THE LONG GOODBYE: AN UNFORTUNATELY GOOD EXAMPLE OF CLIMATE PIONEERS
a Cc interview with mathew sanders
In early 2015, Congress appropriated a billion dollars for something called the National Disaster Resilience Competition, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The competition essentially asked 67 states and municipalities to contemplate their future disaster risks and to develop approaches to mitigate those risks. One of the big "winners" of the competition was Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (LA SAFE), a program headed by Mathew Sanders, an urban planner specializing in climate resilience. Over half of the $92 million awarded to LA SAFE will go towards relocating residents of Isle de Jean Charles in southern Terrebonne Parish. The island has lost 98% of its land to erosion and subsidence, forcing residents—members of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe—to consider resettlement in earnest. (See the tribe's website for more information.) This would be the first full-scale community resettlement project of its kind.
I spoke with Sanders on February 25, 2019, four days after a contentious hearing before the Houma-Terrebonne Planning Commission. While the particulars of the project are still being negotiated, land has been purchased in Schriever on what had very recently been a working sugar cane field. As the project transitions from the conceptual design phase to actual groundbreaking, Sanders took some time to reflect on the project's history and future.
Mathew Sanders (MS): Obviously, we have a significant land-loss sea-level rise problem currently in Louisiana. Our general approach was to develop a strategy around land use based on how we understand current and future risks, specifically along our coasts, specific to surge flooding risks. How should we think about the use of land in development patterns based on what we know today and what we can reasonably expect in the future? We generally started talking about three different types of scenarios, if you will.
One scenario would entail the resettlement scenario that we’re working on with Isle de Jean Charles. Another scenario entails those coastal communities that do have a reasonable chance to survive into the future, but will need significant mitigation activities to take place for that to be a reality, and the third scenario would be those communities that are naturally better protected from the disaster. Those places would be ideal to receive population over a pattern of time.
So, with those typologies in mind, we started seeking out examples for how we would think through that type of approach to land use. And through that process, we came to learn of the island Isle de Jean Charles and the people there, and the understanding that they’re outside of the furthest reaches of the most significant structural risk reduction plan the state currently has planned. And just based on satellite imagery, and in talking to people down there, we have a pretty good understanding of the island. It has withered away over a long period of time, and it’s really not going to be suitable for habitation in the future, so it is an unfortunately good example of the type of place that’s not going to be viable moving forward. In slightly more fortunate terms, there’s a population there that understand that to some extent. And they’ve been working with us in a pioneering fashion to figure out if this type of project can work.
Carbon Copy (Cc): Elsewhere, climate migration has been fairly ad hoc and self-selecting. But with this project—the federal funding, state planning, community collaboration—pioneering is an understatement. Is there an 'if we build it, they will come' mentality in the program you work with?
MS: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. As you said, everything is voluntary, but historically this has been a fairly tightly-knit community. People are in most cases related to other people on the island. And then you have populations of folks that have moved off over several generations at this point that are also part of this family-like construct, if you will. If we can take as much input as we can from those people regarding their way of life, their culture, the things that are important to them regarding their own social network regarding how their community has at some point in the past thrived and embed those principles into the new development, then yeah, I think the current idea is if we’re able to build it, we think it will provide a certain magnetic quality to those folks.
Cc: I've seen this anthropological phrase floating around in the planning documentation. Who exactly has participated in the definition of what is ‘historically contextual’ for this island?
MS: We conduct outreach and engagement on the island on a weekly basis. We also have a steering committee that has nine representatives, five of which are current island residents. Then there are two tribes that lay claim to the island—they each have a representative—and then the parish that we’re working in and the state governor’s [office] each have a representative, so we set it up in a way that we want to make sure the people who are living on the island have majority rule, if you will, while bringing together an array of stakeholder groups that have an interest in the project.
Cc: One irresistible narrative out there is that the tribe is destined to be America's first climate refugees. Does the LA SAFE program have an official take on that? How about you personally?
MS: I think that’s been a media-derived term. It’s not a term I’ve ever used or have much appreciation for. You know, I don’t know that we as an organization have taken any particular stand on that term in any comprehensive way, but I would say just from my own perspective, I don’t really think they meet the definition of what a refugee is. But I would say, as I suggested earlier, they’re pioneers more than anything. I think they understand a future condition that may necessitate that type of refugee status, and they’re trying to get ahead of it before it really comes to that, so I would hope we, as a state, and hopefully as a global community can get ahead of those scenarios before it really becomes a refugee-type situation.
