Why do disasters sometimes lead to the creation of innovative, new policy frameworks? People often assume that this happens because disasters cause people to understand environmental problems in new ways. However, this case study of changes in Louisiana’s coastal land management policy after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 tells a different story. After the hurricanes, state and federal legislators passed several laws that created a framework for comprehensive coastal restoration, replacing the haphazard and poorly funded approach that preceded the storms. This policy innovation occurred because the hurricanes created an opportunity to enact ideas developed by a coalition of coastal scientists, environmental attorneys, and local businesspeople during the previous three decades. Without the long-term work of this advocacy coalition, policy innovation would probably not have occurred. The case study presents the history of coastal restoration policy in Louisiana and explains how this history illustrates models of policy agenda setting from political science and environmental problems construction from sociology. In turn, these models provide a key to interpreting other examples of post-disaster policy change.
Students will become familiar with the innovative coastal restoration policy framework that emerged in Louisiana after 2005. They will understand how this framework developed from earlier rounds of claims-making and coalition building, which began with the work of coastal scientists in the 1970s and later included environmental advocates and members of the business community. They will be introduced to models of environmental problems construction and policy agenda setting, which may be used to analyze responses to environmental disasters in other locations. Finally, students will be alerted to how unique features of local contexts and cultures shape claims-making and coalition-building processes.
The months after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita flooded the city of New Orleans and hammered much of southern Louisiana and Mississippi marked the beginning of a period of environmental policy innovation that focused on creating a framework for the long-term restoration of coastal wetlands. As detailed in this case analysis, laws that passed at the state and federal levels created an agency responsible for designing and implementing restoration projects, a process for developing and reviewing a comprehensive coastal restoration plan, and an ongoing funding stream for coastal restoration work.
However, it is not accurate to say that policymakers created the new coastal restoration framework from whole cloth after the 2005 hurricane season. A close investigation of this case of policy innovation reveals an established advocacy coalition that includes members of the coastal science, environmentalist and business communities. This coalition developed between 1970 and 2005 and played an instrumental role in transforming the policy opportunity created by the hurricanes into the policy outcomes realized in Louisiana.
These events in Louisiana suggest that it is useful to turn to models of policy agenda setting (from political science) and environmental problems construction (from sociology) when seeking to understand how policymakers respond to natural disasters [1, 2]. These models direct attention to events and activities that occurred long before the policy developments in question. In particular, they highlight how the strategies of engaged civic actors may guide the direction of environmental policy.
As the case analysis will show, the coalition of civic actors in Louisiana articulated the problematic nature of wetlands loss, proposed ways to manage or mitigate this problem, and presented these ideas in ways that gained traction in the political arena. The result was that when Katrina and Rita hit, both the wetlands loss problem and potential solutions had been clearly defined for policymakers. The case of Louisiana also shows that unique features of local contexts may create unexpected opportunities for advocacy and coalition building.
Hurricanes, Wetlands, and Policy Innovation
Hurricane Katrina struck the coast of Louisiana on August 29, 2005, making landfall near the Mississippi border. Hurricane Rita arrived several weeks later, making landfall on the western part of the Louisiana coast on September 24, 2005. Together, these storms caused an unprecedented amount of damage. Katrina forced a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans, flooded the city for days, and demolished communities in southeastern Louisiana and along the Mississippi Gulf coast. Rita destroyed a number of towns in Cameron and Calcasieu Parishes and caused additional flooding along the coast, including New Orleans. Taken together, the two storms caused at least 1,578 deaths in Louisiana and at least $120 billion dollars of damage in the United States [3, 4].
Many initial discussions of this damage focused on the failure of flood protection systems like the levees and floodwalls . However, the damage was increased by what the sociologist William Freudenburg and his co-authors, in a study of event, called “the loss of natural defenses” . The natural defenses to which they referred were coastal wetlands, which were in the midst of a century-long decline when Katrina hits the shore. Wetlands have been disappearing along the Louisiana coast since the early part of the twentieth century, with approximately 1,880 square miles of land lost between 1930 and 2010 .
Several factors have contributed to this loss, including natural processes such as soil subsidence, human-made structures like river levees, navigation canals, and oil transportation pipelines, and sea level rise associated with global climate change . While healthy wetlands buffer levees and floodwalls from hurricane storm surges, degraded wetlands increase the stress on these structures and add to the likelihood that they will fail .
