Recovery from Hurricane Ida is still underway in southeast Louisiana, where the climate crisis hangs a question mark over the future. People in Louisiana are already preparing for rising seas and intensifying storms, offering models for the rest of us. So, will New Orleans be under water someday? Mike Ludwig speaks to Jessica Dandridge, Executive Director of the Greater New Orleans Water Collaborative, to find out.
Music by Dan Mason.
This is a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity.
Hello everyone, this is Mike Ludwig coming to you from New Orleans, Louisiana, welcome back to “Climate Front Lines.” We’ve been on hiatus for a few months as our fabulous producer, Jared Rodriguez, was on sabbatical, and so much has happened since our last episode. Democrats are locked in intense debate over climate spending in Congress, Indigenous activists marched on Washington demanding President Biden turn the nation away from fossil fuels. And of course, we are recovering from Hurricane Ida down here in Louisiana.
I rode out the storm with a few friends here in New Orleans. Witnessing this destructive power of the natural world was humbling to say the least, if not oddly beautiful, the way the wind drove the rain horizontal with gusts strong enough to lift you off the ground. My friends and I were lucky — our streets did not flood, the roofs of our homes did not come off or cave in. And riding out the storm was the easy part. After Ida passed came the sweaty weeks with power and other services; stores were closed, shelves were empty, streets were littered with trash and debris. Those who stayed wondered whether they should leave and where to go; those who evacuated before the storm wondered when to return home, if they still had one. Mutual aid sprung up everywhere as friends and neighbors distributed food and fuel, provided medical aid, and arranged for emergency evacuations and housing for those in need. The way people come together in the wake of a disaster is also humbling force of nature, in my opinion.
New Orleans was hit hard by Ida but it was other communities in our region that really bore the brunt of the storm. Nearby parishes suffered substantial flooding, and in the lower lying coastal areas already threatened by land loss and climate-fueled sea level rise, entire communities were destroyed by Ida’s storm surge and heavy winds. In these parts of Louisiana, where the land melts into the Gulf of Mexico and brackish bayous serve as main streets for fisherfolk and those who get around in boats, the recovery from Hurricane Ida is only beginning. Coastal parishes such as Terrebonne Parish are home to the United Houma nation and other Indigenous communities, and they will likely be rebuilding for months and even years to come. The climate crisis is bringing more frequent and intense storms to the Gulf South, hanging a giant question mark over the very future of these communities. But the people who live here are already preparing, and even as they rebuild, they are claiming bold visions of what a climate-resilient future for Southern Louisiana could look like. Speaking before a recent meeting of an advisory group on equity to the Louisiana governor’s climate task force — we’ll explain more about task force later in the episode — Shirell Parfait-Dardar, chief the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw had this to say:
“If we do not take this seriously, and if we do not listen to, uh, the science and the wisdom of traditional ecological knowledge in respecting our environment and our planet.”
I reached out to Chief Shirell but didn’t hear back, and that is totally understandable, her community still very much in recovery. She spoke to the climate advisory council by video in front of her home in Chauvin, Louisiana — or at least, what is left of her home. As the climate crisis intensifies — and Democrats debate how much federal money to spend mitigating it — I think we all need to be paying close attention to front line communities and leaders like Chief Shirell Parfait-Darder. Innovation around climate resilience is born of disasters like Hurricane Ida, and as Ida proved as she crossed the country and claimed dozens of lives on the East Coast, the lessons we learn in Louisiana matter to all of us.
Whether you live in the drought-stricken West or along the bayou, water is central to the story of climate disruption and our survival. Water and the infrastructure humans built around and on top of it has shaped life in southern Louisiana for hundreds of years. Water will also shape our future as the climate changes, so what could that future look like? Will New Orleans be under water someday, as we often joke around here? To find out, I spoke with Jessica Dandridge, the executive director of the Water Collaborative of Greater New Orleans, a group focused on environmental justice and building the next generation of green water infrastructure on the front lines of the climate crisis.
Mike Ludwig: And maybe we can start with, you said that there was actually an intense storm surge during Ida and some infrastructure held up. But I’m curious about that because I want to kind of unpack the difference between gray infrastructure and green infrastructure.
Jessica Dandridge: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a most people don’t even really think about their infrastructure, especially here in Louisiana. You see levies, you see canals and you really don’t know the difference between the two or a grass. So to, to really break it down there is gray infrastructure is what we’re accustomed to across the country. And that is really the use of steel and cement and a mix of highly engineered products that are combined together to create the systems that we, that gray infrastructure, doesn’t just include war management includes just our regular water utilities, you know, our pipes our drainage systems, our catch basins anything that is hard steel and cement is considered gray. Um, and in some cases, when you think about water utility work or electric utilities it is necessary and required.
