What Mississippi can learn from Louisiana
One month into the 2014 hurricane season, Gulf Coast residents, businesses and governments once again have our eyes on the North Atlantic, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. Of course, we all hope this season will be a calm one. But with many of our communities still feeling the effects of Katrina, Ike and Rita, we know how devastating these storms can be.
This summer, Mississippi and the other Gulf states will have a unique chance to make major investments in coastal restoration and improvement. If done correctly, there is a great opportunity for our states to significantly reduce the potential for damage from future hurricanes and floods.
The opportunity comes thanks to the RESTORE Act. Passed by Congress in 2012, the law earmarks to the five Gulf Coast states 80 percent of the civil fines stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The RESTORE Act directs the states to spend on projects that benefit both our economies and our natural environments.
If done right, our coastlines will become stronger, our communities better protected and our economies strengthened. But if done poorly, taxpayers could be left on the hook for big costs later on, and we will be no better protected against natural disasters than we are today.
In this regard, Mississippi could take a page from its neighbor to the west. Since 2007, Louisiana has undertaken a planning process to address the decades-long problem of coastal land loss that has taken a toll on our state’s economy and effectively moved the southern half of the state closer to the Gulf of Mexico and into harm’s way.
The result of this process is Louisiana’s “Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast,” a document most recently revised in 2012 and unanimously approved by the Legislature. The plan is ambitious, with a $50 billion price tag over the next half-century. But it’s also the first such plan in any state that would address coastal risks in a comprehensive, sustainable and cost-effective way.
Louisiana’s plan is held up as a model for a number of reasons. It is comprehensive and systematic, looking at the economic and ecological health of the coast and how different projects interact. It is budget-conscious and does not pretend that resources are unlimited. Because it has the support of the Legislature, the governor and stakeholders ranging from oil and gas companies to environmental groups, it represents a shared vision. This gives the plan a combination of popular legitimacy and political viability.
Finally, Louisiana lawmakers have passed legislation requiring that RESTORE Act funds go to master plan projects, making it unlikely that money will be wasted on projects that have not been thoroughly vetted or that don’t support coastal restoration.
The coastline is deeply important to both Louisiana and Mississippi for a number of reasons, not the least of which its importance to our economic growth. Across Mississippi’s three coastal counties, 26,000 jobs and $2 billion in annual spending are supported by nature-based tourism, such as hunting and recreational fishing. In fact, nearly one in five jobs along Mississippi’s coast is tourism-related, while the state’s commercial fishing industry tallies up some $250 million in sales annually.
With that in mind, the RESTORE Act will provide Mississippi an opportunity to make critical investments in its coastline, from restoring coastal habitats and barrier islands to enhancing flood control to better protect against future natural disasters. With sufficient and effective planning, Mississippians will reap the benefits of this investment for decades to come, but planning must be both transparent and participatory.
Just as a building is only as good as the blueprints that underlie it, the strengths of the coastal investments that Mississippi and other states make with RESTORE Act funds will only be as good as the plans that go into them. As unlikely as it may sound, Louisiana’s state government has done some first-class planning work, and we invite our neighbors to follow our lead.