The Coastal Index: The Problem and Possibility of Our Coast

George Hobor Allison Plyer Ben Horwitz

Published: Apr 20, 2014

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil platform blew up and sank 45 miles from Plaquemines Parish, spilling millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf. The spill added to the ongoing deterioration of our coasts, and although it remains a working coast of national economic importance, residents are moving inland. At the same time, the billions of dollars being spent to protect and restore the coast can add to a firm economic foundation established by a long history of working and living with water. A promising “water management” sector is developing that can diversify the economy and bolster Southeast Louisiana’s sustainability for the long term.

Executive Summary

Fully 39 percent of the U.S. population lives in the sliver of counties that border the U.S. coast.1 Moreover, the U.S. coast is home to businesses and industry that contribute 42 percent of all national economic output.2 With sea levels on the rise, protecting coastal assets and population centers will be a central focus of the 21st century. Only a few states and regions have begun to tackle this challenge. Louisiana is in the vanguard.

To be sure, Louisiana faces the greatest risk with relative sea level rise that is outpacing the rest of coastal America.3 Louisiana has lost 1,880 square miles of coastland over the last 80 years, and scientists expect that if no action is taken to save the coasts an additional 1,750 square miles will disappear by 2064.4 Louisiana already understands the economic importance of its coastline. It is vital to the state’s third-place ranking in national energy production and to the transportation of 20 percent of the nation’s waterborne commerce.5 In 2005, the widespread destruction caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita catalyzed significant political support for coastal protection and restoration. The United States Army Corps’ Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System (HSDRRS) updated 133 miles of levees, floodwalls, gated structures, and pump stations to the tune of $14 billion.6 And the Louisiana legislature agreed to dedicate $1 billion – including nearly the entire state surplus from 2007 – to coastal protection and restoration.7

Moreover, in 2007 the state also released its Comprehensive Master Plan for protecting and restoring the coast. The Master Plan (updated every 5 years) is an expensive, large-scale endeavor to halt land loss, and is the centerpiece of thinking on resiliency and sustainability for the region.8 But, it is also accompanied by other developments that address how we live with water in Southeast Louisiana, such as the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan and the City of New Orleans’ Plan for the 21st Century.9 Together these activities seek to bolster storm protection and more effectively address the issue of subsidence. These plans still have investment gaps, with confirmed and potential sources of funding including state tax dollars, local tax dollars, federal tax dollars, and, of course, fines from the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

With billions of dollars spent (and more to come), these developments have introduced an abundance of water-related work to the regional economy. There is no doubt that the main purpose of these activities is to mitigate coastal deterioration and to find better ways to live with water. But they also hold the potential to diversify and strengthen the economy of the region for the long term. Along with a strong coast, an innovative and vibrant water management industry is a real possibility.

Our review of nearly a dozen key indicators highlights the current and ongoing effects of coastal land loss on residents and industry in Southeast Louisiana, and also points to the economic potential of the massive water management activities that are underway. These findings show:


These initial indicators reveal that even though Southeast Louisiana remains strong economically, residents and workers are fleeing coastal areas, driven by land loss and increasing flood risk. The retreat from the coast is real, leading to visible alterations in the composition of coastal communities. However, the scale of restoration activities planned and current momentum around water management have the potential to stem land and population loss and build a diverse economy for the region – an economy that will further the overall goal of long-term sustainability for Southeast Louisiana.

Sustainability – indeed viability – has been and will be a continuous pursuit for Southeast Louisiana. Efforts to manage water, which began with the first human inhabitants of this alluvial plain, are at an inflection point. Southeast Louisiana’s challenge now is not only slowing land and population loss, but also formalizing the expertise residents have developed and the hard work they have exerted into a specialized water management economy. By cultivating this economic specialization we can become a national – and even global – leader in showing others how to live with water. Done right, Southeast Louisiana can forever alter perceptions of the region and be recognized as a model others should emulate – a region that preserved valuable pieces of its past while transforming challenges into opportunities in the creation of a diverse, sustainable economy.


1. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (2014). What percentage of the American population lives near the coast?. Retrieved April 10, 2014, from

2. Kidlow, J.T., Colgan, C.S., & Scorse, J. (2009). State of the U.S. ocean and coastal economies—2009. National Ocean Economic Program, Nevada City, CA.

3. Relative Sea Level (RSL) Variations of the United States 1854-2006. (2009). Derived from 128 National Water Level Observation Network Stations. Source: Department of Commerce (DOC), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Ocean Service (NOS), Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS). Retrieved April 9, 2014, from

4. Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana. (2012). Louisiana’s comprehensive master plan for a sustainable coast. Retrieved on March 4, 2014, from

5. United States Army Corps of Engineers. (2011). Waterborne commerce of the United States, calendar year 2011. part 5 – national summaries. Retrieved March 5, 2014, from; United States Energy Information Administration. (2013). Louisiana state energy profile. Retrieved March 5, 2014, from

6. United States Army Corps of Engineers. (2014). FEMA accredits hurricane and storm damage risk reduction system (HSDRRS). Retrieved, March 10, 2014, from

7. State of Louisiana, Office of the Governor. (2008). Governor Jindal announces more than $1 billion for coastal protection and restoration projects. Retrieved April 11, 2014, from

8. Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana. (2012).

9. Waggoner and Ball Architects. (2013). Greater New Orleans urban water plan. Retrieved March 10, 2014, from