And in Louisiana, we have to have levees because we are below sea level…Ironically, we are below sea level though because of the installation of the woodstill pump, which pumps water out of the greater New Orleans area and across the region. And because of our obsession with pumping for the last 100 years it has required us to use levees and use pumps and canals more than we would have had to use them a hundred years prior.
And then green infrastructure or natural infrastructure is another term for it, is the use of biomimicry and regeneration of natural landscapes. So, in the process of putting in grey infrastructure in the early 20th century it was believed by many that the natural landscapes didn’t help with flooding or water management or supporting more equality.
And they literally re-engineered or I should say un-engineered the natural landscape to make it fit the world that we see today. Um, so streets and, and, uh, pipes and, you know, sidewalks and urban landscapes. Green infrastructure or natural infrastructure is working to remove some of that grey and bring it back to what it would’ve looked like a hundred years ago or some version of it.
Um, in green in urban landscapes can look like bioswells or retention ponds. It could be as simple as a cistern or a rain barrel or as complicated as a storm water lot and or green wall or green roofs are also ways that you can reduce flooding, but also reduce heat island effects as well.
And then when I say natural infrastructure, that’s when we talk about post-sale restoration and protection and restoring natural waterways and systems that are harmed by either natural erosion, uh, climate change such as a sea level rise, or man-made faults such as the oil and gas industries and fisheries, uh, that have eroded the natural landscapes through salt water intrusion, or just plain old fashioned digging and moving the landscape to, to fit the needs of, of man-made desires.
So I hope that wasn’t a too complicated answer Mike. Um, yeah, we are trying to move towards the state as a whole is trying to move towards more green and natural infrastructure because what we’ve done over the past a hundred years has caused Louisiana to be more prone to flooding, more prone to damage from hurricanes and tropical storms and more prone to overall damage from just our climate, uh, climate change, sea level rise, uh, rain burst, and so on.
Realizing all of that, the state has really pushed through CPRA and now the Louisiana Watershed Initiative, which is a new cause under the Governor Edwards to really move, uh, the entire area towards this, uh, new way of building and sustaining our urban environment.
ML: I want to get into more of what that shift looks like with the state in a, in a minute, but I kind of want to go back to Ida for one second. And maybe if you could help us understand the story of water during Ida, after Ida and the way that, as you mentioned, there was an intense storm surge as there usually are with, with heavy, serious hurricanes, how that storm surge, and how the influx of rain interacted with the various infrastructure, grey infrastructure, green infrastructure, I guess at this point, the state has started some of this mitigation in the coastal.
JD: Yeah. You know, it’s funny, you know, we’ve been talking a lot about electric utilities and Entergy since the beginning of Ida, but the water story is actually an interesting story because it is more nuanced, but also much more successful. Um, so in our coastal areas you know, Hurricane Ida came up pretty much directly over many of our coastal communities, like Grand Isle, Houma, Thibodeau and many of the fishing communities that we see and those communities, unfortunately, are struggling with sea level rise.
So they’re living on barrier islands or by use that don’t have any form of war management. And there’s really not that much you can do. You can build out barrier islands. Um, you can rebuild some of the landscapes in the, by use, put in trees to slow down the water flow, and grasses, but the end of the day, if you’re in water in Louisiana and you’re in a coastal town, we’re just going to be more prone to flooding.
But what we have seen with Hurricane Ida is that while there was an immediate storm surge, uh, after Ida, that storm surge actually didn’t for some people, I wouldn’t say everyone cause it is nuanced, but for some people didn’t stick around very long and what really wreaked havoc on most of the area is the the wind and rain damage. So if you may have lost your roof, then the rain came into your home, which is actually a very common story that we’re hearing across the region. The other side is in the urban areas, such as Orleans, Jefferson, and parts of St. Bernard parish and parts of Jefferson, not all of Jefferson, the urban, uh, infrastructure regarding the utilities and drainage worked extraordinarily well until the power gave out. I mentioned earlier about the woodstill pump, which is installed in 1913 and invented by Albert Baldwin Woods, a local Louisiana native, that system works well with power and can only literally work with power and the turbines moving.
Um, and so once that system gave out the drainage across many of the urban areas, The good thing though is Sewerage and Water Board was able to scrounge up some generators to keep the drain of system moving for the most part. And so, while some areas that see increased flooding street flooding there may have been a little bit of flooding. Um, I’ve heard a few stories of basement flooding or you know, first book flooding right after the energy failed, but overall the streets stayed dry . The only thing that I think is a biggest casualty is a sewage treatment, a sewage treatment plant failed, and then sewage and water board had to dump some of the sewerage into Bayou Bienvenu and the Mississippi River which is unfortunate, which can hurt and has hurt our fisheries.