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita catalyzed a sequence of policy innovation at the state and federal levels. The Louisiana Legislature convened for an extraordinary session in late 2005 and unanimously passed a bill that created a new state agency—the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA)—that had a mandate to develop and implement comprehensive measures to stem coastal wetlands loss. The Legislature also proposed a constitutional amendment, which was ratified by popular vote soon after, dedicating all of the money that the state received from the lease of offshore oil and gas drilling sites to coastal protection and restoration work.
These sites are federally owned and at the time of the amendment’s passage the state received no leasing revenue. However, in 2006, the U.S. Congress passed the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA), which channeled up to $170 million in offshore leasing revenue received by the federal government to Louisiana, beginning in 2017 . In 2007, and again in 2012 and 2017, the Louisiana Legislature approved coastal restoration plans developed by the CPRA, giving the green light for the design and construction of new restoration projects. Finally, the federal RESTORE Act, passed in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, dedicated a portion of the civil penalties paid by BP and other responsible parties to Louisiana’s coastal restoration efforts.
In an interview, one Louisiana environmentalist stated that the hurricanes were a “pivot point” for coastal restoration policy in Louisiana. Before this time, coastal restoration was not a state priority. While policymakers had been aware of land loss for several years, funding for restoration projects was scarce and project planning occurred on a local basis. After previous hurricanes, such as Hurricane Betsy in 1965, policymakers had instead focused their attention on building structural protections such as levees and floodwalls . After Katrina and Rita, the new policies greatly increased the resources available for restoration and enabled coordinated planning for both restoration and protection to take place on a coast-wide scale. This is essential when it comes to preparing for future disasters .
What was the source of this policymaking surge? The answer to this question may seem obvious: policymakers realized that wetlands loss was a problem, and they were motivated to try to fix it. But this answer only raises other questions. Where did understandings of the problematic nature of land loss come from? How were policymakers convinced of their accuracy? Why, given all of the needs that existed in the wake of the hurricanes, did legislators focus their attention on passing a complex set of long-term restoration measures? To answer these questions, we must turn to theoretical work about policy agendas and environmental problems construction.
Policy Agendas and Environmental Problems
Political scientists have long sought to understand the origins of public policies. One influential work in this area is the book Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policy, in which the political scientist John Kingdon developed what he called a multiple streams model of policy formation. Kingdon argued that in order to understand policy emergence, researchers need to examine three concurrent and often independent streams of activity .
The first is the “problem” stream, which refers to the issues and concerns that policymakers feel compelled to address. The second is the “policy” stream, which refers to programs and measures that have been proposed by experts and bureaucrats, but which haven’t yet been implemented. According to Kingdon, people who operate in the policy world often perceive a set of problems that need solving, as well as a collection of policy ideas in search of problems to solve. Opportunities for action occur when the two converge, that is, when policymakers face both a condition that they perceive as an urgent problem and a policy proposal that seems to fit this problem. The third stream, which Kingdon labels “politics,” refers to the general public mood about what governments can and should do. This mood shapes the sorts of innovations that result from the encounter of the first two streams.
With its emphasis on the dynamic nature of problems and policies, Kingdon’s model intersects with sociological research about the construction of environmental problems. A key scholar in this area is John Hannigan, who argues that the physical deterioration of the environment does not automatically lead to public concern, but instead that public attention to environmental conditions “varies in direct response to successful claims-making and contestation by a cast of social actors that includes scientists, industrialists, politicians, civil servants, journalists, and environmental activists” .
In other words, problems don’t just exist for everyone to see. They are constructed through argument and debate by claims-makers who feel that certain conditions merit public attention. Hannigan offers a three-stage model to describe the work of environmental claims-making, which he argues consists of (1) assembling claims about environmental deterioration; (2) presenting claims in ways that secure broad public attention and are accepted as legitimate by policymakers; and (3) defending claims from challengers in the policy arena and in public debates .
In his book After Disaster, which examines policy innovation after natural disasters, Thomas Birkland offers one example of how these models of policy formation and social problems construction can be brought together. He argued that disasters act as “focusing events” that bring together the problem, policy, and politics streams. In doing so, they create opportunities for new policy approaches .
However, the ways that policymakers interpret and respond to disasters are shaped by whether organized groups of environmental claims-makers exist. Birkland calls these groups “advocacy coalitions,” and argues that when they exist, they often convince policymakers that connections exist between particular disasters and broader environmental problems. Advocacy coalitions are also a source of new policy ideas, which they have developed to address the problems they perceive. Advocacy groups can seize on disaster opportunities to promote innovative policies. Conversely, where advocacy groups are absent, disasters tend to be treated as random events and policymakers focus on short-term relief and recovery, rather than on long-term policy change.
