Coastal Conference Brings Experts Together

Richard Bogren  |  5/26/2007 1:54:53 AM

News Release Distributed 05/25/07

NEW ORLEANS – Restoring the Gulf Coast comes down to questions involving finances, political will and social sciences, John M. Barry told a conference on natural resources economics and policy Monday (May 21).

Barry, a prize-winning and New York Times best-selling author and visiting scholar at the Center for Bioenvironmental Research of Tulane and Xavier universities, was the keynote speaker at the National Forum on Socioeconomic Research in Coastal Systems sponsored by the LSU AgCenter’s Center for Natural Resource Economics and Policy.

The conference earlier this week (May 20-23) in New Orleans was "a national forum on socioeconomic research in coastal systems," said Dr. Rex Caffey, director of the LSU AgCenter’s CNREP and one of the conference organizers.

The conference drew more than 160 participants from 16 U.S. states and nine foreign countries to hear and see more than 80 oral and poster presentations from natural resource economists, resource managers and policy professionals.

Various sessions looked at the current status and challenges of integrating the social sciences into coastal restoration and protection programs, examined the human response to hurricanes, with particular emphasis on socioeconomic and risk-related factors, and considered the demand, value and effects of coastal recreation amenities.

Organizers said the conference was designed to present information that would help decision-makers addressing public policy considerations.

Discounting the cost, because the technology is available, Barry said, coastal restoration is a political problem and a human problem.

"Once you provide a knowledge base, once you provide information, it can really affect policy," he said. "Knowledge is not morally neutral."

The author of "Rising Tide," a story of the great Mississippi River flood of 1927, Barry said limited finances have to be allocated in the public sector to restore infrastructure and in the private sector to rebuild. He was asked by the Louisiana congressional delegation to chair a bipartisan working group on flood control and to advise it on legislation resulting from hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

In more recent times, the 1965 Flood Control Act, which emerged after Hurricane Betsy, was a plan that was never completed, said Ivor Van Heerden, deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center.

"If the levees hadn’t failed, we wouldn’t be talking about Katrina. We need to understand what went wrong," Van Heerden said, talking about "the culture of mistakes."

Barrier levees and gates protect the "built environment," wetlands protect levees, and barrier islands protect wetlands, Van Heerden said. He warned the Morganza to the Gulf levee system would produce "five funnels that would bring a storm surge inland."

Louisiana should practice good comprehensive planning to avoid repeating past mistakes, said Rod Emmer with the LSU Sea Grant College Program.

"We must commit to comprehensive planning," he said, suggesting local governments use tools such as zoning. "The time has come for the legislature to stand up and say, ‘This is what must be done.’ Some people will win and some people will lose."

Suggesting a new direction for Louisiana in addressing natural hazards, Emmer said coastal restoration should affect people and jobs.

Mitigation should exceed federal standards, he added. For example, all who live inside levees could be required to buy flood insurance to protect themselves from the consequences of a levee failure.

Emmer suggested mandatory flood insurance for anyone living below dams and downstream from diversions, as well as in storm surge zones above base flood elevations. He also suggested establishing setback limits on eroding shorelines for any new developments or rebuilding.

"Individuals must return to more personal responsibilities," he said.

Among the sociologists presenting at the conference, Michael Thomas from Florida A&M University presented results from a four-year study of socioeconomic factors affecting human response to hurricanes. The study, which evaluated how people acquire and use information to make choices, surveyed 1,800 people in southeastern and northwestern Florida about their activities around hurricanes Dennis, Katrina and Wilma in 2005.

Shirley Laska from the University of New Orleans spoke about results from a survey on the experiences of the elderly during and after Hurricane Katrina. She said more than 70 percent of the people who died as a result of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath were older than 60 years old.

One of the greatest challenges is mobility and meshing national best practices with local knowledge, she said. Some of the reasons the elderly didn’t evacuate for Hurricane Katrina included their experiences with the "false evacuation" for Hurricane Ivan, their experiences of having survived Hurricane Betsy, their health, their feelings of being safer at home and their fears of not being taken care of in shelters.

Conference organizers said the topic – Challenges of Socioeconomic Research in Coastal Systems – was particularly important in light of the damage associated with the 2005 hurricanes.

"The economic importance of natural capital is widely documented, and nowhere has this been more clearly demonstrated than in the coastal states of the northern Gulf of Mexico," Caffey said.

In addition to CNREP, a unit of the LSU AgCenter’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness, sponsors included the Louisiana Sea Grant College Program; the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act; the Farm Foundation; the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and the Shaw Group.

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Writer: Rick Bogren at (225) 578-5839 or rbogren@agcenter.lsu.edu

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