The January family calls their house “the Ponderosa,” after the home at the heart of the 1960’s TV western Bonanza. But while that Ponderosa was a sprawling ranch in the pine-covered mountains near Lake Tahoe, Nevada, the Januarys’ is a simple one-story brick house with a spacious porch in low-lying Lake Charles, Louisiana. The house earned its nickname because it’s been the meeting ground for the Januarys’ entire extended family for going on six decades. It’s where they crowd in for birthdays and holidays, where relatives stay when visiting Lake Charles, and where elders come to convalesce and sometimes to die. “That’s why this house is so sacred,” says Van January, 56, standing in his living room. “It’s why we’re really trying to maintain the structure, to keep something here. It’s a refuge.”
On a stormy day in June, volunteers in hard-hats are flitting around, gutting walls and hauling detritus to a heap on the lawn. Nine months after Hurricane Laura battered the Ponderosa (and most of the Lake Charles region), the house is still in shambles, with a mold problem and a hole-riddled roof. It’s raining in the kitchen.
Having inherited the home from deceased parents without the proper paperwork, January and his sister Donna Lamb have struggled to get relief assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Serious repairs only began when All Hands and Hearts, a national disaster-relief non-profit, took on the house as a project. FEMA partially reimbursed Lamb for what she paid to have her own home’s roof repaired after Hurricane Laura, but just two weeks later, a second hurricane, Delta, hit Lake Charles and damaged it again. FEMA rejected Lamb’s second claim. Rain was now falling in her kitchen, too.
Several relatives had similar problems, or worse. “It’s like you’re begging for something,” says Lamb, two young granddaughters playing at her feet as volunteers tear up the Ponderosa’s waterlogged floor. “I worked 21 years in the refinery, paid my debt, paid taxes. Man, come on. You deny me for Delta?”
The Januarys’ situation is far from unique. Laura was the strongest hurricane to hit Louisiana in 164 years, costing the U.S. $19 billion in damages and claiming at least 42 lives. Roughly half the homes in the Lake Charles region were damaged or destroyed, and weeks later, over 11,000 Louisianans were still being sheltered by the state. According to a New York Times analysis, Lake Charles, where nearly half of residents are black and one in five live below the poverty line, lost 6.7 percent of its population by the end of 2020, more than any other U.S. metro area. The city then faced a brutal winter storm in February and a “biblical flood” in May. Homeowners are still haggling with insurance companies and stumbling through FEMA’s labyrinthine bureaucracy, a process that is more likely to fail black families like the Januarys. As of June 1st, 2,500 Lake Charles households were living in or awaiting FEMA trailers and 3,000 residents were still displaced. It’s the climate refugee crisis in America’s own backyard — and this is only the beginning.
Climate trauma is now routine across the Gulf Coast, with many locals having lived through multiple disasters. In 2020, Laura and Delta were just two of the record-setting 30 named storms to make landfall in the Atlantic, exhausting the alphabetic naming system and forcing the use of Greek letters (all the way to the ninth one, “Iota”). Natural disasters cost the U.S. about $95 billion last year — twice as much as 2019. As government relief aid fails those who most need it, the Gulf Coast ethic of “neighbors helping neighbors” is rapidly becoming exhausted.
In May, President Biden chose a 70-year-old bridge in Lake Charles as the backdrop for his speech promoting the American Jobs Plan, his proposal to invest $2.3 trillion in infrastructure, much of it focused on climate, which is now working its way through Congress. He extolled locals’ resilience and the need to hire thousands, or even millions of people to modernize the country’s energy grid, improve bridges and roadways, and weatherize buildings and homes. Yet he hardly mentioned restoring habitats, building sustainable food systems, or other aspects of a holistic transition away from fossil fuels. Such transformations could be achieved in part through a far-reaching initiative tucked into Biden’s plan: the Civilian Climate Corps.
Modeled after the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps, the new CCC would put people to work restoring and bettering natural environments, such as by clearing brush in fire-prone forests or restoring coastal wetlands. Biden proposed to fund it with just a tiny sliver of his infrastructure budget, $10 billion, which environmental economist Mark Paul told Wired could only pay about 200,000 workers. In contrast, FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps employed 3 million over its nine-year lifespan. (The Works Progress Administration, another New Deal program, employed 8.5 million more). That capacity allowed the CCC to make huge strides in forest management, flood control, and historic preservation. They built trails and roads on public lands that many of us still enjoy. Given the growth of the U.S. population and the challenges it faces, Paul said today’s CCC should ultimately employ about 9 million workers — 45 times more than Biden’s plan allows.
