Strategies: Entrepreneurs preventing the next Katrina
Rhonda Abrams, Special for USA TODAY
When people envision entrepreneurs working to save the world, it’s not likely they picture someone like Sarah Mack, Ph.D. A fast-talking farm-raised gal who fishes and hunts (including alligators), Mack’s a whip-smart scientist determined to help save the Gulf Coast from the devastation of another hurricane like Katrina.
Mack is one of the new breed of New Orleans-based entrepreneurs dedicated to reviving the region and preventing another killer storm from devastating the area. Through her for-profit small business — Tierra Resources — Mack works with private corporations to come up with new methods of restoring wetlands. Mack pioneered getting wetlands restoration approved as a method of carbon credit offsets, potentially unleashing substantial funding for this means of coastal protection.
Mack launched Tierra Resources in 2007 with two Louisiana State Universityprofessors as core team members, John Day and Rob Lane. Their goal was to create the business case behind private investment into wetlands restoration and to explore new, more cost-effective methods of creating and preserving wetlands.
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On Aug. 26, Tierra Resources announced the success of a three-year pilot project conducted in conjunction with Conoco Phillips, Entergy Corp. and other private companies. They have, for the first time, been able to “air seed” mangroves using crop duster planes, enabling the development of new wetlands at a fraction of previous costs.
“The Louisiana region is vital to the national economy,” said Mack, who holds a doctorate from Tulane University in Global Sustainable Resource Management and is a certified floodplain manager. “Wetlands loss is a national crisis.”
Healthy wetlands provide substantial protection against hurricane damage. They reduce surge, store water and slow floodwaters. They also break the waves. “The waves are the most damaging to the levees,” Mack said. “Wave energy is like an earthquake.”
Last March, Mack gave me a tour of the shrinking wetlands and of the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. The Lower Ninth was inundated 10 years ago when Katrina hit, in large part because of previous wetlands loss. It has still not fully recovered, and it’s here where Brad Pitt has established his Make it Right foundation to build sustainable homes.
As the Gulf has gotten warmer, sea levels have risen and land has shrunk. “Louisiana is losing a football field of land AN HOUR. That’s one of the fastest rates in the world,” said Mack. Wetlands help reduce this land loss as well as protect against hurricane damage.
Most Americans don’t realize the importance of Gulf Coast ports. “The mouth of the Mississippi is one of the largest agricultural ports in the U.S. It’s also a major port for oil and gas,” she said.
A three-week closure of Port Fourchon, which is just south of New Orleans, from a Katrina-like hurricane would result in national losses of $11.2 billion in sales, $3.1 billion in household earnings and affect nearly 65,000 jobs, according to a 2014 report by the Greater LaFourche Port Commission.
One of Mack’s approaches is to speed up the introduction of new wetlands trees — mangroves. “Our personal goal is to establish at least 30,000 acres of mangroves in the next 10 years,” she said.
“1989 was the last hard freeze in Louisiana,” Mack said. “The southern reaches of Louisiana are now part of the tropical zone. Mangroves are a tropical tree, happier in warmer climates.”
Mack and her company, Tierra Resources, won the 2013 New Orleans Water Challenge, an annual competition identifying entrepreneurs working on solving critical water issues. The contest, conducted by New Orleans organizations Propeller, The Idea Village, and the Greater New Orleans Foundation has brought increased attention and support for water-related entrepreneurial ventures.
The 2013 Water Challenge was won by entrepreneur Tyler Ortego of ORA Estuaries, a startup developing innovative methods to create concrete breakwaters that generate natural oyster reefs as coastal protection.
At Louisiana State University, Ortego worked with Matt Campbell, whose graduate research led to the patent for the first oyster reef structure. “We combined concrete and good coastal engineering and made a modular breakwater that oysters grow on,” said Ortego.
Ortego and Mack are part of the resurgence of New Orleans entrepreneurship: profit-oriented but determined to save the coast and city they love.
“We’re part of a landscape,” said Ortego. “Every piece is an incremental improvement to the whole system. But there’s a whole lot of pieces that still need to be put in.”
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