ML: I just want to jump in here, the Sewerage and Water Board is the local water utility here in New Orleans. And if you live here, you will know them, both for saving our butts sometimes when it floods and other times for, for not saving our butts and it ends up really bad. And, and there’s, this is, it’s a very interesting and controversial entity that the Sewerage and Water Board in New Orleans. I just wanted to clarify that that’s what you were talking about. Correct.
ML: And maybe I should add some contexts of the infamous Sewerage and Water Board. They’re by no means a hero at all, but, and ironically with Hurricane Ida, they actually were the hero. And I think that is because of pressure from organizations like us and other organizations who are really trying to move Mayor Cantrell and the executive director to work on some of these issues and be more present, especially during disaster resilience.
But overall sewage and waterboard kept water quality going, we never had a full boil water advisory in the city. Um, we never had major flooding issues. And if there were, there were minor and were pretty much, uh, dealt with within the day, excuse me, within a day after, uh, Ida had passed, but again, with the coastal areas and other areas such as Hammond and Laplace, they were not so lucky.
And that is because their drain system is not as sophisticated. Um, especially in areas like Laplace, which has seen repeated floods over the past several years, they just didn’t put in the proper drainage system. And that was a misconception among developers, is that the only place in Southeast Louisiana that would flood or could flood would be New Orleans because we’re below sea level we’re a bowl we’re surrounded between the lake and the, and the uh, which is an estuary not tested technically a lake, Lake Pontchartrain and the river. But because again, I keep bringing up this word and I’m not trying to sound beat a dead horse, but because of climate change areas that did not see repeated flooding are now seeing repeated flooding.
So places on the North Shore and places and, uh, other parishes, the river parishes are now seen flooding, unprecedented flooding that they’ve never seen before. So it isn’t a nuanced story, but overall it is, uh, a better story than what we’ve seen in the. Um, in regards to hurricanes, and then a lot of that is because of increased, uh, development and projects along with gray infrastructure in combination with green infrastructure.
Um, and one thing I didn’t mention earlier, Mike, is that you can’t because of the way Louisiana is, it’s below sea level. In many cases or water is literally everywhere. We can’t do gray. I mean, well, we can’t do gray. And we can’t do greening alone. And so both of those have to exist together for it to work well.
Um, there are areas in the country that only do green and can do green really well because of the landscape. Um, but because of our landscape and water being literally right at our front door, uh, it requires both of them to work together and that’s what has worked well. And I think more investment in, in these areas is going to see a much bigger impact.
Um, and there are a lot of success stories, especially in coasts where they’ve been fixing and, and doing a lot of regeneration of coastal areas. And they’ve seen tremendous improvement. And I just want to say that because the story for many years is that Louisiana is just going to be under water and there is no hope, but actually the work that I’ve seen from coastal restoration has been extremely successful.
And if they put in more money into that, more millions or billions, whatever they have, the success rate will be even higher. The question I have now is that while we’re working on water, we also need to be making sure electric utilities are doing their job, but also that developers are meeting climate activists and, uh, utilities where they are, so utilities and, and developers can, you know, contractors can make and build all of this green and gray and make it perfect. But if you build a house on slab and, uh, without any form of water management around the home or the subdivision or the neighborhood, you’re still making houses more flood prone.
So as we’re thinking about post-Ida disaster recovery, we need to be pushing developers, to raise homes, to manage water in neighborhoods and suburban areas, if they can, or rural areas, and also pushing developers to build homes in a more resilient fashion. So it’s a two-prong story that even if government puts in all this money, we have to hold developers accountable as well.
ML: And right. Just to clarify. When Jessica says, build a house on slab. I mean, we’re talking about like a house on the ground, a house on a concrete slab on the ground, as opposed to a raised house, which a lot of houses in my neighborhood and all over southern Louisiana are actually raised off the ground in case it floods. And I, and I, and I kind of want to maybe set the stage for why we need this investment in coastal restoration and also water management in Southern Louisiana. What is the problem? What is the problem that we face down here?
I mean, we’ve seen the oil industry dredge these huge canals through wetlands that allowed saltwater intrusion. We’ve seen massive land losses. Those wetlands do succumb to saltwater. What would you say the challenge is, and considering the Congress right now is debating how much climate money they’re going to spend, the Democrats are debating how much climate money they are going to spend. Where do you see us, as far as reversing coastal land loss, which is a barrier to hurricanes? And, and how do you think about that in terms of the money that could come, not just from the state government, but from the federal government, if lawmakers choose to act?
