Solution journalism: Big Chem-EZ answers how local tribes can rebuild sustainably while dealing with coastal erosion?

Editor’s Note: It’s officially March, so we are marching into solutions. Yes, we’re aware of how lame that pun is! We also think it’s lame that a lot of journalism likes to describe everything that’s wrong with the world without showing data-driven examples of solutions that work! We don’t accept that, so this month we are marching (oof, there it is again) into solutions. We’ll be taking issues/problems from the Nola community and doing the research to find solutions that have proven to work! It’s solution journalism, and we’re beginning with some science! 

In 2020 (and 2021…and 2022…you get the point), there have been a lot of unanswered questions about life and living, so in our partnership with the Chemical Engineering Service Learning Class at Tulane University, taught by Dr. Julie Albert, we made it our aim to find questions we could answer. The series is called “Dear Big Chem-EZ” (think “Dear Abbey” but with less about “Why does my partner ignore me?” and more about “Can I actually drink my tap water?” and “What’s that smell outside my house?”).

You can look for new pieces every first Wednesday of the month because we love science, we love answers, and we love knowing what’s going on with all these potholes! Let’s take a look! If you have questions you’d like answered, send them to thebigchemez@gmail.com.

Dear Big Chem-EZ, I want to help our local Indian tribes rebuild for longevity after Hurricane Ida. I know that availability and transportation of supplies as well as coastal erosion will present some challenges. How can we build both environmentally and financially sustainable homes while putting tribe members at the forefront of our efforts?

Although the impact of Hurricane Ida was devastating and traumatic for Orleans Parish, it was arguably nowhere near the impact on its neighboring parishes, such as Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes. These parishes are inhabited by indigenous peoples like the United Houma Nation and Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe Community. After Hurricane Ida, I visited the Pointe-au-Chien Tribe, who occupy the Terrebonne Basin; this basin has the highest rate of land loss in Louisiana, which not only impacts the Pointe-au-Chien Tribe but also inland communities because Terrebonne Basin serves as a buffer to storms from the Gulf of Mexico by taking the brunt of wave action. 

Hurricane Ida’s path through the United States. Source: Dan Swenson, P. (2021). Following Ida’s Eye [Photograph]. Nola.com. https://www.nola.com/news/hurricane/article_e5eec892-0b31-11ec-87e5-8fa3a703785a.html

My experience with the tribe was helping Gayle, a former teacher, pack her belongings because her house had been damaged from top to bottom, with parts of her roof missing and the wooden foundation poles elevating her home cracked down the center. Because we only had a few hours with her, my mindset was “go, go go,” but I soon realized that this was not simply a project for me to finish. This was a home full of memories that was not ready to be let go. It made me want to rebuild Gayle’s home so that she did not have to leave. It made me frustrated that the foundation poles were wood because maybe they would not have cracked in half if they had been made of a stronger material. It made me upset that her roof had failed against the high-speed winds and caused irreparable water damage. 

What could have, should have, and can be done differently? Although it may seem impossible to build homes entirely immune to the wind and water damage of hurricanes and resulting storm surges and tornadoes, there are still buildings standing in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, which Donald Dardar, the second chairperson of the Executive Council, claims is the worst storm he has witnessed in his lifetime as a member of Pointe-au-Chien Tribe (Tulane CPS). These buildings, built with the help of the Mennonite Disaster Relief, have hurricane straps that strengthen wood-framed roofs and stronger pilings that are cemented into the ground and made out of steel rather than wood (Tulane CPS). According to Chuckie Verdin, a chairperson of the Executive Council, elevated houses fared much better than ones still at ground level (Hustmyre). 

A possible method to further ensure a stable foundation and to protect homes against coastal erosion is to consider the type of foundation. Instead of simply cementing the pilings into the ground, the types of foundation that can be used are bored piles, driven piles, micropiles, and screw piles. Bored pile foundations are poured in place, driven piles are driven into the ground, micropiles are bored piles that are smaller in diameter, and screw piles are installed by winding into the ground. However, the soils in Pointe Au Chien are silt loam, clay, and peat, meaning that the soil retains water and can shift and expand depending on its water content (Office for Coastal Management). This characteristic limits the options for foundation since screw piles, driven piles, and bored piles “cannot be used in extremely loose or cohesionless soils” due to the lack of adequate lateral support and poor drainage (Braza). This leaves micropiles, with the only downside being that it is the most expensive out of the four types of foundation. 

