for their positive environmental policies. The only place we scored high was energy consumption per capita. 

But, and thankfully there is a but, there are grassroots leaders making a difference every day in the city. Passionate environmentalists, trained scientists, climate change watchdogs –  all hard at work and making incremental and impressive progress. It’s enough to give a person hope. Or at least it’s a start.


School of Thought

When Mark Kulp started teaching at UNO in 2000, he was a professor in the “Geology and Geo-Physics” department. Over the next few years, universities around the country, including UNO in 2005, switched the department’s name and focus to “Earth and Environmental Sciences,” with the hope that “UNO-EES will provide the next generation of geoscience stewards for Louisiana’s coast and natural resources.”

As to how passionate his students are and continue to be about environmental science, climate change and coastal erosion, Kulp offers anecdotal information he’s observed over his 22-year science career. 

“We changed the name right before Katrina, then of course everything was a mess for a few years. When we got going again, where we’d been averaging about 50 undergraduate students, we were up to 140 students. I don’t have qualitative evidence to support this, but my sense is that the spike in enrollment was driven by observing the firsthand effects that Katrina had on our environment,” he recalled. “Students really saw the effect of climate change firsthand, the disruption in everybody’s lives. They saw what happened to the Louisiana coast. That pulled all the tree huggers out of the audience.” 

The wave of students continued to come; students intent on figuring out solutions to a host of problems facing the planet. Although numbers dropped off when there was a major downturn in the economy, they are still higher than pre-Katrina, he added. He’s also seeing older students, who may have tried college once and left to work instead. “Now they’re seeing the need for a college degree and have focused on an area that matters to them, in their late 20s.” 

The jobs are out there, working for state or federal governmental agencies that deal with storm frequency, coastal change, geological shifts in the environment or invasive species that are overrunning waterways.   

Kulp noted an eye-opening map devised by Mike Blum and Harry Roberts, geologists at Louisiana State University, who projected what the Louisiana coastline would look like in the year 2100. Although scientists have studied the delta for decades, no one had quantified how much sediment pours into the delta – one of the most essential dynamics of the ecosystem – until Blum and Roberts took that on, according to an article about the project in Earth Magazine. The geologists came to one conclusion. “No matter the scenario, not enough sediment flows down the Mississippi and into the delta to prevent much of it from slowly disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico,” the 2012 article stated.  

Ten years later, the news remains grim. According to the United State Geological Survey (USGS) Louisiana’s barrier islands are eroding at a rate of up to 20 meters per year; so fast that, according to recent USGS estimates, several will disappear by the end of the century, leaving a vast system of once-sheltered wetlands exposed. The effect this has on the people of the state, many of whom rely on the more than $1 billion seafood industry, cannot be underestimated. 

“We work at the intersection of society and science,” said Kulp. “There is real relevance to the science we are developing in this area. I see some students who are really starting to realize that their fears for the future, for the Louisiana coast, for the earth in general, are very real. And they are passionate about change.” 


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A Master Plan for the Coast

“One wants to be optimistic, right?” posits Denise Reed, a former UNO professor who now works extensively with other scientists to prepare a master plan for the Louisiana coast, a plan legislated after Katrina. Reed, who is originally from the U.K. but has lived in Louisiana since 1986, has a front row view of the action from her home in Terrebonne Parish. 

 “We’ve made enormous strides in our efforts to do something about coastal land loss and protection since the mid-90s,” she said. “When I started in the 80s, there really wasn’t a happening on the advocacy side or governmental side.” The first big breakthrough came in 1990, when Louisiana Senators J. Bennett Johnston and John Breaux presented their case to help save the vanishing wetlands by successfully persuading Congress to enact the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act (CWPPRA). Often referred to as simply “The Breaux Act,” CWPPRA was the first federally mandated restoration effort to take place along Louisiana’s coast and the first program to provide a stable source of federal funds dedicated specifically to coastal restoration.

