Documenting Environmental History: Using Government Sources to Understand Louisiana’s Coastal Erosion Crisis

August 29, 2018, marked the thirteenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall near the border between Louisiana and Mississippi. In the hours and days following the storm’s arrival in 2005, the world watched in disbelief as the hurricane protection levees in New Orleans failed, leaving 80% of the city submerged under water while thousands of people waited to be rescued from rooftops, attics, and even the Super Dome. By the time the US Army Corps of Engineers dried out the city in October, citizens, government officials, and the media were asking just what had gone so terribly wrong.

Multiple investigations into the disaster by state and federal agencies revealed numerous issues, including a lack of coordinated emergency-response planning and shoddy engineering and maintenance for the region’s levee systems. Findings from the inquiries also made clear that another problem had contributed to the devastation brought about by Katrina—the ongoing loss of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands.

Among the many ecological services the state’s swamps and marshes perform, one of the most important is to buffer against the storm surge that’s generated by major weather events like a hurricane. The vegetation functions as a “brake” of sorts and absorbs some of the energy and water created by a storm as it moves onshore. Unfortunately, over 1,800 square miles of wetlands have disappeared from Louisiana’s coastline since the 1930s, and when Katrina’s storm surge pushed into Plaquemines, St. Bernard, and Orleans Parishes, the were far fewer wetlands to act as a “brake” and help slow down the storm.

Consequently, major portions of the region’s levee systems collapsed under intense pressure, which eventually led to widespread flooding in New Orleans and nearby areas. The catastrophic results were enough to spur Louisiana to finally overhaul its coastal restoration and hurricane protection policies, and two years after Katrina, the state issued its first comprehensive master plan. Reception to the new strategy was mixed at the time, but the 2012 update received much more favorable reviews.

Louisiana’s Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast was the first government document I reviewed when I began researching the state’s coastal erosion problem in 2013. I had become interested in the loss of the wetlands while looking at the impacts of energy development in the South, and I quickly determined Louisiana’s coastal erosion crisis was a complex, multi-faceted issue that included a wide array of contributing factors. I also realized that the 2012 and 2007 master plans were merely the most recent attempts by scientists, policymakers, and concerned citizens to convince the state’s broader population (and the entire country) that the loss of the coastal wetlands was a long-standing, ongoing national disaster.

As I expanded my research into the policy responses to the state’s disappearing swamps and marshes, I eventually wound my way back to the early 1970s when the Louisiana Advisory Commission on Coastal and Marine Resources published three reports about the state’s erosion problems. In those documents, researchers and agency representatives informed the public about the potential consequences of coastal land loss and also made recommendations about how to address the crisis: comprehensive planning and management to preserve and protect the wetlands.

Other reports and plans followed the commission’s 1972 and 1973 publications. Each one often acknowledged the importance of comprehensive planning, and many eventually included calls for restoring some of the wetlands that had already been lost. By the early 1990s, the federal government had joined the state’s efforts to address the loss of the wetlands, but planning and management remained fragmented without a unified vision to oversee the coastal zone. In 1998, a collective of activists and local, state, and federal agencies released Coast 2050: Toward a Sustainable Coastal Louisiana, which finally provided the unified vision that had been called for since the early 1970s. Support for Coast 2050 was quite robust, and the Army Corps of Engineers began a series of feasibility studies to assess implementing preservation and restoration plans based on the 1998 report.

However, funding issues and politics soon bogged down any efforts to enact a coast-wide, comprehensive restoration and preservation agenda, and all the while, Louisiana’s wetlands continued to sink into the Gulf of Mexico. By the time Katrina’s storm surge shattered the hurricane protection levees, the state had over 30 years’ worth of government reports—not to mention multiple investigations by local journalists—warning just what would happen if a major hurricane hit the state’s tattered and increasingly fragile coastline.

Ecological crises or natural disasters often feel overwhelming and sudden when we see them on the news—a major flood here, a massive wildfire there. We watch first responders and normal citizens grapple with extraordinary circumstances and wonder how long before things go back to normal. Yet, as environmental historians, we know too well that these kinds of catastrophes are rarely immediate or random “acts of God.” The conditions that lead to the disaster often unfold over years, if not decades, and are generally driven by piecemeal, incremental decision-making in politics, economics, and society at large.

One of the strengths of our field is that we can draw together these disparate choices and varied, sometimes seemingly unrelated situations to piece together the bigger picture. We can see the impacts of land development, energy production, or economic policies and weave them all together into a narrative that tells us not just about the hurricane but about how the crisis began well before wind and water mixed together to form a tropical cyclone. Government reports and policy plans can be invaluable resources to trace the story of a long-term catastrophe like Louisiana’s coastal erosion crisis or a more immediate disaster like Katrina. Official documents help provide a window into what people knew, when they knew it, and what they did about it. While other sources should be included and relied upon as we formulate our history, using government-based materials can help create a full, nuanced story of how humans and the environment interact with one another.


*Featured image credit: New Orleans, LA on August 29, 2005. Courtesy of US Coast Guard.