LAROSE, La. — After Hurricane Katrina, an ambitious and expensive system of levees, walls, storm gates and pumps was installed around New Orleans to protect against the kind of flooding and horror that so deeply scarred the city, and the nation, in 2005. And when Hurricane Ida hit last week, exactly 16 years later, those hopes were largely fulfilled. The flooding was minimal.
But 60 miles away, in the small community of Larose, the situation was different. In William Lowe’s neighborhood, storm surge from Ida overtopped a modest levee maintained by the Lafourche Parish government near his elevated house, sending water from a nearby canal up over his floorboards. Days later, his neighborhood was still waterlogged, and he and his family were getting to and from the house by boat.
“You’ve got lives destroyed down here,” said Mr. Lowe, 49, choking back tears. “You go to the Dollar General, you’ve got people standing outside bawling, because they’ve got nothing.”
In the working-class bayou country south and west of New Orleans, local government officials have been trying for decades to secure federal funding for a system similar to the one in New Orleans, to little avail.
And as Ida moved north, bringing more death and destruction to places like New York City, advocates for the project in coastal Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes were left to wonder about its fate at a time when bigger and better-known places are ever-more-likely to be competing for storm protection funding.
As sea levels rise and a warming ocean brings more fearsome storms, the fight over hurricane protection in Southern Louisiana is only the latest example of a growing dilemma for the United States: which places to try to save, and how to decide.
Until recently, that question may have seemed like the plot of a dystopian movie, or at least a problem to leave for future generations. But as disasters become more severe, the cost of rebuilding has skyrocketed. Extreme weather has caused more than $450 billion in damage nationwide since 2005; the number of disasters causing more than $1 billion in damage reached 22 last year, a record.
The Government Accountability Office has warned those costs may be unsustainable. Yet the demand keeps increasing: When the Federal Emergency Management Agency introduced a new program to help cities and states prepare for disasters, the requests far outstripped the amount of money available.
The increasing frequency and severity of hurricanes poses another dilemma: Even if the money could be found for projects to protect places like Larose, are such efforts a good way to spend public money, especially as the need for climate resilience around the country is growing and coastlines disappear further every year?
“A lot of these places aren’t going to be around that much longer,” said Jesse Keenan, a professor at Tulane University who focuses on how to adapt to climate change. As worsening disasters push more people to leave those towns, he said, the number of people who stand to benefit from storm-protection systems declines, making those systems harder to justify.
“It’s going to be hard for a lot of those projects to pencil out,” Dr….