JD: Well, you know, it’s interesting, you know, Louisiana is a kind of a secret success story where before even the federal government was even thinking about or Army Corps of Engineers was even thinking about green infrastructure or even coastal restoration. Um, the state had started moving on this actually after the Deepwater Horizon or BP oil spill, they took that money or most of that money. And instead of just putting it towards a development or I don’t know, corporate tax or oil and gas, putting more of it into that bucket, they created the agency, which is CPRA or coastal protection and restoration authority, and that agency uses that money every year to, to put into that pot.
And so the water story of Bew Orleans is, is a long one. And there’s a huge assumption that our story started with Katrina. When you think about when people who aren’t from here, think about Louisiana, they always think of New Orleans, and then when they think of New Orleans, they often think of Katrina, but our story around water is before we even were here, the indigenous people knew that the river flooded in the spring and in the winter went down. It’s meant to flood because Louisiana is a Delta. Most of it is. Um, and we, when I say we, people who are not originally from this land, the French and Spanish and the Americans came and thought that they can hold and push water away. Um, and that also became really uh, you know, a huge issue, especially during the yellow fever epidemic that happened here in the South.
And so the, the urgency around that was even bigger. And then finally in 1927, the Army Corps of Engineers was formalized after the great flood. And that’s where we see the massive levy system that we that exist here in Louisiana. Um, so the federal government’s role in a lot of what Louisiana has been doing has been almost my new and that people in Louisiana have been figuring it out you know, year by year, decade by decade, century by century on how to work with water.
Um, and ironically when you think about Hurricane Ida, which is, you know, what we’re talking about right now two people died in hurricane Ida here in Louisiana. Um, both were, were, uh, tragic accidents. And then, you know, people, one person died in DC. 12 people died in the New York, uh, tri-state area. And then 22 people died in Philadelphia. And that says a lot about how Louisiana has been working around water and disaster resilience. And while there is a ways to go, the conversation has been really progressive overall. And even though we are a red state and people here are conservative around a lot of issues, you know, the study that I did not, I did, but a partner of ours that did the National Wildlife Federation did back in, I think it was 2019 found that a, roughly 75% of people in Louisiana do believe climate change is real. And so while they may think. Um, you know, they may have their values and other places, they are seeing the changes in how water is moving and how their houses are flooding more and how it’s raining more and how there’s more category three and four and five hurricanes.
Growing up here, I never saw that many category three and four and fives, and now it’s just a way of life. Um, so our story here is nuance, but the biggest issue when it comes to why we flood to. Is, what I mentioned earlier is we try to push against what the Mississippi River would do naturally. Um, as well as the lake and the by use, we then strip those values of their natural landscape, the cypress trees, the oak trees to build housing instead of building around those trees and we sold those trees off for, uh, wood.
And the last thing is, uh, oil and gas. So oil and gas came in after many of these lands were stripped and said well, I’m just going to build a pipeline that’s a shortcut from point A to point B, so my product can get out faster or get in or get in faster for processing. And so it’s been the story of Louisiana and water, and it really has to do with our relenting relationship with capitalism and our obsession with giving away or selling our natural resources at the sake of residents.
We have always believed in Louisiana that we are a natural, natural resource, rich state. Um, we have tons of wildlife and seafood. We have beautiful trees and greenery and we’re lush. And then we also have oil, natural gas and other resources that our country needs. And the Louisiana legislators for many hundreds of years, thought that if we give away these resources at a cheap rate and let the corporations and businesses do what they please somehow that would benefit our economy. And what we’re seeing here in 2021 is our economy in 20 20 and 2019, we’re 50th in the nation in education. We have one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. Um, and our coast is eroding because we gave away our state to the highest bidder.
And so now we’re in a process under Governor Edwards and Mayor Cantrell, and other current mayors across the Southeastern Louisiana region is reckoning with this behavior and changing that and realizing that when we give away our communities to natural for natural resources and getting them to corporations and oil and gas and petrochemicals and fisheries and whoever that may be, we have not really benefited people. One by degrading our landscape and two, by putting that burden on people who are already impoverished, because the wages here are low and the benefits are very small.
So all of this is, as they say, the chickens have come home to roost Mike. And, uh, we are seeing that, uh, play out in our, in our, in our very day-to-day lives here in 2020.
