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Sinking Louisiana: Addressing Disparities

Jun 21, 2019
Originally published on June 21, 2019 12:07 pm

If you live in a city it’s easy to think of Louisiana’s coastal land loss problem as out-of-sight, out-of-mind. But every day the coast is creeping closer and closer to New Orleans, and as sea level rise, more extreme storms and a deteriorating coast bring more flooding, some city-dwellers are trying to adapt to the changes.

All month long, WWNO is teaming up with Louisiana Public Broadcasting with a special series called Sinking Louisiana. This week, WWNO’s Tegan Wendland talks with Angela Chalk, an urban water management expert who runs a nonprofit called Healthy Community Services, about how residents can combat flooding.

Q: Your organization focuses on helping people in the 7th Ward alleviate flooding by installing things like rain barrels and rain gardens. How do you first get excited about this kind of work?

This started with my great niece who, they were experiencing flooding on their playground at school and so we had this conversation about what happened at school that week. And so she started to explain to me about rain gardens and what it meant. From there it just blossomed into a passion. But first of all learning what a rain garden is what's green infrastructure. And the initial course was offer to Global Green and what then was water wise a community course.

Q: So tell us more about the Seventh Ward and why you focused your projects here?

First of all I live here. I'm fourth-generation New Orleanian. I live in a house that my grandfather won in a card game. And most importantly because this is an area that's prone to flooding and it's a predominantly African-American community and folks are busy working so they're not paying attention to what is happening is in respect to flooding until it's an acute issue. And so Healthy Community Services is changing that lens and the way people look at urban stormwater flooding, coastal land loss, sea level rise, and climate change. And so we go about engaging and educating and empowering residents around those issues to start to make incremental changes by installing such things as a green infrastructure intervention. To date we have nine projects. Within the boundaries of the Seventh Ward, collecting close to 10,000 gallons of water to reduce flooding in our in our area.

Q: So can you tell us a little about the rain garden and we're sitting in front of now?

Actually it's a bioswale, because the rain garden is a depressed area that's circular and the bioswale is linear. And what happens with the bioswale is we put in native plants and aggregate to absorb the water. So as high as these plants are, the roots are deep. This particular bioswale captures 350 gallons of water. It infiltrates into the earth, raising our water table. So 350 gallons of water on this site alone never gets into the storm system. When it reaches this capacity then it's a slower amount that goes into our storm system.

Q: So do you notice a big difference then when there's a storm?

Absolutely. What used to happen was the backyard used to flood and now that water is transported around into the bioswale, so I no longer have flooding in the backyard. And when we have a heavy rain event the water is slow to go into the drains on this side of the street and it's very fast on the other side of the street. And so it also serves as an educational demonstration for residents. So it’s engaging and people stop to ask questions.

Q: Tell us more about that how your neighbors reacted to this sort of greening of your space?

The neighbors are really excited because, in fact, this fall each neighbor on this block will get a type of green intervention project so that this will be a “green block” and we’re working with the city to have it deemed as such, so that other residents can come out and look at the different types of interventions. We want to serve as a model to show what community-driven action looks like.

Q: So how to issues of inequity come into play when it comes to who gets flooded the most often and why?

It just depends on where you live. We pump water from the river to the lake. And so this was some of what we now call “the urban area” of the outskirts. So this was a swamp area, it was cheap land. It was land where people of color could purchase land. And so as we pump water from the river to the lake, the hydrology of it is from highest to lowest, and we just live in a low-lying area. We've built more land, and used more concrete as opposed to the natural settings that were here before. So there's nowhere for the water to go when you build it up. We have to start using and thinking about other materials that will help to absorb water, whether it's the natural habitat or if we're using permeable concrete. There are all sorts of methods and interventions that we can use, we just have to expose folks to them to give them, again, those choices to make the best decisions for their families.

You can also watch and extended interview with Chalk, produced by LPB, here:

You can view extended interviews from the Sinking Louisiana series online at LPB.org/sinking.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and local listeners.

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