Louisiana’s Restoration Advocacy Coalition
Louisiana’s coastline has experienced a net loss of land for much of the twentieth century, but the state’s leaders paid little attention during most of this period . Why have they stopped ignoring the problem? The answer has to do with the work of three groups of claims-makers: scientists, environmental attorneys, and the state’s business elite.
assembling claims: coastal scientists Scientific research often plays a key role in establishing environmental problems on the public agenda. There are several reasons for this: scientists have significant cultural authority when it comes to interpreting the natural world, scientists can use specialized techniques to identify phenomena that are imperceptible to lay observers, and prominent scientists are often able to attract significant resources to study a problem through grants and research contracts [15, 16].
By the 1970s, prominent scientists in Louisiana were arguing that coastal land loss posed a serious problem for the state [17–19]. Their research used increasingly sophisticated techniques to identify the rate, the extent, and the causes (both natural and anthropogenic) of this land loss . However, scientific research about land loss began almost by accident because of a coincidence of Louisiana’s natural resources and federal laws.
The seafloor off of Louisiana’s coast has significant oil and gas deposits. Federal law establishes that states own water bottoms (submerged land) within three miles of their coastlines and that the federal government owns the water bottoms beyond that point that fall within the country’s boundaries . As the industrial technology developed to extract oil from beneath the Gulf of Mexico, it became important to the state of Louisiana to determine exactly where the 3-mile boundary lay.
In the 1950s, the state sponsored a study to map the coastline, which provided the first comprehensive documentation of coastal land loss . This research led to the creation of the Coastal Studies Institute at Louisiana State University (LSU), which provided a training ground for other researchers who carried out additional studies. LSU became nationally known for coastal science, which enabled researchers to attract additional support in subsequent years, such as from the national Sea Grant College Program.
Researchers at other institutions also helped to analyze and document coastal land loss during the final decades of the twentieth century. These included governmental research entities such as the USGS National Wetlands Research Center and regional academic institutions such as the University of New Orleans and Tulane University. Importantly, researchers often disagreed about important issues, such as the relative importance of different causes of land loss . Nevertheless, their debates sparked additional studies and supported large-scale planning efforts, including the Louisiana Coastal Wetlands Restoration Plan (described below) of 1993, the Coast 2050 plan of 1998, and the Louisiana Coastal Area study of 2004.
assembling claims: environmental attorneys In the late 1970s, the claims-making of coastal scientists received a boost from a second group of participants in the coastal advocacy coalition: attorneys employed by national environmental organizations. Like scientists, these attorneys became aware of the land loss problem while working on another issue in Louisiana, as a result of the passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972 .1
Section 404 of the Clean Water Act assigned the Army Corps of Engineers, a federal agency in charge of managing the Mississippi River, with the responsibility of regulating private development projects on what the law called “navigable waters” . However, the law did not define this term. The Corps argued that “navigable waters” did not include wetlands areas, which national environmental groups wanted to protect. During the 1970s, large areas of Louisiana wetlands were being drained and converted to agriculture, and groups like the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) adopted a strategy of litigating these projects to clarify the Corps’ regulatory responsibility .
These efforts brought attorneys into contact with coastal scientists, who served as expert witnesses in court cases . Attorneys learned about coastal land loss and began to advocate alongside scientists. Attorneys played an especially important role in moving conversations about land loss outside the university. Working with scientists, the EDF attorney Jim Tripp helped to create the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (CRCL), a non-profit organization that included members from churches, coastal towns, and local environmental groups. CRCL’s first activity was the publication of a “citizen’s plan to restore coastal Louisiana,” which made a number of policy proposal that aimed to stem coastal land loss .
presenting claims: local business people During the 1980s and 1990s, CRCL worked to establish land loss as a serious environmental problem. They achieved several state and federal policy successes. The most important of these was the passage in 1990 of the federal Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection, and Restoration Act (CWPPRA), also known as the Breaux Act after Louisiana Senator John Breaux. Among other measures, CWPPRA provided between $50 and $80 million in federal funding for coastal projects and supported a comprehensive coastal assessment and planning effort known as the Louisiana Coastal Wetlands Restoration Plan . Additionally, CRCL helped to create a position devoted to coastal affairs within the office of the Louisiana governor .
Nevertheless, CRCL’s influence was limited. As one early member put it in an interview, CRCL “was a very eclectic group … made up mostly of people with no money or influence.” This changed in the late 1990s, when members of the local business elite began to advocate for coastal restoration. CRCL worked to recruit these individuals. For example, the group published a second report titled No Time To Lose, which described the economic impacts of land loss on Louisiana’s major industries: fishing, transportation, and oil and gas extraction. The report emphasized the risks that land loss would pose to the built infrastructure that supported these industries .
