The Next 50 Years: Nonstructural storm protection

By Brian Jackson, Associate Director – Stakeholder Engagement, Environmental Defense Fund

Last month, the Louisiana Legislature passed the 2012 Coastal Master Plan, capping off years of public engagement and analysis. The 50-year plan lays out a bold path of projects and programs to restore the environment and protect the people, economies and environment of the Mississippi River Delta. The total cost of the plan is $50 billion, of which $10.2 billion is dedicated to nonstructural risk reduction measures.

So what is nonstructural protection anyways? Why would the master plan allocate one out of every five dollars for nonstructural approaches? And what does it mean for Louisiana’s coastal communities?

The term “nonstructural” originated because nonstructural storm protection is considered the alternative to traditional structural flood protection (i.e. levees). Structural measures control water and keep it out or away from an area, while nonstructural measures accommodate water and make buildings and infrastructure more adaptable and resilient to water. Nonstructural approaches have been cleverly named “Living with Water” by colleagues at home, such as Waggonner & Ball Architects in New Orleans, and abroad, through the Dutch Dialogues workshops in the Netherlands. Nonstructural measures include a wide array of activities, including evacuation, home elevation, flood proofing of buildings, flood insurance, planning and zoning and storm proofing critical public facilities.

Nonstructural storm protection measures can be undertaken quickly — in fact, Louisiana has already implemented many of these measures through The Road Home program, the Coastal Land Use Toolkit developed by the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and Center for Planning Excellence, and other flood mitigation programs. Whether behind already-existing levee protection or down on the bayou, nonstructural measures are cost-effective for reducing flood risk to homes and businesses. Every dollar spent on disaster mitigation saves four dollars in recovery costs. This is why the master plan relies so heavily on nonstructural protection.

Elevated house. Credit: TRAC/Terrebonne Readiness & Assistance Coalition

Additionally, nonstructural measures don’t alter natural hydrology, meaning they can work in synergy with large-scale restoration efforts, such as river diversions. Nonstructural measures also work in places where levee protection may already exist, where levees may not be feasible and where federal appropriations or permitting issues may exist.

The Coastal Master Plan’s nonstructural program is based on an analysis of 116 project areas throughout coastal Louisiana. Each area was analyzed for flood risk, building characteristics and adoption of risk reduction measures. The results of this study were used to determine the coast-wide need for risk reduction, the $10.2 billion nonstructural budget and a suite of measures that could be implemented across the coast. The analysis did not result in firm nonstructural plans for each of the 116 project areas. Instead, the goal of the study was to determine the need and budget for a new nonstructural program, not how the nonstructural program would be implemented.

This situation presents both a challenge and an opportunity for local communities and nongovernmental organizations to work with the state as it defines the implementation and budget of the nonstructural program. The master plan study determined that Louisiana’s rural coastal areas will benefit the most from nonstructural protection, so engaging those communities will be essential for success. Also, identifying new and existing funding sources, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program or Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grants, in addition to determining local need coupled with implementation plans, will be vital to the success of the nonstructural program and crucial for a sustainable coastal Louisiana.

All things considered, the Mississippi River Delta Restoration Campaign enthusiastically supports the 2012 Coastal Master Plan and its balanced approach to restoration and protection. The master plan lays out the foundation for the next 50 years, and now we must work to fund and implement its vision.