Colette Pichon Battle: How Can We Prepare For The Next Hurricane Katrina?

Aug 7, 2020

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Our Relationship With Water

Sea level rise will displace millions by 2100 — and the Louisiana bayous, where Colette Pichon Battle lives, may disappear entirely. She describes how we can avert the worst when disaster strikes.

About Colette Pichon Battle

Colette Pichon Battle is the founder and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, a non-profit, public interest law firm and justice center with a mission to advance structural shifts toward climate justice and ecological equity in communities of color.

At GCCLP, Pichon Battle develops programming focused on equitable disaster recovery, climate migration, community economic development, and climate justice. She also works with local communities, national funders, and elected officials in the post-Katrina/post-BP disaster recovery, work for which she received the U.S. Civilian Medal of Honor from the state of Louisiana in 2008. Pichon Battle is also a practicing attorney, and manages GCCLP's legal services for immigration and disaster law.

She was named an Echoing Green Climate fellow in 2015 and in 2019 was named an Obama Foundation Fellow.

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On the show today - restoring our relationship with water. And for some, that relationship is with the water they drink. But for others, it's the water that surrounds them.


COLETTE PICHON BATTLE: The bayou is green and lush and all of the things that equal bountiful life. But it is also watery and muddy. You can smell everything. You can smell when something has died. You can smell when something is newly bloomed. The swamp is very noisy. It's never quiet - full of everything. But if you had to live there your whole life, you would have everything you needed.

ZOMORODI: This is Colette Pichon Battle. She was born and raised in southern Louisiana and grew up in the middle of all of those smells and sounds.

PICHON BATTLE: Yeah, I grew up in Bayou Liberty, just north of New Orleans, in the bayou. I lived in the house where my mother was and that my grandfather built. I lived on the land that has been in my family for generations, even before it was America.

ZOMORODI: Colette is an attorney. She practiced law for years. But these days she's taken on another role.

PICHON BATTLE: I'm a climate activist now - not a title I would have given myself, not a title I would have preferred.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

PICHON BATTLE: But I'll take it. Whatever works.

ZOMORODI: She'll take it because she feels like she doesn't have a choice. Rising sea levels and stronger storms are constantly threatening the land that Colette's family has lived on for generations.

PICHON BATTLE: I work at the community level to make sure that Black folks and poor folks and Native folks are part of this climate movement.

ZOMORODI: For Colette, that means bringing her neighbors into the policy conversations, sharing the science around global warming and making sure that they contribute their knowledge, too, because this community understands the ebb and flow of the water better than anyone.

PICHON BATTLE: Our livelihood and our life was absolutely with water every day. And in the spring, which most folks understand as hurricane season, that is where we really had to start paying attention. So you would hear people talking about how much rain they got, how far did the flooding go up. But it wasn't a panic; it was more informational.

And I can remember, as a child, during hurricanes, the hurricane has, like, three portions to it. It's the sort of outer wall, the eye and then the next wall. And as a kid, when the eye would pass - so that was always when you would have several hours of open, clear sky, clear air, and you could go check on things. And I remember it being so much fun to go out in the eye of the storm to go check on folks.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

PICHON BATTLE: Isn't that crazy?

ZOMORODI: Wow. Yes (laughter).

PICHON BATTLE: You would get in a - we called them pirogue - in a flat-bottom boat. You'd get in a pirogue, go down the street, make sure folks were OK.


PICHON BATTLE: It was just enough time to go make sure no one had a tree on their roof or needed help. And then you would go back in, and you would wait for that other band to go across. And it wasn't a terrible existence; it was just one where you had to have traditional knowledge coupled with your reality in order to survive.

ZOMORODI: Nature was somewhat predictable. But all that changed in 2005, when those weather patterns shifted.

PICHON BATTLE: The real moment of noticing that change was Katrina.

ZOMORODI: The water became unrecognizable, as the storm ripped through and then scattered Colette's community.

PICHON BATTLE: I mean, they were all over. And we finally just got a number to folks to call in at one time. We got to hear what was going on or what had happened or what folks had left. And we start with our vye, with our old people. And the first words out of their mouths were, the water has never been this high. And we're talking to people who had been on the earth for 90 years plus. And that is when I started learning about the loss of our barrier islands due to oil and gas drilling.


PICHON BATTLE: And so the things that protected us weren't there anymore, and the sea level is higher. And so the drastic and dramatic changes was noticeable and evident to everyone.

ZOMORODI: So what happened to your family house?

PICHON BATTLE: We lost everything. This was a longstanding Creole community that was pretty much physically wiped out by the tidal surge coming off of the Gulf into the Lake Pontchartrain.

ZOMORODI: And at the time, you weren't home, right? You had left Louisiana. You were practicing law in D.C., but then you dropped everything and changed your career.

