Today marks ten years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans and surrounding communities, killing over 1,800 people while displacing countless more.
The disaster also highlighted how decades of one-track coastal development – building flood walls and carving canals through Louisiana’s wetlands, simultaneously starving them of freshwater and nutrients and burning them with salt – drastically undermined the area’s natural hurricane protection system. The state has lost nearly 2,000 square miles of coastal land since the 1930s. Scientists have shown that wetlands act as crucial buffers, absorbing the force of hurricanes and protecting coastal areas from erosion. One calculation estimates that every 2.7 miles of wetland reduces storm surge by one foot.
Coastal communities in the Lower Lempa and Bay of Jiquilisco region of El Salvador have experienced their fair share of hurricanes, too. Hurricanes Mitch (1998), Stan (2005), and Ida (2009) and Tropical Depression 12E (2011) caused intense flooding and extensive evacuations throughout the region. These events have cemented the importance of two things: (1) protecting the vast mangrove forest spanning the Bay of Jiquilisco and (2) building a community-based disaster response network capable of jumping into action when the next storm hits.
The mangroves are the foundation of a unique ecosystem, one that sustains livelihoods and is at the heart of local cultural identity. In an effort to quantify the value of this ecosystem, graduate students from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies placed the economic value of the mangroves at $6,671 per hectare annually, meaning the 19,449 hectares of protected forest in the Bay of Jiquilisco provide approximately $130 million in ecosystem services yearly. Communities recognize this immense value and for the past 10 years have collaborated with a number of local and national actors to define conservation measures in a Local Plan for Sustainable Use (PLAS) and thereby ensure judicious use of shared natural resources. They have also led reforestation efforts and used ecological mangrove restoration (EMR) techniques to rehabilitate ailing tracts of forest and wetland.
In addition to carrying out critical restoration and conservation, the people of the Lower Lempa have formed local civil protection committees that can act in the event of a disaster. These committees are comprised of community leaders trained to assess risk, communicate effectively, and make decisions in emergency situations. They are a crucial link between the families affected by disaster and government officials and emergency crews because they possess the local knowledge necessary to make informed decisions in stressful circumstances, acting fast to help the most vulnerable residents.
In 2011, when Tropical Depression 12E forced thousands of Salvadorans to flee their flooded homes, it was these community emergency responders, including many young people, who helped coordinate the evacuation in the Lower Lempa. Thanks to their efforts, not a single life was lost. In 2014, the Minister of the Interior swore in local civil protection committees, acknowledging the organization of EcoViva’s partner communities as a model for the entire the national disaster response framework.
These actions are complemented by numerous others: creating a network of community radios and loudspeakers, building raised shelters to house the displaced, reconstructing stronger levees, and, perhaps most essential, continually educating people about the importance of the environment and disaster preparedness through person-to-person outreach. None of this work would be possible without the dedication of the leaders at the Mangrove Association and the technical and financial support of EcoViva and other organizations. Residents of the Lower Lempa and Bay of Jiquilisco deal with difficult issues every day, including poverty and gang violence, but they know that taking the long view is a must. Such initiatives are part of an integral strategy for sustainable, community-led development.
Hurricane Katrina and our failure to properly prepare for it and respond in its aftermath not only destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of people, but it disproportionately affected black and working class residents. Similarly, residents of the historically underserved communities of the Lower Lempa are some of the most vulnerable people in the world, living on the frontlines of climate change. El Salvador ranks twelfth on the most recent Global Climate Risk Index as one of the countries most affected by extreme weather events from 1994-2013, and was among the top five most affected in 2009 and 2011. Now more than ever there is a pressing need for disaster preparedness and climate change adaptation.
The bustling U.S. city of New Orleans and its environs are home to a population many times that of the network of rural communities in the Lower Lempa of El Salvador, but the basic lessons to be learned from Hurricane Katrina are the same. We need to be prepared for the more frequent and more intense weather events that climate change promises to bring, and that means investing in protecting the environment and organizing the communities bearing the brunt of that change.