That legislation generated $40 million a year. “We were over the moon that we had this money and could start doing something,” she recalled. But the more data were gathered, scientists quickly realized this was not a $40 million a year problem. Reed was one of a group of people in the room spit-balling just how much money they really did need. “We came up with this number, $14 billion, flipping heck! But that’s the number that was going to get us there. We never thought we’d get the money.”

Dialing forward to now and there is an entire state agency, the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) focused on the coast, protecting people from flooding and coastal restoration. “That has put huge numbers of projects on the ground and we are starting to see a difference.” While most are fairly small, they are getting bigger, with a team now in the process of designing and getting engineering together for individual restoration projects that cost $2 billion and up. 

“People have to realize that while we use the word restoration, there’s no turning the clock back on this. It’s not like restoring an old rocking chair, just strip off the paint and make it look like new again,” she said.  “The coast is broken. We’ve messed it up. What we are restoring are the processes that keep the coast going and sustainable.” 

As a member of the working coastal community of scientists, modelers, agency staff, advocates, nature conservancies and researchers, Reed has faith. “Of course, I worry that we’re not doing enough, soon enough. But there is a lot to celebrate. We’re training students that are motivated to work on this and keep the work going.” 

She’s never thought of doing anything but this work, with current research including sediment dynamics and restoration in Louisiana, the Columbia River estuary and the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta. “Sometimes I say to people, you can’t work on coastal Louisiana and not be optimistic,” Reed said. “You’d never get out of bed in the morning. We are restoring the processes that keep the coast going and are sustainable.” 


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Bringing Neighbors to the Conversation

Julia Kumari Drapkin believes that every resident in this town is an expert in their own backyard when it comes to how their neighborhood is affected by climate. It’s one big reason the multimedia news producer founded the social impact company ISeeChange, an outgrowth of a career spent covering natural disasters tied to climate change. 

ISeeChange is a community data and dialogue program designed to give local neighbors the tools and the platform to tell their stories about how extreme heat and flooding is affecting them in their own backyard. “There’s no better scientist then a homeowner who has seen what’s been going on in their neighborhood for years,” she said. These community stories are then sold to subscribers, the engineers and agencies who use them to make a better levee, flood plan or whatever it is they are working on. 

Kumari Drapkin, a Gulf Coast and Gentilly resident, calls ISeeChange a global platform with local initiatives. A lot of the work the group is doing relates to the Gentilly Resilience District, created when the city of New Orleans got $141.2 million in funding through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC) to look at Hurricane Isaac damage in 2012.  

The project’s goals include storing storm water, relieving extreme heat in underserved neighborhoods and creating recreational spaces and other improvements to social well-being. Folks were taught how to use the same rain gauges used by the National Weather Service to measure rainfall, which came in very handy when more than nine inches of rain fell on August 5, 2017. “This ground level research provides much more granularity than the city’s initiatives on climate impact. You really need community members involved to provide critical details to planning for the long term.” 

 Data made a difference, revealing that water models were underestimating flooding in some lower income neighborhoods and overestimating it in higher income areas. “The engineers redid the models and $4.8 million was reallocated to lower income neighborhoods,” she said. Kumari Drapkin is also doing similar flood reporting work for the city of Miami and Ocean City, New Jersey. “We want the Sewerage and Water Board to have this data,” she said.  

Heat tracking using sensors on utility poles and sensors mounted on cars revealed that low-income residents suffered disproportionately from the heat. “They were more at risk, especially as low-income renters sometimes at the mercy of negligent landlords who wouldn’t service the AC or evicted them when they complained. We saw holes in roofs, mold.

“The home is the first defense against climate change. How can we help these most vulnerable deal with climate change?” The easy-to-use platform – think of it as Nextdoor for climate or Waze for weather – allows people to tell their own stories without having to show up at a meeting. “The people who have the most to add to the conversation, are the least heard,” she said. “That isn’t right and it hurts us all.” 


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Trees for One and All 

Acres of concrete and a dearth of trees increase the risk of flooding and amplify the effects of heat in the poorest urban neighborhoods, problems that are directly connected to decades of race-based housing segregation and the current and predicted impacts of climate change.

