Improving flood risk management: A proposal for Louisiana

What to do? A woman stands on the porch of a flooded home in Sorrento, Louisiana, 17 August 2016. ©Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP

Flood management in coastal areas is becoming a major challenge of our times, not least because of climate change. With floods turning into a structural problem for many littoral communities, there is an urgent need to build flood resilience in vulnerable areas. This study, prepared as part of the OECD’s New Approaches to Economic Challenges (NAEC) initiative, shows a way forward.

In 2016, the state of Louisiana experienced one of the worst floods in US history that led to economic losses of over US$8 billion, largely arising from loss of economic activity and property damage. It was the latest in a series of floods to hit the US state. Already in 2012, for instance, there was Hurricane Isaac, which was not the most powerful of storms, yet caused a number of fatalities and damage estimated at over US$3 billion.

Unlike many other major floods, the 2016 flood was not caused by a hurricane, but by unusually warm air colliding with a slow moving storm system. The state was hit by more flooding in 2018, and there is no reason to think Louisiana will not continue to be exposed to deadly floods from hurricanes and cyclones in the future. Moreover, the cost of damages is expected to rise; a 2016 study from RAND Corporation suggests costs could even increase tenfold in the next 50 years.

As could be expected, the state government has been actively confronting the issue, for example with the 2012 and 2017 Coastal Master Plans (RAND Report 2016, see references). However, most efforts taken towards protecting and mitigating flood risk have been solely on a technical and structural level, such as the elevation of residential properties above waterlines. While these solutions undoubtedly bring short-term relief, their long-term resilience is uncertain. What is missing are the social and political aspects of floods, without which technical solutions can only go so far. Our consultancy report, The Threefold Approach to the Development of Flood Resilience, which we researched for the OECD as a contribution to their New Approaches to Economic Challenges (NAEC) initiative, spells out how a stronger and integrated approach could be established. 

The technical aspect of flood management of course remains crucial to flood resilience, and approaches have greatly evolved in recent decades, including approaches that harness the environment. An important new development in flood defence policy is a shift from “hard” defence measures to “soft” ones. Hard measures include traditional approaches such as raising defensive levees and increasing sewage pump capacity, whereas soft defence measures seek to use nature itself to reduce the consequences of floods. Soil and vegetation found in wetlands, dunes and marshes, for example, can reduce the impact of incoming waves, as well as store large amounts of water, making them natural retention basins.

A stop sign is seen on a flooded street after Hurricane Isaac hit Mandeville, Louisiana, August 30, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

A flooded street after Hurricane Isaac hit Mandeville, Louisiana, 30 August 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

Policies to maintain these natural environments along rivers and coastlines can help communities not only reduce their own exposure to floods, but also support these vulnerable ecosystems, which after all underpin the biodiversity that our lives depend on. Maintaining these areas requires preservation, but also proactively planting the likes of mangrove trees, which can successfully combat coastal degradation, as many pilot projects focusing on soft measures in places like Cuba, Bangladesh and elsewhere in the US have shown.

In the wakes of hurricanes Isaac, Katrina, Rita and others, the state of Louisiana has recognised the importance of protecting its coastal wetlands, and is taking action to restore and preserve them. This will bring other benefits too, in the form of eco-tourism and improvements in air quality, for instance. But for real long-term resilience, a more multidisciplinary approach should be adopted, including other holistic actions as well, not least on the social front.

Indeed, vulnerability in cases of flood events can be traced to socio-economic inequalities rooted in gender, class, race, age and other power structures. However, in our view, these social dimensions are still not sufficiently considered in current flood risk management studies. Women, people of colour and other potentially vulnerable groups suffer from higher levels of poverty and lower access to education than others, putting them at a disadvantage when trying to influence flood risk management policies that clearly affect them disproportionately.

In the case of Louisiana, for instance, the RAND Corporation report mentions how funds have been made available via the Natural Disaster Resilience Competition in a bid to improve the community resilience. But no focus was placed on the more exposed sections of society by the funds.

Education is one key area which policy should focus on to improve resilience. By actively engaging citizens and raising awareness in environmental issues, particularly among vulnerable groups, a broader spectrum of people would likely express their views or become involved in policy making, leading to a more holistic perspective on flood risks and how to reduce them. We know this from the city of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, where the local community’s involvement in the decision-making process led to the creation of a “green” public space, providing recreational facilities which double as a natural barrier to floods. The state of Louisiana should emulate such examples.