ML: And I, I can’t stress enough to people. How much in certain parts of certain Louisiana, upriver from New Orleans, down river from new Orleans, the way that the petrochemical industry does dominate the landscape massive refineries, and many of these refineries released huge plumes of toxic emissions during their hurricane. They had burn offs, they had flares and they released pollution. And most often the people who live closest to these polluters are disproportionately lower-income and often people of color, Black people descended from slaves, especially in Cancer Alley. And you’ve seen some of our reporting on that. And with that in mind, I did want to kind of turn to the people that live here.
And also, I wanted to ask you about the Climate Initiative Task Force, the governor’s climate task force. Of course, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards is a pretty conservative Democrat, but as you mentioned, even conservatives here are, are facing a reckoning of, of, of climate and of, uh, environmental consequences for decisions of the past.
And I know that you spoke recently with or participated in a meeting of the equity advisory group within this task force. Bel Edwards is historically pretty pro fossil fuel industry. He sees the industry as a important source of jobs. But at the same time, we’re also facing this reckoning.
I’m wondering what you think about this task force and also about the commitment to equity? Do you think that that is gaining traction in a place where there is literally a serious amount of environmental racism?
JD: Yeah. Yeah. The climate task force is a very difficult conversation. Um, let me be clear that I’m not sitting on the climate task force. Many of the partners. I will say that I, I work with a lot of, many of them there.
And the question is really, what do we value more in Louisiana? Do we value bad jobs or do we value people? Um, and as I mentioned earlier, we’ve always valued bad jobs and, and petrochemicals and oil and gas, mind you, oil and gas is the seventh largest industry. Um, that provides jobs in Louisiana, not the first or the second or third.
Um, and so it really says a lot about the whole that oil and gas has over our state. Um, I think that it’s a good first step. We’ve never even had this conversation before. Um, and so for us to finally have this conversation it needs to be had, and I, I applaud the governor for at least trying to bring climate activists and companies, oil and gas manufacturers together to have this conference.
The problem is, is that you don’t really bring the devil to, you know, the heaven to have a conversation about becoming a better person. It just doesn’t work that way. And so, uh, oil and gas and manufacturers are asked to, you know, deal with their their pollution deal with how they have mismanaged their systems, how they’ve ruined the local ecology and, and they’re really not dealing with that. And instead, they’re offering piecemeal opportunities such as carbon sequestration, which no one is really interested in. Um, they’re not really trying to find solutions. And so, Louisiana can never get to where it needs to go if they’re never willing to call out the bad actors.
And that’s the problem with equity is that, equity requires us to have a reckoning with how we have managed our systems, but also how we have ignored our residents here in Louisiana. And how do we fix that? Well, we have to one deal with systemic racism in the, in the state and being a Southern, uh, you know, post-Jim Crow state.
That is a hard thing for people to do, especially in the central and upper Louisiana parishes who don’t have a large African-American populations or don’t ever have to deal with these kinds of conversations. Unfortunately. Um, when, uh, to be frank, when white conservatives here in the state hear the word equity they automatically, uh, become defensive and think about you know, trying their best to not do anything about it because they don’t really want to do anything about you know, racism or systemic racism for that matter. And really they are a part of the problem and they know they’re part of the problem.
And so, we have a long way to go. And while the climate task force is an important step in the right direction, it is not the steps we should be taking. The conversation should never be with people who are the bad actors to help.
Like it’s, I always joke with, uh, friends in the task force and others that said, it’s like, it’s the same thing we asked the police investigate themselves about you know, a murder of a black child. They’re never going to say that, “Yeah, I did it and I’m going to arrest myself.” Um, so why would well and gas and, and other, uh, bad actors do the same?
They’re not. So the climate task force, in my opinion, should have been, uh, a collection of local climate activists and national, and maybe even international climate uh, scientists. Um, who know this work who had the stats and the figures to know what the best solutions are to improve the economy.
Because the biggest issue is, is that while oil and gas is not willing to reckon with what they’ve done, they are still working behind the scenes to improve their bottom line. And so, for example, Shell closed one of their processing plants here in Louisiana during COVID and when you read further, it was because they’re changing their portfolio to include renewables and clean energy.
And so, it’s not that they don’t care. Um, I’m sorry. It is that they, they really don’t care about residents and they really care about the bottom line and that they’re going to move to renewables when they have to, or when the time is right for them. What that does mean though, is that those 2,500 people who are working at the oil and gas plant, who are in a rural area with lack of jobs are now jobless.
Um, and so thinking about the people who are in the seventh largest industry in the state, where are they going to go? Um, and that’s what the conversation should be with, when we’re talking about the climate task force. Not if we should get rid of all the gas, but we should move away from oil and gas.
