Quiet sunsets by the water, Spanish moss swinging from the oak trees, beautiful French homes overlooking Lake Pontchartrain — this is what most people associate with their hometown of Mandeville, Louisiana. This rich cultural center north of New Orleans is abundant with natural beauty. However, this community is in the process of incredible transformation to adapt and prepare for nature’s changing and often unpredictable patterns.
In 2005, Mandeville experienced traumatic losses as a result of Hurricane Katrina. They were lucky enough to be higher above sea level than New Orleans itself, but the damage to many of the historic homes and buildings was substantial. This served as a “wake up” call for all of coastal Louisiana to prevent the same kind of disaster from wrecking homes and businesses during hurricane season. Mandeville was one of the first to adopt a climate-action-oriented plan for flood mitigation, and they did so with huge success.
Dubbed by some as the “flood mitigation laboratory”, Mandeville is a perfect example of what can be accomplished in a community when stakeholders come together to solve a problem and prove that elevating buildings can improve the livelihoods of coastal citizens. This project elevated over 600 homes over the course of a decade, and changed the way that Mandeville and its residents view climate action as a whole. This is their story.
The Road to Recovery
Rod Scott has been a flood damage recovery contractor for over 25 years. He moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to help relocate and elevate historic structures, which was his primary specialty at the time. His work led him to Mandeville, where he helped several property owners elevate their historic structures.
This is where he met his wife, Louisette, for the first time. She was the city planner and historical preservationist for decades, before and during the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe. She had ambitious plans for rebuilding and was looking for solutions that could help prevent future storm damage. A few years after meeting, they married on the porch of a home he relocated and held their reception on the lakefront at the historic Lake House.
FEMA regulations require any building with over 50% damage to be lifted or mitigated, which limited her options for rebuilding in the historic districts. Louisette did not want to lift some buildings as it would change the layout and skyline of the historic districts. Nevertheless, the advantages of this flood mitigation strategy were clear, and she worked at getting buildings elevated one by one, and soon hundreds were elevated.
The majority of buildings in the flood zone are now elevated and Mandeville is an example of what can be done to protect coastal communities from flooding and hurricane storm surges. This hard work made Mandeville what it is today, and gave its citizens the opportunity to call this particular slice of Louisiana home for decades to come.
The benefits of building elevation
Building elevation is one of the most accessible options for coastal communities to prepare for flooding and sea-level rise. While this process is costly, can take months to prepare and 90-100 days to complete, it is one of the best ways to preserve current structures in the face of storm surge, increased flooding, and sea-level rise. If coastal cities started planning for elevation now, they could mitigate many of the impacts within the next decade.
Coastal Louisiana is the most flood mitigated area in the U.S. because of the frequency and intensity of recent hurricanes, including Katrina (2005), Isaac (2012), and Ida (2021). Each of these storms experienced a 9-foot storm surge. In Mandeville, there were 750 insurance claims after Kutrina, whereas when Isaac hit there were only 250, and only 65 for Ida. This dramatic decrease in storm surge damage can attest to the major impact building elevation and retrofit flooding mitigation has had on this historic coastal Louisiana community. We encourage taking a trip to Mandeville, or virtually walking through the lakefront on Google Streets.
However, it wasn’t solely the prevention of storm damage that sold Louisiana residents on these elevation projects. Modern designs use open space to provide additional storage for cars, tractors, campers, boats, and other outdoor vehicles. In suburban Mandeville where outdoor and water recreation is popular, these new additions can create significantly higher real estate value and improve the quality of life for families in many ways.
Rod and Louisette’s primary motivation, however, is for future generations. They, like many Mandeville residents, want their children to inherit buildings that will last. By 2100, coastal areas could experience a sea-level rise of several feet. Coupled with the increased strength and frequency of hurricanes due to rising ocean temperatures, elevated buildings are likely the only coastal buildings to stand the test of time. The equity built in these homes is more secure than those that were not elevated, and future generations can rest assured that they won’t be battling the effects of climate change alone.
Why now is the time to create resilient buildings + infrastructure
Initially, historic preservationists were not in favor of elevating buildings. Many believed that the change in the skyline and disruption of the traditional historic structure would alter the character of the community too much. However, the objections were outweighed by the alternative of losing all historic buildings to storm surge combined with sea level rise over the coming decades.
This threat is real, and it is coming faster than many realize. According to the Carbon Disclosure Project, 215 of the largest corporations worldwide estimate a US $1 trillion loss due to climate impacts, starting within the next 3 years. Building collapse, natural resource destruction, and consumer demand are all putting pressure on these major corporations and cities to make changes before the change happens to them.
How municipalities can follow Mandeville’s example
By sharing the story of Mandeville, Louisiana, we hope to encourage coastal cities to follow suit with flood mitigation planning for the future. HighTide collaborates with contractors and city planners like Rod and Louisette to create sustainable adaptations and mitigation strategies that sustain cities for the long run. Without proactive action, many of these historic communities could be lost.
Mitigation isn’t just about the preservation of historic structures, however. It can make the difference between months’ long disaster recovery and a community’s ability to restore normality within a week after a storm. For any community that has been impacted by a hurricane in recent years, the benefits of this cannot be understated.
Elevation designs and guidelines have now been published for historic buildings by the National Park Service. By fostering collaboration between property owners and local governments, and creating regulations that adapt to elevation projects, many coastal towns can see an immediate impact from elevation projects.
Mandeville is now a success story for flood mitigation. Will your city be next?