The Biden administration has released few details on what a modern CCC would look like, only that it would be administered by the Departments of Interior and Agriculture. For models of the work that is needed, they need look no further than the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, whose economy depends heavily on the fossil fuel industry. Living on the front lines of climate change, in under-resourced communities at or below sea level, thousands of people in states like Louisiana are already busy doing underpaid work to recover from and prevent the disasters threatening their homes year after year.
In May, the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led network that advocates for massive federal investment in jobs and climate, chose this stretch of the Gulf Coast as one of two areas they highlighted for its CCC potential (the other being mega-fire scarred Northern California). Sunrise activists spent six weeks walking 400 miles from New Orleans to Houston, visiting Lake Charles, other vulnerable towns, and communities in “Cancer Alley” ruinously polluted by a glut of oil refineries and petrochemical plants. Echoing advocacy groups like Evergreen Action and the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy, Sunrise is calling on Biden to expand his CCC vision by budgeting to employ millions of people at $15/hour or more, with benefits and training to find stable jobs in a future green economy. The oil and gas industry supports as much as 10 percent of jobs in Louisiana and even more in the Lake Charles region, which is crowded with petrochemical plants and refineries like the one where Lamb worked. If, as Biden intends, the U.S. is to generate 100 percent of its power from renewables by 2035, these workers will need alternative jobs and training to find their place in the new economy.
While marching with Sunrise, Jenna Hanes, 24, found the message of “good jobs” resonated with more Louisianans than the idea of fighting climate change, which many feel they cannot afford to consider. “People feel forced to choose between putting food on their table and getting rid of the petrochemical plants,” she says, but with CCC jobs as an alternative, “workers can gain skills for the future, that aren’t in an industry that’s going to eventually die.”
That could brighten the outlook of locals like Lamb’s 20-year-old son Jalen, a semi-professional basketball player who loves his hometown but struggles to imagine a future there: “The best thing to do, coming from Lake Charles is to get out of Lake Charles,” he says.
“I see the CCC as a way to provide income for all of us who are doing this work already,” says Rogelio “Rojo” Meixuro, a 24-year-old undergrad from Houston who decided to march with Sunrise after working 20-hour days doing unpaid mutual-aid work during February’s winter storm, which knocked out the electric grid across Texas and killed at least 57 people. “They need to start paying us for the work we’ve been doing just to survive. For too long we’ve seen environmentalism be about conservation. That mindset is over. We can no longer conserve what we have completely damaged. We need to innovate.”
ON A BALMY YET BREEZY summer day, 12 AmeriCorps members ride out on boats into the coastal wetlands of Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish. They are assisting state employees and a partner organization, Common Ground Relief, with restoring a sliver of the state’s nearly 8,000-mile coastline. After a quick training, they are dropped at different parts of the Hopedale Canal, working in knee-high water to plant smooth cord grass. Sticky muck grabs at their shoes, and many find it easier to move on their knees. Small fishing boats speed through the canal, their wakes reaching the submerged workers’ shoulders before smacking into the land.
Watching from behind mirrored sunglasses, Jeremy Rodriguez shakes his head. Those waves are one of many causes behind the erosion that they’re here to fix. Small boats are nothing compared to the commercial barges that share these canals, or the growing storms eating the coastline away, or the flood-control systems and agricultural water diversions that have also allowed Louisiana’s wetlands to erode into the sea. From 1932 to 2016, the state lost an area of land larger than Rhode Island, at rates as high as a football field’s worth every hour.
Aiming to increase the amount of healthy wetlands, the state’s agriculture department has a Coastal Wetland Re-vegetation Project, which Rodriguez co-manages. Those wetlands provide important wildlife habitat, and can serve as buffer zones that absorb storm surges during hurricanes, lowering the waves that inundate cities and towns. The protection is difficult to quantify, but one University of California, San Diego study found that annual storm damages are reduced by an average of $1.8 million for every square kilometer of wetlands. A simulation by Mississippi State University researchers suggested that in some areas, Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge was actually reduced by 1 foot for every 1.5 miles of wetlands it traversed.