Considering another aspect of the multidisciplinary approach, Louisiana’s response lacked a thorough political approach to the natural catastrophes. A political approach refers to the engagement with numerous stakeholders. Natural disasters are not constrained by political borders or jurisdictions, and affect all social classes. Only a multi-stakeholder approach involving the different levels of government, as well as members of the public, businesses, and non-governmental flood management bodies, would ensure the cross-collaboration that proper flood resilience requires. In fact, our study shows that large stakeholder engagement between public, private and government, such as in Nijmegen, does indeed lead to more resilient solutions, however this demands input at grassroots levels to ensure relevant, effective solutions.

In short, stakeholder engagement is no obstacle, but instead holds the solution. In Louisiana, the RAND report sees the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard as a good place to start, as it allows for the sharing of the best available data and methods on a federal level. Yet, this too is shy of the bigger goal of incentivising wide-spread stakeholder engagement to create long-term flood resilience.

Technical measures have been developed and new ones that take account of the environment will be needed to improve protection against dangerous floods. But active engagement of the state with local populations, including vulnerable groups, is essential, as is collaborating with private stakeholders more widely. When it comes to building long-term resilience, in flooding as in so many areas, technical, social and environmental dimensions are intrinsic to good policymaking.


The “Rising Solutions” student consultancy team included: Alba Medina Bermejo, Isidoro Campioni-Noack, Océane Girault, Jan-Dorus Sleutels, Cathy de Jongh, Giedrius Astafjevas, Lea Müller, Rosa Ann Seidler, Oliver Mount, Lila Kasi, Moriah Warner, Nadine de Reuver, Jorieke Besselink, Sondra Samanez Pacheco.

The “Rising Solutions” student consultancy team included: Alba Medina Bermejo, Isidoro Campioni-Noack, Océane Girault, Jan-Dorus Sleutels, Cathy de Jongh, Giedrius Astafjevas, Lea Müller, Rosa Ann Seidler, Oliver Mount, Lila Kasi, Moriah Warner, Nadine de Reuver, Jorieke Besselink, Sondra Samanez Pacheco and Noah Soekhai.

Note: This study was part of the Practising International Studies consultancy course (PRINS), as the outcome of a collaborative initiative between BA International Studies Leiden University and the OECD NAEC team. This work was selected as most scientifically sound as well as practically relevant among five other competing consultancies. Our team extends its gratitude to Rien Rouw for referring, Patrick Love (Advisor to the Office of the Secretary General OECD) and William Hynes (Acting Head of the New Approaches to Economic Challenges Unit) for granting the opportunity to advise on this project and Kathleen Dominique (Project Manager Roundtable on Financing Water) for her valuable guest lecture. We were delighted to delve into the topic and contribute knowledge that addresses the relevant, complex and multifaceted issue of flood risk management. Additionally, Sarita Koendjbiharie and María Gabriela Palacio Ludeña contributed greatly throughout the academic process of the report and in the facilitation of the project. For this we thank them sincerely.

References and further resources

Visit www.oecd.org/naec for more on our New Approaches to Economic Challenges initiative

Groves, David G., Kenneth Kuhn, Jordan R. Fischbach, David R. Johnson, and James Syme (2016), Analysis to Support Louisiana's Flood Risk and Resilience Program and Application to the National Disaster Resilience Competition, RAND Corporation, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1449.html.

Love, Patrick (2018), “Q&A with OECD: What makes PRINS so valuable for your organisation?”, Leiden University News, https://www.universiteitleiden.nl/en/internationalstudies/news/newsletter/qa-with-oecd-what-makes-prins-so-valuable-for-your-organisation

Terrell, Dek (2016), The Economic Impact of the August 2016: Floods on the State of Louisiana,. Louisiana Economic Development, http://gov.louisiana.gov/assets/docs/RestoreLA/SupportingDocs/Meeting-9-28-16/2016-August-Flood-Economic-Impact-Report_09-01-16.pdf

Wiering, Mark, and Madelinde Winnubst (2017), “The Conception of Public Interest in Dutch Flood Risk Management: Untouchable or Transforming?”, Environmental Science and Policy, No. 73: 12-19.

See “What caused the historic August 2016 flood, and what are the odds it could happen again?” at www.theadvocate.com/louisiana_flood_2016/article_3b7578fc-77b0-11e7-9aab-f7c07d05efcb.html

©OECD Observer April 2019




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