And what are the industries that should be here that are most feasible. And how do we get those people who are work formally in oil and gas into those jobs? The distrust with rules and local citizens and residents of Louisiana isn’t that, uh, oil and gas is amazing. It’s because that’s the only job in my neighborhood or my community.
Um, and if that’s the only job that pays well, they’ll give me a good one. People want that guaranteed. They can only have a guarantee that they know whatever’s coming next is better than what exists currently. So, when you talk to people who are local, even in Cancer Alley, I know many people in Cancer Alley who worked for oil and gas, who weren’t familiar with the chemicals and they, and you tell them, yeah, I know it’s killing me, but it pays me $40 an hour.
And I’m able to have a good living and I can send my kids to private school. And I have, you know, I can go on three vacations. So how do we give them that without taking away, uh, there, there, you know, job security and the family security, that’s the conversation we should be having. That is what equity is about.
What we are doing right now is not equity. We are, you know, slowly patting the hand of, of bad actors and hoping that they become better people.
ML: And when I talked to people in Louisiana, in Cancer Alley, and also in the coastal areas, they have so many ideas about what equity could look like and about what these solutions, the answers to these questions like a just transition for workers from fossil fuels and petrochemicals to, uh, different industries or different ways of creating power and fuel.
And when they hear about the Green New Deal, they say, oh yeah, we could do that here in Louisiana, we could have green infrastructure. We could have more renewable energy. We could be building, we could be taking this federal investment and creating a lot of jobs down here that people don’t have to work in the petrochemical industry.
And I wonder if, and you know, also just ideas come out of here that make a lot of sense. Like, when the power was out after the hurricane, everyone said, why don’t we have solar micro grids? And I wonder if there’s any like ideas that Louisianans have the people you talk to have about climate resilience that really stick out.
JD: Oh man. You know, the best we always say the best resource is, is the locals because they know the environment and they know what the environment can withstand and take the interesting thing about rebuilding our coastline with natural infrastructure or urban areas with green infrastructure, is that automatically it benefits all aspects of the community and the community can see it.
And so people have really been talking and I’m speaking one for urban, and then I’ll go to the coast in rural areas, but urban areas really see the benefits of one improving their overall health. Because when you put in green infrastructure, you reduce heat island effects and you also obviously reduce flooding.
Um, and actually there’s a study out that shows that when you install trees, crime is reduced by 2% for every 12% that. In comparison, which is a huge amount of people don’t even talk about that. Um, it is actually a correction of, uh, gentrify, I’m sorry, not gentrification but redlining. And it reduces gentrification I should say, because when you are putting green infrastructure into urban communities that have been disproportionately, uh, undervalued and under invested in suddenly that area can flourish locally within, uh, and it creates jobs.
And so people have been actually asking for this and wanting that. So even though it’s not a unique solution people see green infrastructure and water management as a way forward, because while we’ve been talking about oil and gas and the industry, in the urban areas, the largest industry is hospitality and service.
And while we love New Orleans and people love to come to Mardi Gras and they love to come to French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest, most people here are getting paid below either at minimum wage or below minimum wage. If they’re a waitress or a, a bartender, I was a waitress and a bartender and I got paid to, I was in $2:15 and that has not changed, but for people who can get green jobs, whether that’s in so-and-so solar panels are doing micro grids or green infrastructure.
Suddenly your pay goes from $2:15 cents to $15 an hour, or even more. Um, the question is outside the coastal areas, there’s so much ingenuity happening and we’re not even taking advantage of it. Um, one thing that we’re finally seeing is that coastal communities were calling for solar. I’m not, sorry, not solar, but wind turbine or wind farms off the Gulf of Mexico.
Um, and they’ve been so many studies and just fisherfolk are like, why aren’t they doing this? And it wouldn’t, you know, there wouldn’t be an oil still every five minutes. And so finally there has been a recent uh, development where they’re going to do a wind farm off the Gulf of Mexico, which is a huge thing.
The other thing ironically is putting again, coastal restoration. So one of the local parishioners in Plaquemines Parish told me. You know, they don’t want you know, some folks may have feelings about the Green New Deal, but he said, honestly, if you’re a fisherman, you can probably double as a coastal, uh, restore of, of, of sorts by putting in local grasses and trees while you’re fishing. He said, because when you’re fishing, you put out your nets and you put out your crab traps or whatever it is, and you leave it there. He said in between that time, you could be putting in, you know, uh, trees and more wildlife too, or even testing water quality in between, which would improve our coast and give people better jobs and more ongoing economic benefit.