Half of Louisiana’s 4.6 million residents live in coastal communities, and 30 percent of U.S. seafood comes from the region. As Louisiana’s land disappears, so too do its livelihoods and lives. “2020 was insane, as far as hurricane season goes, [and] it’s supposed to just continue to get worse,” says Rodriguez, a 33-year old New Orleans native who became a conservation specialist after watching Hurricane Katrina devastate his hometown in 2005.
During Katrina, much of the death and damage was caused by the massive storm surges that breached 53 levees and flooded 80 percent of New Orleans. Afterwards, the Louisiana legislature voted to create a coastal “Master Plan” that is spending $50 billion over 50 years to build or maintain 800 square miles of land. Much of the plan focuses on industrial-scale projects that create landmass through controversial processes like dredging (which has a huge carbon footprint) and sediment diversion (which could destroy shellfish habitat); only 2 percent of its budget involves planting grasses and trees. While Rodriguez knows that building up the land is essential, he believes in pursuing more re-vegetation as a cost-effective means of stabilizing land before it needs intervention. His agency restores 37 to 40 miles of coastline per year at a cost of $1 per linear foot, a tiny fraction of what it takes to shore up the coast with rocks or artificial materials.
The scale of the project is only possible thanks to volunteers coordinated by Common Ground Relief, a New Orleans-based nonprofit founded one week after Katrina made landfall. After seeing the carnage up close — homes consumed by toxic black mold; corpses floating on flooded city streets — the group decided to focus on coastline restoration, which they saw as crucial to preventing future floods.
During the June workday, CGR director Charlotte Clarke pilots one of the boats, wearing tarnished copper earrings and a camo hat embroidered with the words “Vanishing Paradise.” While Clarke was grateful for AmeriCorps’ help, she thinks CGR would be more sustainable with long-term, local volunteers. “Everyone I’ve talked to wants to be able to do this sort of work,” she says, “to protect shrimp and oyster beds [and] places for fishing, the literal land they grew up on.” If Louisianans had a choice to work in conservation as opposed to oil and gas, “I think everybody would be on board,” she says. Clarke sees the proposed CCC as a superior alternative to AmeriCorps, which pays some of its 75,000 volunteers just $4,000 a year and sends them all over the country. Her dream CCC would pay living wages to people restoring wetlands in their own communities, who are committed to seeing the change through.
Rodriguez wants more full-time employees, since Louisiana’s unpredictable weather means workdays are often called off and volunteer labor gets lost. With an annual budget of just $400,000, the re-vegetation project has four paid staff working on 8,000 miles of coast. “I’m stressed out,” says Rodriguez. “It feels like we’re putting a Band-Aid on a shotgun blast.” But the work is scalable, he says: With money to hire more people at competitive wages, plantings could “easily” double. The CCC could be one way to do that.
By lunchtime, the AmeriCorps team has planted 7,000 stems of grass. Rodriguez commends their efforts, then describes visiting wetlands he’d previously planted to find grasses taking root, multiplying, and growing to six or seven feet tall, providing wave reduction and habitat. “We are making a difference,” he says, but given that Gulf storm surges are getting worse — Laura’s peaked at 17 feet, one of the highest ever recorded in Louisiana — more resources are needed: “The sooner the better, for sure.”
AMONG THE STATED AIMS of Biden’s CCC are reforestation and increasing carbon sequestration in farming. While agriculture is currently one of the country’s largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, certain farming practices can actually capture and store (or “sequester”) atmospheric carbon dioxide in the soil, thus mitigating climate change. As with coastal restoration, there are already Gulf South groups doing this work. Ndn Bayou Food Forest (the “Ndn” is shorthand for “Indian”) sits in a small town called Rayne, between Lake Charles and New Orleans. The 11-acre property was purchased in 2017 by a non-profit called Louisiana Rise, which is governed by a council of Indigenous women. It originally served as home base for activists resisting the construction of a nearby oil pipeline, but since the pipeline was completed in 2019, “we’ve been working toward positive visions of what we’d like to see instead,” says Hadley, age 32, one of the land’s caretakers (who uses a pseudonym to avoid being identified by enemies they’ve made fighting oil projects).
