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It's been ten years since Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, crippling New Orleans and highlighting America's vulnerability to natural disaster. In the aftermath, a central question has been whether New Orleans — and other areas along the coast — can be rebuilt better, stronger, and more equitably. But with coastal development swallowing up wetlands, canal dredging by oil and gas companies ruining coastlines, and global warming pushing up sea levels, Gulf Coast residents are wondering whether the land on which they live will continue to exist at all.
The gravity of the situation was evident on a drive with Thomas Dardar Jr., chief of the 17,000-person United Houma Nation, located in Terrebonne Parish, about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans. Pools of water pockmark the landscape, evidence of the encroaching Gulf waters.
Dardar drove along a sliver of land wide enough only for a two-lane road. Just a few decades ago, he said, the vistas to his left and right were solid land. As he drove, the 59-year-old tribal leader explained that as water from the Gulf consumes larger and larger chunks of his ancestral land, he fears that his people's way of life will sink along it.
"When you lose land and the land identifies you, you lose culture, you lose identity," he said. "You lose what you are and you slowly transform into something else."
Ten years after Katrina, activists in the Gulf are attempting to ensure that not only New Orleans, but the entire Gulf of Mexico — especially the communities on the front lines of global warming like the one Dardar represents — is rebuilt. Otherwise, they say, cities like New Orleans could receive the bulk of attention while other cities continue to lose land — and population.
Coastal erosion is particularly acute in southeastern Louisiana. The state is losing just under 17 square miles of land each year, according to the US Geological Survey. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict the Gulf's sea level could rise by 4.3 feet thanks to global warming by the end of the century, threatening to put the whole of southeastern Louisiana under water. Oil and gas companies, which dig canals in order to move their rigs and other equipment are responsible for about a third of coastal land loss. River diversion projects make matters worse — freshwater from the Mississippi and other rivers used to deposit sediment, naturally replenishing the wetlands. Now, rivers go elsewhere, following paths more efficient for fishing and commerce.
Diminished wetlands have also made the Gulf a harsher place to live: without a sufficient coastal buffer zone, hurricanes hit populated areas with more strength and streets and houses are flooded with greater frequency. Every 2.7 miles of wetlands knocks down storm surges by a foot. On many strips of land in the Gulf, like the area occupied by the Houma, there's barely any wetland left, meaning any storm, even weak ones, can be disastrous.
"We used to have these barrier islands protecting us," Chief Dardar said. "Now we are the barrier island."
None of the other states surrounding the Gulf — Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas — have the rapidly deteriorating coast of Louisiana, but all of them are hosts to coastal real estate development that's transforming wetlands into residential and commercial space.
Glenn Cobb lives in Gulfport, Mississippi, where the expansion of a port would devour hundreds of acres of wetlands. Those same wetlands had for decades protected Cobb's land, but with increased concrete-heavy development along the Gulf, his block has been increasingly flooded during storms. Cobb is worried the expansion of the port will be ensure his home is hit by more frequent, more severe flooding.
"When I was younger, we didn't experience the same kind of flooding we do now," he said. "We never saw flooding in the streets. Now if it rains for 25 or 30 minutes, you can't even see the tops of the streets."
Louisiana has by far the most ambitious plan for coastal development of any Gulf state. It includes diverting sediment from rivers into its pockmarked coastline and rebuilding barrier islands. But the plan could cost $50 billion or more to carry out — a price tag that remains far from fully funded.
Activists are using the tenth anniversary of Katrina to highlight the multiple threats along the Gulf Coast and point out how economic inequality and racial injustice mean the poor and people of color are disproportionately impacted.
Over the past year, the group Gulf South Rising has attempted to build a first-of-its-kind coalition linking the region's history of racial injustice, its persistent economic inequality, and the ways in which climate change will impact the coast. The group's motto is: The seas are rising and so are we.
Its leaders say that without addressing those larger issues, the communities most impacted by a disappearing coast in the Gulf will continue to be ignored.
"Most people and the media are focusing on Katrina, but over and over again, the same communities are affected by all of these issues," Colette Pichon Battle, the director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy, said. "If we don't stop the causes, all we're doing is just putting these temporary barriers up. It's pouring money into a bottomless bucket."
Watch the trailer for the VICE News documentary Louisiana's Coastal Crisis here:
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[Editor's note: The annual amount of coastal area lost in Louisiana was corrected to reflect the most recent US Geological Survey data.]