Homes also need to be constructed with durable, available, and affordable materials. Concrete and steel are the best options material-wise for walls due to their resilience and minimal failure points. Another material to build walls that is a bit nontraditional is recycled plastic since plastic is very durable. In Nova Scotia, a home was built using plastic soda bottles that had been rejected by recycling facilities; they were shredded, melted, and injected with a gas to transform the plastic into a foam, which was then molded into 6-inch-thick panels (Bendix). These panels were chemically bonded to eliminate the use of nails and shingles to ensure that the walls stayed intact when subjected to high winds (Bendix). Additionally, these panels provided more insulation than typical walls, decreasing energy costs and eliminating the need for separate insulation (Peters). While some may be skeptical, the company proved its legitimacy by subjecting the walls to high winds; the walls endured 326 mph winds, meaning that it could withstand a Category 5 hurricane, which have sustained wind speeds in excess of 155 mph (Bendix, FEMA). 

The design of the home can also reduce the impact of high winds, the main cause of destruction from Hurricane Ida. By building a round home, the pressure from winds can be reduced by 30 percent (Cappucci). A sloped hip roof and ridge vents can also direct high winds away from homes (BMS CAT). Installing windows with double panes and air-tight seals and doors made of a heavy metal can make the entryways of a home impact resistant; adding hurricane shutters made of metal or polycarbonate plastic will increase the protection from damage due to broken windows, which is important because a “broken window can cause air pressure to rise and the house to blow apart from the inside” (BMS CAT, Bendix). 

While relocating might seem like a sensible option for the Pointe-au-Chien Tribe to others, it is not even a thought for most of the tribe members who refuse to give up their land and culture. The tribe members have adapted to the changing lands already and will do so again. Emulating the Pointe-au-Chien Headquarters, one of the two buildings still intact after the hurricane, is a great start since it is elevated and made of heavy metal (Ravits). Other feasible ways to rebuild are to build on a more stable foundation using micropiles and to implement new materials like recycled plastic, which can be imported from the city of New Orleans if the tribe has irregular recycling since New Orleans has suspended its curbside recycling. Adding protective elements around the home like double panes and shutters on windows would also lessen the chances of irreparable damage and fatal injuries. 

Pointe Au Chien Tribe’s Headquarters, one of the two buildings that was relatively unscathed after Hurricane Ida. Source: Sarah Ravits, P. (2021). The Pointe-Au-Chien tribe headquarters is now serving as a distribution center for essential supplies. [Photograph]. Nola.com. https://www.nola.com/image_66a5f770-11d2-11ec-9255-d31e2bfb5e8c.html

Building resilient homes with infrastructure and materials better suited for high winds and storm surges will help ensure that this resilient tribe can continue to occupy the lands that have been theirs for years. However, this feat is not possible without the help of others through the sharing of ideas and physical work of volunteering. Please feel free to contact us by emailing thebigchemez@gmail.com if you would like to be a part of this effort. 

References:

Bendix, A. (2019, September 3). A house made of plastic soda bottles can withstand winds twice as strong as a category 5 hurricane. take a look inside. Business Insider. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/hurricane-proof-home-plastic-bottles-category-5-2019-7#but-the-windows-still-need-to-be-storm-proofed-6. 

Braza, K. E. (2020, July 2). The Pros and Cons of Different Types of Pile Foundation. K.E. Braza Construction. Retrieved November 28, 2021, from https://kebrazaconstruction.com/pros-and-cons-of-different-pile-foundations/. 

Cappucci, M. (2021, May 16). Designed for disaster: These homes can withstand a category 5 hurricane. Yahoo! News. Retrieved from https://news.yahoo.com/designed-disaster-homes-withstand-category-151441245.html. 

FEMA. (n.d.). Elevating Your House. fema.gov. Retrieved from https://www.fema.gov/sites/default/files/documents/fema_elevating-your-house-chapter-5.pdf. 

FEMA. (n.d.). Preparing for a Hurricane. Retrieved from https://www.fema.gov/doc/about/regions/Region%20III/hurricane_tips.pdf. 

Hustmyre, C. (2008, September 21). Mennonites Inspect Homes Rebuilt after Hurricane Rita, Consider New Response Efforts. Disaster News Network. Retrieved from https://pactribe.tripod.com/id33.html. 

Office for Coastal Management: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (2019, February). Final Environmental Assessment: Point-au-Chien Cultural Heritage . coast.noaa.gov. Retrieved November 20, 2021, from https://coast.noaa.gov/data/docs/compliance/pointe-au-chien-final-ea.pdf. 

Peters, A. (2019, July 2). This hurricane-proof home is made from 600,000 plastic bottles. Fast Company. Retrieved December 3, 2021, from https://www.fastcompany.com/90371912/this-hurricane-proof-home-is-made-from-600000-plastic-bottles. 

Ravits, S. (2021, September 10). ‘it’s everyone’s disaster:’ isolated Louisiana Tribal Communities Suffer Ida’s devastation. NOLA.com. Retrieved December 4, 2021, from https://www.nola.com/gambit/news/the_latest/article_f96d9aa0-11d1-11ec-ba5e-1fe255de627f.html. 

Tulane CPS. (2021, November 2). Surviving the Storms: Climate Change, Disaster and Indigenous Resistance [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgeddaIjHOE 

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