How a sinking city is using nature to fight flooding amid a climate crisis

New Orleans, Louisiana, is on the front lines of climate change in the US

New Orleans: a city on the frontlines of climate change

New Orleans: a city on the frontlines of climate change
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In New Orleans, “our environment is now beginning to talk back to us”, Alex Selico Dunn, an eighth-generation resident of the city's historic Algiers neighbourhood, says on a sweltering summer day from his bright green front porch.

Older than the US itself, New Orleans is a culturally distinct port city in Louisiana founded in 1718. Now, 300 years later, it is sinking.

New Orleans – colloquially referred to as Nola – used to be 100 per cent above sea level. But as of 2018, half of the city is below it, according to researchers from Tulane University.

The metropolitan area is situated on the southern Gulf coast, a US region the Environmental Defence Fund says will be the most affected by climate change.

Water is “an existential threat to us”, the city's deputy chief resilience officer Greg Nichols tells The National at New Orleans City Hall.

The problem is in part a man-made one. Stormwater management in New Orleans has been characterised by “regularly overwhelmed drainage systems, excessive paving and pumping that has depleted groundwater levels”.

Rising waters and worsening hurricane seasons are exacerbating that legacy.

And against this daunting backdrop, many are turning to an old friend in a bid to modernise the city's flood resiliency: nature.

The trees of Algiers

“I just remember climbing so many trees and picking pears and figs and oranges just out of the neighbourhood … but we lost a lot of them,” Mr Selico Dunn recalls.

“You can't move too far away from the basic needs of the community to sustain it … you can have a strong social culture … but if the environment sucks, then all that becomes null and void. So it starts with the environment,” he says.

Mr Selico Dunn spoke to The National sitting beside long-time friend Susannah Burley, one of the people at the forefront of the city's movement to utilise “green infrastructure”.

The devastation from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 left New Orleans as one of America's most deforested cities, losing between 100,000 and 200,000 to the storm, according to local estimates. Ms Burley says that has major implications for its flood resilience.

She is the founding executive director of Save Our Urban Landscape, or Soul, an organisation on a mission to restore the city's tree canopy, which Ms Burley says can serve as a “sponge”..

“This is naturally a forested place, so when we lost those trees we lost our ability to absorb a lot of stormwater … we need as much sponge action as we can.”

Louisiana's state tree, the bald cypress, can take in about 3,300 litres of stormwater per day when it reaches maturity. Locally popular live oak trees pack an even stronger punch at about 4,800 litres.

Driving The National across the city, Ms Burley points out each of the almost 8,000 trees her organisation has planted so far.

It is clear she loves these blossoming sponges, naming each species of tree as she drives along. Taking notes of injuries to their trunks or signs of dehydration, not a detail gets past her.

Arriving in Algiers, the city's second-oldest community on the shores of the Mississippi River, the trees Soul has planted begin to look bigger.

The neighbourhood was among the first target when the group began planting, and for Mr Selico Dunn, joining the project took some convincing.

He formerly worked for a city utility company and emphasises that “trees and power lines are usually not friends”.

That sceptical sentiment is not uncommon, especially in storm-prone New Orleans, where even Ms Burley concedes that fear of more trees “goes back to storms … because in Katrina, you might have had a tree fall on your house or your car”.

Ms Burley says trees can ease the burden of flooding, but “we need to be smart”.

“You don't want to plant a huge pine tree next to a house, or a tree with weak branches,” she adds.

As Mr Selico Dunn learnt more about the protective power of a restored tree canopy, he was converted.

“I refuse to be referred to as a tree-hugger … I'm a tree lover,” he says, laughing.

But for a sworn anti-tree hugger, he has certainly done more than his fair share of tree-loving.

He proudly described his efforts to water them, “enlisting my buddies” to obtain large watering buckets, a pull wagon and water pumps, and organising a grassroots collective to nurture the now-grown trees of Algiers.

“We were determined,” he says.

Restoring the city's tree canopy is only one part of the greener picture. After all, Ms Burley notes, “they take a long time to become big, mature, trees that can do their maximum job”.

And if there is one thing that sinking New Orleans needs on climate action, it is urgency.

Managing water inside a 'bowl'

The Urban Conservancy is another Nola non-profit that focuses on reducing stress on the city draining systems.

Their Front Yard Initiative works to green family front lawns, transforming flood-prone pavement that cannot quickly absorb water into vibrant, water-resilient landscapes with more storage capacity.

In the first half of 2023 alone, the project completed green landscaping on 155 properties, creating underground storage for about 650,000 litres of stormwater per rainfall, the Urban Conservancy says.

You can't move too far away from the basic needs of the community to sustain it … you can have a strong social culture, but if the environment sucks, then all that becomes null and void. So it starts with the environment
Alex Selico Dunn, eighth-generation resident of New Orleans' Algiers neighbourhood

Emily Snyder, programme manager at the Urban Conservancy, drove The National around the city's Ninth Ward on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The neighbourhood was nearly destroyed by – and is still recovering from – the historic storm.

Standing at an industrial site, construction equipment rises against the backdrop of the Mississippi River to the left. To the right, family homes.