Because when you, you know, you may not know how much shrimp you’re going to get that day, but if you did five hours of water testing or five hours of installing a coastal infrastructure or natural infrastructure, I should say, uh, suddenly, you know, you’ve got maybe a couple of hundred bucks a day, or maybe even more depending on what you’re doing.
And so, there’s a way to combine the traditional lifestyles of Louisiana with green jobs and making that a part of the actual scale of. And then to your point, Mike, everybody has been talking about micro grids and solar panels. That is truly going to be the biggest solution to making the Louisiana resilient.
As we see more tropical storms and hurricanes, which we will, there is no question about it. It will be much more sustainable. If homeowners can have their own grids, even batteries. I talked to a few people that said they have their own batteries at home and they were able to charge. Um, keep things on, keep like charge their phone, charged their laptops, even have internet.
All of that is possible when people have access to that themselves. And to be clear, the reason, part of the reason why we don’t have that is because Entergy, I believe it was in 2020, made it more difficult for people to get solar grid solar panels and micro grids in their community. And now if you get one in Entergy’s area, you actually are paying Entergy for your solar panel and you’re not getting a reduction in your bill and potentially you can increase the bills of people around you, because Entergy’s argument is that you’re putting too much into the grid causing them problems.
And so instead of them investing in their own infrastructure to hold more power and store more power from grids, they penalize residents for getting grids and they basically make it more difficult for you to get a solar. And so again, I literally just got off a call Mike, and I said, you know, they work with people who are like working on the hill and doing work policy-wise.
And they, I told them, I said, you know, it’s not that we’re, we can’t handle hurricanes. I rode out Ida and it was a category four and I was fine. And many of my neighbors were fine. Yeah. I said, the problem is our trash ass utilities. It’s like, it’s not that people here can’t handle hurricanes. We’ve been doing this for hundreds of years and we’ll be okay.
And the state does what it’s supposed to do. Of course it could be improved. But the reality is is that our Entergy, our electric utility, failed. Um, our water utilities in many cases, like I said, they did well, but they would have done way better had the electricity not gone out for as long as it did. And then our broadband failed, Um, even after Ida.
One of my best friends literally just got power Saturday he lives in Hammond. We’d have to talk about what you, water utilities, electric utilities, and. Because it’s not that people here can’t do what they’re supposed to do. It’s that they’re failing us and we’re not holding them accountable.
So we’re talking about the Green New Deal and the ability to have jobs and people to thrive in Louisiana, it is more than possible. And I, you know, people always talk about climate migration, but what we really should be talking about is just transition and having people live here, if they so choose to, but live here fairly inequitably.
And the only thing standing in the way of that is the ability, there’s a lack of oversight and of, of utilities and the lack of investment in people to do green jobs. If we do those two things, Louisiana could be one of the most successful states in the union, but our politicians are more interested in keeping the status quo than making our state great.
And that’s the biggest issue. It’s not the ingenuity of the people. They have, the ingenuity they’ve been. We figured out, like you said, my people have been raised in their houses since the beginning. They figured out that it floods, we’ve already known that. Um, but it’s literally that, that our elected officials don’t have the people’s interests in mind.
ML: Right. And, you know, Entergy, the electric utility here is like a lot of electric utilities where it is actively trying to kneecap solar, personal household solar, as much as possible because it is a threat and more people are going to want it, and it’s actually quite sustainable. And, uh, it makes sense to make electricity from the sun.
So they’re, they’re terrified of, of solar. And instead, uh, double down on fossil fuels here in New Orleans in the past few years with a new power plant, but that’s a whole different can of worms.
But I do want to just end with a kind of existential question. I’ve been here nine years, as long as I’ve been here, the future has felt precarious. There’s always jokes that New Orleans is going to be underwater at some point that the land loss will — we’re not joking about the coastal areas — I mean, we’re not joking about losing important historical markers and cemeteries and people’s homes are at risk of sea level rise.
There’s always been this kind of like existential threat looming of, of climate change. And just the future in Louisiana. How do you feel about the future today?
JD: You know, I actually, you know, I know the statistics and the data and the way I say it to two, the two ways might have this conversation. Is that I am very optimistic about the state of Louisiana, not because of our politicians and not because of our utilities or because of industry, but because of people and the people here care deeply about this state.
And the, the other thing is because we have been having to deal with this reckoning about the relationship between our coasts and our ability to survive through climate change and sea level rise, people here are becoming more prepared for, for climate change and thinking about it intentionally, which I can say, I have a lot of partners all over the country and a lot of places like New York is also more prone to the same thing, but New York, isn’t talking about it in the same way.