Cc: Is most resistance to this project coming from within or from the outside?
Is it a logistical, political, or emotional kind of resistance?
MS: I’ll answer the questions in a few different ways. I think we’re all cognizant of the fact that it’s a really difficult scenario to contemplate the idea that we have communities, in existence today, that can see their relative lifespans on account of the permutations of land loss and sea-level rise. I think that’s a really, really difficult thing to accept in terms that are anything but extremely emotionally charged. We refer to this as ‘the long goodbye.’ I’ll name just a few instances.
The people of Terrebonne parish have passed fairly extensive taxes on themselves to build out structural risk-reduction system. When you start talking about the fact that despite that effort to tax themselves, to provide a series of solutions to this problem, that we’re still in a place where we have to contemplate retreat, I think it’s very difficult for people to embrace. I don’t blame them. Obviously, the people that are on the ground in a place like Isle de Jean Charles, you know, on a good day, it’s beautiful. You understand the allure. You understand the emotional and historical attachment that the people who live there have to that particular place in the world. You know, on a good day, you hear people talking about ‘Why would I ever leave this?’ and on a bad day, when maybe Island Road is flooded out, people have different thoughts. There’s a constant struggle for the people who are attached to this location to fully embrace the idea that we’re in a place now where we’re talking about a full-scale relocation effort.
Resistance, I think, is a bit strong. I just think it is a really difficult concept. It’s not a thing we’d ever expect people to really be happy about.
Cc: I can understand why this process is painful for all involved.
MS: From a local government and state government perspective, we’ve invested a large amount of time and resources in large-scale build outs of levies and other risk-reduction systems that are supposed to, at least in theory, alleviate the need for this type of thinking. I think it’s just very difficult to accept that idea that we may not be as far ahead of what we’re experiencing in Louisiana as we like.
Cc: To paraphrase the author and historian Amitav Ghosh, it’s one thing to be told climate change exists, but it’s another thing to have a moment of recognition yourself. Did you have a moment of recognition with Isle de Jean Charles?
MS: Um, yes and no. I would say that a lot of my own career arc has been based on this sort of recognition. I was a journalist in a previous career, and I got my master’s in planning in New York after Hurricane Katrina—after I saw the devastation and the raw power of nature. And I remember being in NY and telling my classmates, ‘As seas continue to elevate in temperature, New York is a coastal city. We’re going to be susceptible to the kind of events we know all too well in Louisiana,’ and people would kind of laugh at me. And then there were two events, the first was tropical storm Irene and then superstorm Sandy, and it really opened a lot of eyes in New York and in the Mid-Atlantic seaboard in a way that maybe they hadn’t been in the past. For me, I think this is a series of eventualities that have always been on my mind, and has driven a lot of my own career progression.
In terms of an actual community like Isle de Jean Charles that is sort of drying up in the most perverse sense of the term—facing the consequence of having to think about its future geography—from very early on, you could see the stark line where the Morganza-to-the-Gulf structural risk-reduction system is built out. There’s a levee, and then you see Isle de Jean Charles and the settlement about a mile off in the distance. You see this stark contrast between the end of the protection system and where people are living on the wrong side of it. For me, that imagery really reinforced things I had felt and experienced throughout my career, and it put it in stark terms for individuals I'd come to know and whose porches I've sat on. It’s certainly a lot closer to home than it had been in the past.
is a globally-recognized leader in climate resilience and adaptation planning, post-disaster recovery planning, community development, and large-scale outreach and public engagement. He has extensive experience leading large-scale and high-profile inter-governmental and consultant-staffed special project teams. He currently leads the development and implementation of two programs, Louisiana’s Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (LA SAFE) and the Resettlement of Isle de Jean Charles.
Isle de Jean Charles is instantly familiar to those who have seen Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), a climate dystopia filmed on location in the southern parishes of Louisiana. The film is set in the quasi-fictional “Isle de Charles Doucet,” though someone has altered the town’s sign to read “The Bathtub,” which is a real epithet used to refer to low-inhabited areas of southern Louisiana. The script reads: “EXT. AERIAL BATHTUB - DAY. We fly over marsh and water, coming upon a tiny crop of shanties on an island perched at the very bottom of the land." Cue a voiceover from the protagonist, Hushpuppy: “Daddy says, up above the levee, on the dry side, they're afraid of the water like a bunch of babies. They built the wall that cuts us off.” In the filmmakers’ allegorical vision, the Morganza risk-reduction system is rendered as a nondescript wall, an inhumane border.