Businesswoman shares how New Orleans made peace, and profit, with the water

As rising sea levels encroach on American cities up and down the Eastern Seaboard, one city has given up the fight against rising tides.

“We’re living with the water now,” Robin Barnes, executive vice president and COO of Greater New Orleans Inc., told a crowd at Norfolk’s Town Point Club earlier this month.

The evening’s discussion came to a close just hours before floodwaters would submerge Norfolk’s city streets during a surprisingly heavy rainstorm the next day. It was a fitting coda for the Norfolk business and city leaders who dined with Barnes in hopes of learning how her city turned the threat of rising waters into economic opportunity.

Nearly a decade after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans, Louisiana-based businesses hold $300 million in contracts with the federal government and the states of New York and New Jersey, to build water management systems in the Northeast after the region fell victim to Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Barnes’ economic development firm has played a central part, encouraging Louisiana businesses to embrace the emerging environmental sector and become market leaders in a nation that has been slow to come to grips with rising sea levels.

That phrase “living with the water” is one Barnes and other New Orleans business and city leaders have borrowed from the Dutch – the leaders in water management.

With a quarter of the country below sea level and more than half of its people in flood-risk areas, the Netherlands is a nearly amphibious nation. Even the country’s most recognized trademarks – windmills, wooden clogs, dikes and tulips – underscore a history living with the water.

They’re not just living, though, Barnes pointed out. They’re profiting.

“The Dutch actually have not only addressed their various environmental issues, basically keeping the North Sea out of the Netherlands, but they’ve also turned it into an economic opportunity,” she said.

Approximately 5 percent of the Dutch GDP is derived from water management within the country.

“And 40 percent of that,” Barnes said, “is from exporting those same technologies and services out of the country.”

So, it stands to reason, when Katrina inundated 80 percent of New Orleans in 2005, the Dutch were there.

In the aftermath, Dutch consultants and engineers played an integral part in the city’s recovery and future resiliency projects, helping draft plans for everything from berms and sea walls to pump stations and manmade islands to buffer coastlines.

The most important lesson the Dutch masters taught the city, however, wasn’t what to build. It was how to build it.

Too often, Barnes said, American cities have come to rely on federal dollars before they begin these projects.

Public money is slow and painfully bureaucratic, she said. It often appears only after a catastrophe and rarely comes down the pipeline fast enough to prevent a disaster.

That’s why, Barnes said, her company is pushing the private sector to pitch in on projects.

And the tide is turning.

“We’re great friends with the Dutch,” Barnes said, “but now they’re starting to feel like they’ve trained us and we’re starting to do what they do.”

Today, New Orleans has become the case study for other American cities like Norfolk coping with rising sea levels.

Barnes characterized the two as “soulmates,” though they are perhaps better characterized as in-laws.

Both cities, in a sense, are married to the water – historically, culturally and economically.

In Norfolk, as in New Orleans, the city is bookended by naval and port installations. In Norfolk, as in New Orleans, retreating from the coastline is not an option.

In 2008, Norfolk partnered with its own Dutch experts to assess the threat of rising sea levels.

Consulting group Fugro found that protecting Norfolk from ongoing and recurrent flooding would run the city somewhere around $1 billion-plus.

That could be $1 billion-plus of opportunity for a right-minded business, said Fugro associate Kevin Smith, an engineering geologist.

“There are opportunities there to have joint-industry types of research projects,” he said, “but it’s difficult because the funding mechanisms aren’t clearly defined.”

Hampton Roads businesses simply haven’t taken to the waters of opportunity as quickly as their counterparts in New Orleans.

Without another catastrophic event like Hurricane Katrina, there’s a possibility they never will, said Adrian Reddington, business manager at JES, a regional specialty construction company in Virginia Beach.

“I think we tend to believe, that it can’t happen to us,” Reddington said, “that we’re somehow immune to it.”

JES specializes in foundation repair, crawl space repair and structural waterproofing. The company lacks competition in the water management industry in this market, Reddington said.

JES, which got its start in Maryland in the early 1990s, found its niche in Hampton Roads, Reddington said, because the market was small and demand was high.

“Obviously the market was very attractive,” he said. “And we’re definitely a market leader because we’re the largest company doing this type of work in the areas we cover.”

It may be good for business, but it doesn’t bode well for the future, Reddington said.

In his eight years at JES, Reddington said tidal flooding in Hampton Roads has only gotten worse.

“We’re seeing neighborhoods that never flooded, flooding every year,” he said.

But there’s only so much companies such as JES can do.

The pumps that JES installs in the homes and businesses throughout Hampton Roads are only effective against groundwater. When tidal waters begin to rise, pumps begin to fail.

“True tidal flooding where the water comes out of the river and literally floods the home,” he said, “there’s really nothing we can do about that.”

It will take a concerted effort between multiple companies, even multiple industries, Reddington said, before the area can learn to live with the water.

Reddington said he welcomes Barnes’ initiative to encourage coalitions of companies to help waterproof, not just homes and businesses, but entire regions.

“A company like us, we can’t hold back the river alone,” he said. “That can only be managed on a larger scale.”

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