In fact, many of my friends who live in New York don’t even think that they are at risk for climate change. Even though there were everybody’s on an island. So, it is a very interesting thing and I say it this way is that the entire nation is at risk for something, whether it is fires or floods or tornadoes, or, you know, what, you know, drought.
But Louisiana is an interesting place because we are not drought for the most part. Some parts of northern Louisiana have drought, but overall we’re not drought prone. Um, we’re not having fires. And if there’s one thing we know how to manage in this state is water. And that people, regardless of the changes of the landscape, which it will change because it has to change whether we do it or mother nature, does it.
People will figure out a way to make it work for them and for their families. Um, but what I am saying is what I am curious and I always talk about is I get frustrated because people always ask people in Louisiana, well, what are you going to do about climate change? And then I’m saying, well, we’re doing a lot, what are the other city’s going to do about climate change?
And it, it, to me, it, it forces people in Louisiana to be in a resiliency stage constantly because we’re constantly posed this question. But additionally, because we are a southern poor state, people here are being basically told that suddenly, you know, our lives and our communities may not matter as much as places like Miami, which is at much more risk of sinking than us. Or again, New York or North Carolina, but Louisiana is the, like the problem child or New Orleans is the problem. When in fact, the people here are creating solutions every single day and leading and green infrastructure and leaving equals the restoration and leading in other forms of, of, of resilience.
And so, I like to sometimes flip that question on their head and say, well, we are, we’re not perfect. And we can’t stop climate change. And we are part of the climate change problem because of our addiction to oil and gas and addiction to petrochemicals and addiction to this this idea that our, our natural resources should be for anyone who, who was willing to, to, to buy it and sell it.
But I also know that people here are, are more than prepared for hurricanes. And you know, for example, my boyfriend is not from here. He’s from Ohio and he’s from Cleveland and he stayed the storm with me and in my family. And you said no one in Cleveland would be able to do this.
ML: He’s right, I’m from Cleveland. It’s true.
ML: Okay. So, you know, he’s from Cleveland. He was like, no one would be able to do this. And we went up to Cleveland after the storm and we told our friends like, yeah, we run out the storm and we did this and we didn’t have power for three days. And literally his friends. Just shocked and dismayed it, like, why would you do this to yourself and subject yourself to this?
But, and to me, I said, we’re not subjecting ourselves anything. And I like, she liked staying for the storm because I want to make sure my elderly, elderly neighbors are okay. And I like to make sure, I would feel guilty knowing that my neighbors may need support and we are not there for them. And so anyway, that’s a long-winded answer, Mike, but I may just saying that I like, you know, I like to, to flip that question on its head because we are always, people ask what we are, what, what are we going to do? But I always say, well, we’re doing a lot, but what are you going to do? Um, and I don’t see a lot of cities being accessing questions. I don’t ever, I have friends in Miami who are never asked what they’re going to do about climate change, even though they’re like literally sinking into to the, to the ocean or, you know, the golf.
But I really want people to, to think of Louisiana’s, uh, as a resilient place. And where people are creating solutions and that’s all people here really need is investment, equitable investment social investment. And you will see Louisiana be a completely different place than what it is today.
ML: And you see a glimpse of that in that, in just a few days after a storm where everyone is looking out for their neighbors and coming together, making mutual aid networks to distribute food and fuel and take care of each other. And yeah, when you see that. It does give me hope and it, and it’s, it’s like, look, look what we can do. You know, we’re not, we’re not just sitting down here. We’re actually actively part of this process of resilience. And so that’s, that’s, I really appreciate you saying all that because it makes me feel better personally about the future. And I think we all need a little bit of that. Not just here in Louisiana, but across the country. So thank you.
JD: Yeah, of course. I mean, this isn’t, you know, Louisiana has been through a lot. I mean, when I talk about the flood of 1927 is probably the first moment where we like, oh my gosh, right? This is our reality.
And then hurricane Betsy and hurricane Camille and Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Laura and every single time people come back stronger. So, I’m not worried about the state. I’m worried about our leadership and I’m worried about our relationship with jobs that people feel.
ML: Thank you so much for joining us, Jessica Dandridge.
If you also enjoyed this interview and would like to help us amplify voices on the front lines, the climate crisis, please like, and share this podcast and subscribe on your podcast platform. You can also support all of Truthout’s, independent journalism by going to truthout.org/donate. Climate front lines is written by me, Mike Ludwig and produced by Jared Rodriguez.
Thanks for listening. And until next time, be safe out there and take care of each other. And remember, where there is a movement, there is hope.
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