Ndn Bayou looks nothing like a traditional “farm.” A colorful oasis amid hot, swampy grasslands, the one acre currently being cultivated is abundant with diverse plants and trees, many bursting with leaves and fruits that Hadley — in a sunhat, camo overalls, and galoshes — plucks and invites visitors to try. What makes Ndn Bayou a “food forest” is its focus on tree crops and perennial plants such as sunchokes and sweet potatoes, which can establish ecosystems that sustain themselves far more easily than monoculture farms. As the trees grow, the space underneath becomes ripe habitat for other plants; Hadley’s ideal is to have seven layers, ranging from underground tubers to climbing vines, and shrubs in the shade. The trees might one day feed pigs and other animals with fallen chestnuts and pecans.
Ndn Bayou grows native trees such as cypress and tupelo, but they also practice assisted migration, which is planting species outside their historic range to help ecosystems adapt to changing weather. “If climate change were happening on a natural time-scale, avocado trees would be migrating north from Mexico,” says Hadley. But with human impacts massively accelerating changes, “most species don’t have a choice.” Rather than allowing species to go extinct in climates they can no longer endure, assisted migration helps them find new areas in which to thrive. Banana trees, for instance, can grow in more and more places across the Gulf South as temperatures warm. While some conservationists worry assisted migration could disrupt ecosystems, the way invasive species do, researchers are calling for international guidelines to improve the practice. Experiments are already underway in state and national parks, where CCC workers might one day help plant tree seedlings or relocate fish.
With climate change increasing global food precarity, many communities are exploring ways to grow food locally and sustainably. Small-scale farms like Ndn Bayou demonstrate an alternative to industrial agriculture, which often involves land-intensive, soil-damaging practices and relies on laborers doing back-breaking work to reap a single type of crop. As a result, U.S. soil is being depleted 10 times faster than it is renewed, and the “Corn Belt” has lost more than one-third of its topsoil. But while corn farms destroy their own artificial ecosystems to start fresh each year, layered food forests can grow from year to year in ways that actually restore soil, allowing it to sequester carbon. Though requiring less labor, Ndn Bayou yields plentiful sweet potatoes, squash, okra, and turnips, most of which is sent to mutual-aid groups in New Orleans and nearby Lafayette. Distributing food in the region where it’s produced also reduces the need for carbon-intensive trucking and refrigeration.
Several other small Gulf Coast farms are exploring regenerative agriculture, and it is also being promoted regionally by groups like Southern SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education), which offers grants to farms that experiment with practices like cover crops and rotational grazing. The All You Need Institute teaches farmers Indigenous-inspired principles through hands-on retreats at its 111-acre property in Mississippi. Through the CCC, sustainable ag could spread nationwide, with workers being paid to teach small farmers techniques that restore soil and mitigate carbon emissions.
Ndn Bayou is building relationships with its rice- and crawfish-farming neighbors, sharing tips about sustainable practices like no-till farming, which helps prevent soil erosion.
Ndn also distributes seeds, saplings, and young trees that can grow in urban and suburban backyards. In the past year, they’ve provided between 300 and 400 banana and fig trees and taught people how to care for and propagate them. For Ndn Bayou, the motivation is partly practical — their land might be underwater within decades, and a large hurricane could wipe out the farm even sooner — but it’s also in line with their larger goals. “It becomes more of a way of life, where everyone is somewhat connected to their food,” says Hadley, “as opposed to this thing where we’re so alienated from our food, and the people who actually are connected [are] having their bodies destroyed by the work.”
The idea of having a relationship with food and land is rooted in Indigenous principles, which many advocates say should be centered in national climate initiatives. The collective governing Ndn Bayou is majority people of color, most of them Indigenous; it prioritizes practices that honor and revive traditional Indigenous knowledge, such as what Hadley, who is white, calls “the sense that we are in community with all the plants and animals around us.”
While remarkably light on agricultural policy, Biden’s infrastructure plan does contain proposals for investing in tribal communities, yet it’s unclear how much his CCC would collaborate with them. Regardless, projects like Ndn Bayou could receive federal funding through a separate proposal to spend up to $30 billion paying farms that sequester carbon.