Susannah Burley believes that the solution lies, at least in part, in trees. Burley, who has a Master of Landscape Architecture degree from LSU, oversaw the ReLeaf tree planting program at Parkway Partners for four years, a New Orleans-based non-profit. In 2016 she founded SOUL in order to reforest New Orleans at a meaningful scale strategically. 

SOUL, a.k.a. Sustaining Our Urban Landscape, is driving a resilient and environmentally equitable New Orleans by reforesting the urban landscape. After hearing over and over again that New Orleans was the most deforested city in America because of Katrina, she didn’t see an over-arching strategic plan in place to change that. “There’s a great inequity in tree distribution. The last thing somebody who can barely pay rent will spend money on is a tree.”

Rather than expecting people to opt into the program by applying online, SOUL targets one  street and neighborhood after another, with the neighbors given the option of opting out of having scrappy native trees planted by volunteers, free of charge. Clusters of tough, native to Louisiana trees serve to better stave off flooding, reduce pollution, improve community health, and provide beauty and shade. 

“Scattered plantings don’t do anything for storm water,” she said. “Now whole blocks, that really makes a difference when it comes to absorbing noticeable volumes of water and improving the air quality. Trees contribute to neighborhood resilience in a real way.”

Burley is hyper focused on reforesting new Orleans with a goal of 100,000 trees on public property. “The city doesn’t have a master plan or a heritage tree plan. We put a lot of emphasis on architectural preservation, but we don’t have a plan to protect our tree canopy. Although there is a goal in place for a 50 percent tree canopy by 2030, there was no baseline.” SOUL did an accounting which showed that New Orleans has less than a 20 percent tree canopy now. 

“My first priority is making people realize that if we don’t fundamentally change how we are living, there’s not going to be a New Orleans as we know it in 100 years. Politics need to be put aside to focus on the reality and science of climate change.” 

New Orleanians are known for taking a laissez-faire attitude towards the many things that are broken about the city, from the flooding and drainage to the potholes to the lack of tree canopy in urban neighborhoods. “We can only plant 1500 trees a year. It’ll take more than that to fix the problem,” said Burley.


Their Mission is Crystal

It seemed like especially during the pandemic lockdown, those empty wine bottles really started to add up. Although New Orleans, like so many municipalities, doesn’t offer glass recycling, Glass Half Full is on the job. 

Launched in February 2020 by Tulane graduates Max Steitz and Franziska Trautmann, Glass Half Full collects household bottles to make usable commercial products and materials to help stave coastal erosion. The service is working so well that it recently won the 2021 seventh annual Start-up St. Bernard pitch competition, earning nearly $100,000 in prize money from the Meraux Foundation and St. Bernard Economic Development Foundation. 

It’s easy to get involved. Bottles are collected at various drop off points around the city, with the central location at 3935 Louisa St.  For a small fee, they’ll even pick up at your door.  Glass is then sorted by color, pulverized and processed into sand, cullet – broken pieces and labels.  

Sandbags full of the glass sand are donated to flood emergencies, used for coastal restoration research or sold to terrazzo flooring manufacturers, landscapers and gardeners, explained Trautmann. Glass Half Full has done incredible work in the short amount of time they have been in operation, collecting glass not only from individuals but from a short list of restaurants and bars. At this time, about 100,000 pounds of glass is recycled every moth, about 70,000 pounds dropped off, and 30,000 pounds from the pickup program.

What started as a what-if conversation over a bottle of wine between friends is now a full-time business, with six employees and a team of volunteers at the ready.  Intent on making a difference in coastal restoration and levee maintenance,  providing disaster relief and chipping away at landfills, Glass Half Full also uses its recycled product for something everybody identifies with, Mardi Gras beads. 

With plans for a large-scale recycling plant in St. Bernard Parish down the road, Glass Half Full will be making a difference for years to come. Bottom line, pulverizing recycled glass into sand adds up to a more than $70 billion a year industry, a forward-thinking field that can bring the color of money to the region. And chip away at the notion that green doesn’t matter in New Orleans. 

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