“It's important to see because you get a real appreciation for how this neighbourhood is very much in a bowl,” she says.

The Ninth Ward is close to both the river and man-made industrial canals, which are responsible for the bulk of community flooding.

“So when we hear about Hurricane Katrina … and the flooding in the Lower Ninth Ward after the hurricane ended, that was all because of the canals,” says Ms Snyder.

Moving along to a row of three homes the Front Yard Initiative has worked on, she describes the process of removing pavement and dry clay from these lawns and replacing it with gravel and rain gardens with native and pollinator-friendly plants, “resistant to all our crazy weather here”.

It is the morning after an intense rainstorm and water is pooling along parts of the street. Blocks away, the paved roads are accumulating dirty rain water. But on this particular strip, walkways run dry.

'Front porch culture'

This greening of communities, for many in New Orleans, has had a wider benefit.

Mastadante, a Nola-based construction company specialising in stormwater management, emphasises the “stacking functions” of a greener system.

Luisa Abballe and Arien Hall, who own and help operate the company, say they envision a New Orleans “that embraces water while also creating urban ecosystems that can improve the quality of life”.

Function and beauty “go hand in hand”, says Ms Abballe.

“You're not just getting a rain garden that's meant to hold water, you're getting a pretty awesome rain garden and trees … everything is working in tandem.”

At a community garden project situated near a Ninth Ward drain pipe, they highlight the reinvigorated space's capacity for flood resilience. It also includes an impressive number of herbs like gorgeously scented thyme and oregano, and is dotted with blackberries and vibrant purple bananas.

Ms Hall smiles at the space, now in full bloom after more than two years of planting, watering and nurturing.

“It's like being a parent watching a child grow,” she says.

And for parents of human babies, the benefits of greener communities are apparent, too.

Michael and Megan Manning are Bayou St John neighbourhood residents who live on an upper-middle class street where flood-resilient landscaping has become a trend. On their block alone, at least six homes have converted.

“We found that our children and the neighbour's children, even when they have large backyards, gravitate towards the front yard because there's enough green space. It's very pleasant,” says Ms Manning.

“When you spend more time in your front yard versus when we go into our backyards, it's very private and there just is not as many opportunities to bump into each other. So it's created a much more vibrant community.”

Her husband adds it helps to sustain an important part of the city's culture.

“New Orleans is like a front yard, porch culture … it's really important for us to be in the community and see people,” Mr Manning says.

The practical results, says neighbour Bette, who lives a few doors down, are plain and simple: “This block doesn't flood.”

But there is one thing, say the Mannings: all this was very expensive.

City Hall

Projects like Soul and the Urban Conservancy play a part in the city government's updated Climate Action Plan.

Since 2018, the city has kick-started six green infrastructure projects that will divert about 55 million litres of water from the stormwater system, with a goal to complete at least 15 more by 2035 that could see that amount increase exponentially.

Mr Nichols, the deputy chief resilience officer, says it is part of the government's “shifting strategy to living with water”.

But the city's green infrastructure adaptation programme so far has focused only on one district.

Families like the Mannings, who spent “thousands” of dollars on their front lawn, say there should be a wider push to lower the cost-burden of taking on flood management projects.

“There's a benefit to the city, but there's no benefit to the homeowner,” Ms Manning says.

Mr Nichols says the government is “looking at expanding beyond [one district] to make it available for residents around the city”.

Ms Snyder emphasises, too, that it is predominantly wealthy home owners who can afford to put those flood mitigations on to their property, “however it's people in lower-lying areas like [the Ninth Ward] who tend to be lower income who are the most impacted by the worst flooding”.

Mr Nichols says it is a trend reflected around the world in the global fight to mitigate the effects of climate change, but he believes Nola has “had a really good track record” alleviating those disparities.

“It's not a surprise that cities around the world that are struggling with climate change are also under resourced oftentimes. Being an advocate for what the city needs to be able to survive and thrive in the future is something … we're eager to share with other [cities].”

The maintenance required to keep these green infrastructure projects functioning is another major concern.

Mr Selico Dunn noted watering the trees in Algiers himself increased his water bill by hundreds.

Navigating what department bears responsibility for caring for this new type of infrastructure has “certainly been a challenge” for the city, says Mr Nichols.

“Anytime you're identifying a new type of thing, you've got to figure out who's going to operate and maintain it afterwards, and then provide them the resources that they need to do that,” he adds.

Ms Abballe at Mastadante says at the government level, urban planning around green landscaping needs “more intentionality”, but she thinks the city is “starting to think that way, they're starting to change”.

The challenges for New Orleans are difficult and some predictions are outright bleak. Some estimates say much of the city could be underwater by 2050.

But Mr Nichols says New Orleans has a soul that cannot be dimmed – or drowned.

“New Orleans is part of the soul of America. It's one of the country's most unique cultural places,” he says.

“The city of New Orleans will be here in 50 years, despite the challenges that we're seeing with climate change.

“I think we're certainly going to be operating differently, though.”

Updated: November 08, 2023, 3:00 AM