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A master plan will guide the preservation of Southwest Louisiana

By Gary Perilloux
What’s $17 billion? It’s Netflix’s entire content investment for 2021 and the cost of Samsung’s advanced semiconductor plant in Central Texas.

For Southwest Louisiana, $17 billion is the cost of reclaiming home. That’s the estimated damages from a four-punch storm combination: Hurricane Laura in August 2020, Hurricane Delta in October 2020, a winter storm in February 2021 and flash floods in May 2021.

Foundation Fact: The Community Foundation of Southwest Louisiana is a supporting nonprofit of the Baton Rouge ARea Foundation. BRAF helped Foundation SWLA raise millions for relief and recovery after hurricanes Laura and Delta.

The 300,000 people who live in and around Lake Charles are tough. Milestone hurricanes like Audrey (1957), Rita (2005), Ike (2008) and Laura have not stopped them. They are motivated to start anew. They’ll get help from hundreds of donations to the Community Foundation of Southwest Louisiana, including an anonymous donation in a plain envelope from New York of three dollar bills.

“That person, whoever they are and whatever motivated them to send their hard-earned money, will always be appreciated by the people of Southwest Louisiana,” says Sara McLeod Judson, president and CEO of the foundation. “It’s just so heartwarming to me, and that continues to drive us every day in our mission to be better than before: because people care.”

Another interesting donation after Laura found its way to the foundation. California philanthropists David and Angela Filo contributed $2.5 million to underwrite a road map for Southwest Louisiana’s future. David grew up in Moss Bluff before attending Stanford University, where he collaborated with Jerry Yang in the mid-1990s to create Yahoo!, the Internet’s first popular search engine.

The Filos want the foundation to partner with regional leaders and residents to create a guiding master plan for Southwest Louisiana. It’s their wish that the blueprint include regional planning for housing, economic development, infrastructure and water management.

“Those who are affected most can create and implement the most lasting change in their communities,” said Angela Filo, expressing the couple’s hope for Southwest Louisiana.

In October 2021, the foundation selected a team led by Pittsburgh-based Urban Design Associates to develop the master plan over 12 months. The plan will set the stage for better living in Southwest Louisiana, equipping the region to retain residents and businesses — and attract new ones — over the long haul.

“This has been very much a team approach in Southwest Louisiana, and we certainly see that continuing as we plan for future generations,” Judson says.

The backdrop for the plan is complex. A deepened shipping channel and abundant natural gas have lured liquified natural gas titans to invest billions in the region, thereby helping to expand the area economy by 130% of its 2014 level within several years.

Meanwhile, punishing storms and their tidal surge destroyed communities, even taking out homes that were elevated to guard against rising seas. What’s more, higher flood insurance rates are speeding up a retreat from the coast, particularly from the most vulnerable barrier islands.

Planners from UDA have all that and more to consider. But they won’t be starting with a blank page.

Already completed is the 137-page Calcasieu Parish Long-Term Community Recovery Plan, which entailed hundreds of interviews with local stakeholders and recovery experts. The Calcasieu Parish Police Jury engaged Emergent Method, a Baton Rouge consultancy, to guide the process. Parish officials built on existing hazard mitigation plans, institutional knowledge and community input to identify six chief priorities: housing, critical infrastructure, the economy, community planning, community health, and natural and cultural assets.

“We definitely did not start from scratch,” says Alberto Galan, a Calcasieu Parish recovery coordinator. The parish plan focuses on rapid response over the next several years, he said, using supplemental federal disaster aid as the spur.

The foundation’s plan will address longer-term efforts to create more resilient coastal communities. Though chiefly focused on hardest-hit Calcasieu and Cameron parishes, Judson says the plan also will produce tool kits for adjacent Allen, Beauregard and Jefferson Davis parishes.

For both plans, rebuilding safe, affordable housing stock is critical. Half of Calcasieu’s homes were damaged by the hurricanes, with one in four left uninhabitable.

To the south in Cameron Parish, 90% of dwellings were damaged with about half of them destroyed, says Clair Hebert Marceaux. She guides parish economic development as director of the Cameron Parish Port, Harbor & Terminal District.

“One of the most painful things I have ever seen as an adult is when someone who was born and raised here and loves this place, comes to the realization that they can’t live here anymore,” Marceaux says. “That’s been really hard for me to see.”

Her own family was paying $7,500 in yearly insurance costs for an 1,800-square-foot home obliterated by Laura. They’re restoring a damaged home about 2 miles away.

“It’s not just a question for us to restore or retreat,” she says. “It goes back to 90% of the world’s population living within 100 miles of a coastline. And, unfortunately, we are the ones who currently are most having to deal with that question.”

By late 2022, the Foundation-led master plan will marshal federal, state and local recovery resources with private sector strengths to envision a long-term home for all who want to live in Southwest Louisiana.

“I think there is a balance that can be struck between the public and private sectors, with less bureaucracy and more innovation; I think that’s important,” says Marceaux. “I see it as a great opportunity, through this master planning effort, to really revolutionize not only the way we live in Southwest Louisiana, but around the world, and look to the future of how we live with water.”

Adds Galan: “Getting secure water, secure broadband and secure electricity are very immediate needs in terms of effective long-term recovery. We’re fortunate to have a good relationship with the foundation, and we’ll be working with them hand-in-hand on their master plan.”