For now, Ndn Bayou is a small operation primarily funded by donations from the water-protector movement, which arose from the Standing Rock protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. With more resources, Hadley envisions farming all 11 acres with machinery and an expanded corps of workers who would live for free on the land, creating rural housing for people who climate change may force to migrate.
ON THEIR LAST DAY in Lake Charles, the Sunrise marchers rallied in front of the same bridge where Biden spoke a month prior. Their chants highlighted the gulf between his campaign promises and the “compromise” he’s now hashing out with Republicans in Congress. A young Sunrise activist named Chanté Davis took the megaphone. Her family was displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and later had to abandon their new home in Houston when Hurricane Harvey flooded it in waist-deep water in 2017. “We have become powerful masters of survival,” she tells the crowd, but rebuilding a society “is not the work of young, frightened children, or parents who work hard every day for little pay… It should be the job of a robust Civilian Climate Corps, a promise President Joe Biden can deliver on.”
Biden’s American Jobs Plan has been split in two: a $1.2 trillion bill with some bipartisan support, which would primarily fund roads, bridges, power, water, and broadband infrastructure; and a $3.5 trillion climate-focused plan the Democrats announced in mid-July, which, if passed through a process called budget reconciliation, only needs 50 Democratic votes (plus Vice President Harris’ tie-breaker) to pass. Specifics on the latter are still being negotiated, but it aims to cut U.S. emissions in half and achieve 80 percent clean power by 2030 through a variety of policies, including the CCC. Last week, 80 Congressional Democrats signed a letter laying out a vision for a robust CCC that would focus on natural climate solutions, clean energy, and environmental justice, investing in locally-led adaptation projects that train workers in front-line communities for long-term, sustainable careers. It would also pay a living wage and possibly offer student loan forgiveness. They haven’t yet agreed on which of several proposed CCC bills to include in the package, but perhaps the strongest is that of Sen. Ed Markey (D-M.A.), one of the Corps’ earliest proponents, who wants to give the program $133 billion over 5 years, enough to pay all participants $15/hour with health and educational benefits. The bill would also elevate AmeriCorps wages and benefits to the same level.
Whether this transformative vision becomes reality will hinge on Democratic moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), a noteworthy recipient of oil and gas industry money, who recently said he was “very, very disturbed” by proposals to reduce the use of fossil fuels. Yet something like the CCC might actually be popular with his rural, conservative-leaning constituents in West Virginia. For one, $133 billion over the next five years is nothing compared to the $630 billion the country has spent on disasters in the past five. And in April, the left-wing think tank Data For Progress polled 1,210 likely U.S. voters and found that 65 percent were in support of a CCC that employs 1.5 million workers over five years with a living wage and benefits. More Republicans were in support than opposed, and the idea was particularly popular with rural voters. Half of voters under 45 said they’d consider joining the Corps themselves.
For the residents of the Louisiana coast, the program can’t come too soon. Hurricane season is here again, and there were five named storms by July 1st — a faster start than last year’s historic season. Researchers predict this year will see 20 named storms, including four major hurricanes; elsewhere, unprecedented heat waves, fires, and floods have claimed hundreds of lives in the last month alone. With record-breaking hurricanes and rising seas, people like Sunrise’s Chanté Davis and the January family face impossible choices over and over again: Do they pack up and leave their generational homes? Or do they stay, and risk losing everything?
Standing on the porch of the Ponderosa, once his grandparents’ home, Jalen Lamb fails to suppress a smile reflecting on all the memories he’s made there. “You think about one, another one pop up.” But when he first saw it after Hurricane Laura, he had to go sit in the car. “It was too much,” he says. “It hurt, looking at a place where you grew up basically in shambles.”
All Hands and Hearts’ hard-hatted volunteers clear out before sunset, trading hugs with the Januarys. Without a shred of government money, they’ve removed most of the mold and stripped everything inside the walls so rebuilding can begin. Donna, Jalen’s mom, is bouncing with excitement. She has no plans to move. “Disaster after disaster has set us so far back,” she says, but here in Lake Charles, “we have a good life. I see a light at the end of the tunnel,” she says. “But we still got a long way to go.”
Sam Van Pykeren contributed reporting to this story.