In Louisiana, the relationship between political leaders and the business community is extremely close. In the past, this has contributed to environmental problems, such as those caused by weak regulation on pollution from the oil and gas industry . However, when business leaders began to speak about land loss, the influence of the advocacy coalition increased significantly. In 2001, for example, Louisiana’s governor convened a high-profile meeting to address coastal issues at the request of business leaders.2
After this meeting, a group of business leaders continued to meet at the governor’s request to develop a set of recommendations to help the state to work on coastal restoration in a coordinated way. They issued a report in 2002 that anticipated many of the post-Katrina policy developments. It called for a more detailed and ambitious coastal restoration plan, a state authority to oversee the plan’s implementation, and the creation of additional revenue streams to finance restoration activities .
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita created an opportunity for policy change, but new policies resulted only because of the long-term work of the coastal restoration advocacy coalition to define land loss as an urgent problem and to develop ideas about how the state should address this problem. In other states that were also affected by the storms but lacked advocacy coalitions, such as Texas and Mississippi, similar policy innovations did not emerge.
Sociological theories about the construction of environmental problems provide a framework for thinking about how advocacy coalitions shape post-disaster policy. The case analysis shows that scientists, attorneys, and members of the business community worked collaboratively to collect information about land loss, to convince policymakers that it constituted a problem for Louisiana, and to propose a set of policies that would enable the state to work effectively on coastal restoration. In addition, this advocacy coalition continues to defend the seriousness of the land loss problem and the state’s approach to addressing it against critics, such as legislators who wish to redirect funding to other priorities .
The ideas used to analyze this case may be helpful in making sense of policy responses to other sorts of natural and human-made disasters. There are at least two approaches that one might take. The first approach would be to examine disasters and consider how advocacy coalitions (if they exist) succeeded (or failed) to influence post-disaster policy responses. The second approach would be to examine advocacy coalitions that work to raise attention about particular environmental problems and to consider how these coalitions use disasters as opportunities to advance their goals.
It is important to realize that Louisiana’s coastal restoration efforts are not without controversy. For example, the state’s current plans call for designing and building a set of diversions that aim to restore wetlands by releasing sediments that are carried by the Mississippi River . Coastal residents have challenged these plans, pointing out that diversions may harm the fishing economy and culture of communities in the region . Others have argued that Louisiana has neglected a number of issues that are essential for coastal restoration, from local land use plans to climate change-induced sea level rise [35, 36]. Critics also charge that overconfidence about the positive effects of diversions may lead the state to waste precious resources on an ineffective technology . This case study should not be taken to imply that policy innovation in Louisiana has solved the problem of land loss.
Nevertheless, Louisiana’s coastal restoration efforts may help to guide other coastal areas that are facing land loss, including loss related to sea level rise associated with climate change. In this way, the influence of Louisiana’s advocacy coalition may go beyond the problem that it originally sought to solve.
CASE STUDY QUESTIONS
How did the post-Katrina policy framework dealing with coastal restoration in Louisiana differ from previous policy approaches? In what ways was it innovative?
How do theoretical writings related to agenda setting and the construction of environmental problems provide insight into how policy innovation happens? What ideas and arguments stand out to you?
How did different members of the coastal restoration advocacy coalition contribute to the development of the post-Katrina policy framework? Which groups do you think played the most important role?
Going beyond the case study, think of an important environmental issue in your state or region. Is there an advocacy coalition that focuses on this issue? What sorts of people make up this coalition? How are they working to define the issue as a problem? What policy (or other) responses do they propose?
Going beyond the case study, conduct basic research about a natural or human-made disaster that has occurred in the United States. Did this disaster lead to significant policy changes? How would Robert Birkland interpret the presence or absence of change in the disaster you are investigating?
Weather-related disasters, like Katrina, are expected to become more common as a result of climate change. What sorts of policy changes do you think disasters of the future will bring, and why?
I benefitted from audience comments about an earlier version of this case study, which I presented at the Midwest Sociological Society Annual Meeting in 2016.
This research was supported by funding from the College of Arts and Sciences, the Office of the Provost, and the Center for the Humanities at Drake University, the Midwest Sociological Society, and the American Sociological Association Fund for the Advancement of the Discipline program.
The author has declared that no competing interests exist.
Slides: Institutionalizing coastal restoration in Louisiana after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita: The importance of advocacy coalitions and claims-making in post-disaster policy innovation.