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As climate changes, Louisiana seeks to lift a highway

GOLDEN MEADOW, La. - Here on the side of Louisiana’s Highway 1, next to Raymond’s Bait Shop, a spindly pole with Global Positioning System equipment and a cellphone stuck on top charts the water’s gradual encroachment on dry land.

In 1991, this stretch of road through the marshlands of southern Louisiana was 3.9 feet above sea level, but the instrument - which measures the ground’s position in relation to sea level - shows the land has lost more than a foot against the sea. It sank 2 inches in the past 16 months alone.

That’s a problem because Highway 1, unprotected by levees, connects critical oil and gas resources in booming Port Fourchon to the rest of the nation.


Ten miles of the highway is now standing 22 feet above sea level on cement piles. But another 7 miles is not, and if less than half a mile of this highway succumbs to the 14-foot storm surges expected in the future, the highway will need to be shut down, cutting off the port.

Residents and business leaders are demanding that the federal government help pay to rebuild and elevate the additional section of Highway 1. Federal officials have provided scientific and technical expertise but will not contribute funding unless the state pledges to complete the road. Louisiana says it does not have the money. The dilemma facing this important lowland road is one shared by communities across the country as climate change begins to transform the nation’s landscape.

By 2030, many areas in the United States are likely to see storm surges combining with rising sea levels to bring waters at least 4 feet above the local high-tide line, according to a report released recently by Climate Central, a nonprofit research group. Nearly 2.6 million homes are on land that would be inundated.


The Obama administration is trying to plan for a country altered by shifts in precipitation, higher oceans, and more intense periods of heat. It is rethinking infrastructure projects and creating a new plan for how to manage plants and wildlife in the face of global warming. Every agency is required to come up with a plan by June for how to adapt to climate change.

“It’s about how do we incorporate planning for a future that may look very different from the way the world looks today,’’ said Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, who is spearheading the administration’s federal adaptation strategy.

Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who started measuring tides in Louisiana in the mid-1800s, have analyzed the numbers for Highway 1, and they do not bode well. At today’s rate of sea-level rise the road would be under water roughly 22 days of the year by 2030.

Windell Curole did not need NOAA’s number-crunching to tell him what’s coming. The 60-year-old general manager of the South Lafourche Levee District said he could not see open water from this road when he was growing up. Now, it is in plain sight, just yards away.

The land is sinking, in part because engineers have redirected sediment flowing from the Mississippi River more directly into the Gulf of Mexico, improving navigation but no longer shoring up the wetlands.

And climate change is starting to make the problem worse. Not only is the sea rising as the ocean warms and expands, but heavier rainfall in shorter bursts is battering Highway 1. Curole has devised a simple mantra that he believes will address sea level rise, as long as the federal government heeds it: “Elevation is the salvation from inundation.’’