“That water was probably 60% mud,” said Falgout, who hopes help is on the way to his community in Larose, about 30 miles southwest of New Orleans.
As climate change makes hurricanes stronger and wetter and increases storm surges, cities along the Louisiana coast and the Mississippi River are hoping President Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure package will provide much-needed funding to fortify locks, dykes and other flood defenses. But community groups and advocates worry that small towns will struggle to navigate the maze of government programs and miss the rare chance to protect themselves from rising waters and heavy rains.
“I think agencies are still figuring out a lot of things,” said Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, which advocates for communities along the river.
While many parts of the country are at risk of flooding, the Louisiana coast has long been particularly vulnerable, and the upper Mississippi is part of a region where flood severity is increasing faster than any other region in the country.
La Crosse, Wis., is among cities trying to figure out how to benefit as infrastructure funds begin to roll out.
The city’s levees were built after devastating 1965 floods and don’t meet federal standards that would help lower insurance rates and make it easier for residents to repair their homes without having to spend more to protect themselves against flooding, said Brad Woznak of SEH, flood planning consultant for the city.
Upgrading the levees would be so expensive it’s hard for the city to know where to start, he said.
“But with this potential infrastructure bill funding, that’s what I keep telling them – don’t rule anything out yet,” Woznak said, noting that this could be a chance to pay for an initial assessment of the project.
Some advocates want agencies to make it easier for communities to learn about funding opportunities and ensure that simple applications from small towns can compete with more sophisticated proposals from wealthier towns. They also want more clarity on how the Biden administration considers factors such as economic and environmental inequalities in its funding decisions.
The Biden administration is asking states to integrate climate resilience into their long-term planning and encourage projects that consider flood risk. He tapped Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans, to help coordinate law enforcement and community outreach.
“There needs to be a concerted effort by the administration and the federal government to engage states and localities now,” said Forbes Tompkins, flood policy expert at Pew Charitable Trusts.
The Environmental Protection Agency also said it would offer assistance to disadvantaged areas and that states have money to help small communities access funding for clean water and wastewater projects. Rural communities also receive special advice on silver mining.
But further complicating the rush for funding is the debate over the best approaches to protect against flooding. In addition to protections like levees and floodgates, Congress directed the Corps to give more serious consideration to natural solutions like wetland restoration.
Wetlands help absorb water before it reaches communities while restoring wildlife habitat, recharging groundwater and providing more green space, noted Olivia Dorothy of conservation group American Rivers. .
After floods in 2019 breached a levee in northwest Missouri on the Missouri River, for example, the levee was moved back to create more than 1,000 acres of floodplain and additional wetlands.
Dorothy said more natural protections are especially needed along the Mississippi.
In Louisiana, Larose is among the small communities fortunate enough to receive early Infrastructure Act funding due to a long-running project in the larger region.
In January, the Army Corps allocated $379 million to continue work on a series of locks, levees and other structures that will help protect 150,000 residents of coastal Louisiana. When complete, local officials said the Morganza-to-the-Gulf project will likely protect Falgout’s home from another storm like Ida.
For now, Falgout and his wife are living in their boathouse while their house is being repaired. The property had escaped flooding in the past, but Falgout said Louisiana’s shrinking coastline made it more vulnerable.
“It would be a shame to go away,” he said.
The Associated Press is supported by the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/environment