PICHON BATTLE: It was a crack in the universe to come home and see the destruction of Katrina, and it was in that moment that I said I was never leaving home again. You see that kind of destruction, and your life will change whether you want it to or not. That was my moment of career change. I was going to have to take a much different advocacy role - not standing in front of a court, pointing to particular pieces of law but instead standing in front of my community and convince them of what I knew deep in my heart, which was that climate change was going to come after all of us and that it was going to take what we love the most, which is where we're from.

ZOMORODI: A couple of years after Katrina, Collette and her community realized that hurricanes of this magnitude were here to stay, and that might mean that they needed to go. She picks up the story from the TED stage.


PICHON BATTLE: It was about two years after Hurricane Katrina that I first saw the Louisiana flood maps. These flood maps are used to show land loss in the past and land loss that is to come. These maps were used to explain how a 30-foot tidal surge could flood communities like mine in south Louisiana and communities across the Mississippi and Alabama coast. On this particular day at a community meeting, I volunteered to interact with the graphics on the wall. And in an instant, my life changed for the second time in two years. The graphic showed massive land loss, but more specifically, the graphic showed the disappearance of my community and many other communities before the end of the century.

I was standing there with other members of south Louisiana's communities - Black, Native, poor. We thought we were just bound by temporary disaster recovery, but we found that we were now bound by the impossible task of ensuring that our communities would not be erased due to climate change. I just assumed it would always be there - land, trees, bayous. I just assumed that it would be there as it had been for thousands of years. I was wrong.

ZOMORODI: Collette, I mean, it's so upsetting. And knowing what you know now, like, what happens if there is another Katrina? How does it work? Where do people go?

PICHON BATTLE: There is another Katrina on the way. We can't start from any other premise. The mass displacement that comes with a hurricane like Katrina is unbelievable. The first wave is people who are, I would say, in the working class - folks who have a car and the ability to leave.


PICHON BATTLE: There's another wave of displacement that comes with sort of mandatory evacuation - so whatever a city has to get the poorest people out. And those folks are often given one-way tickets to a place they've never heard of. And this is what happened in Katrina. I remember being in D.C., welcoming folks who left New Orleans on a plane. They thought they were going to Dallas, but they went to Dulles Airport.


PICHON BATTLE: They did not get round-trip tickets. They got one-way tickets. And so you get pushed out for your safety, and then you're left there to figure out how to come back. And guess what? If you were too poor to leave in the first place, how hard do you think it's going to be to get back? And the third round of displacement is probably the most heartbreaking for me, which is if you are a parent with a small child or an elderly person with a condition, you now have to go somewhere safe. And you end up shifting your residence not because you want to but because the structures and conditions that you need to have your life aren't here. There were no hospitals. There were no schools. And so you can't fault people for leaving. But when those - that third group of people leave, they leave for a very long time if not for good.

ZOMORODI: But it's not like these things aren't foreseeable, right? I mean, how prepared are government agencies like FEMA for a future with more natural disasters, which means more climate migration?

PICHON BATTLE: Well, this is interesting, and it's the right question. What do we have in place for climate change? And I was honored to be invited to the White House to a conversation with FEMA.

ZOMORODI: And to be clear, this was during the Obama administration, right?

PICHON BATTLE: Yeah - specifically about our preparedness and resiliency. But it was at this time that the FEMA administrator said, I understand what you're saying, but the FEMA regulations aren't meant for the most vulnerable communities. The disaster process of this country are meant for the middle class.

ZOMORODI: Wait. What?

PICHON BATTLE: They're meant for the middle class. If you think about it, it sounds strange, right? Your heart - like, that can't be true, except the truth of it is that all of the laws in this country are meant for the middle class at best. There is a large swath of people who are never included. This was an honest comment from the head of FEMA. This is what you realize when you recognize that the structures that are in place right now are absolutely not meant for me.

ZOMORODI: When we come back, Collette Pichon Battle on how she's restoring her own personal relationship with water. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And on the show today - restoring our relationship with water. And we were just hearing from Colette Pichon Battle about how climate change and climate migration is threatening to wipe out her community in southern Louisiana.

PICHON BATTLE: And so if we're going to survive this, we're going to have to figure some things out for ourselves, while we go through the process of saving our democracy and shifting our laws and structures.


PICHON BATTLE: By the end of the next century, it's predicted that more than 180 million people will be displaced due to climate change. And in south Louisiana, those who can afford to do so are already moving. They're moving because south Louisiana is losing land at one of the fastest rates on the planet. We must start preparing for global migration today.

Our cities and our communities are not prepared. This will cause rounds of climate gentrification. Climate gentrification that happens in anticipation of sea-level rise is what we're seeing in places like Miami, where communities that were kept from the waterfront are now being priced out of the high ground, where they were placed originally, as people move away from the Coasts. And climate migration is just one small part, but it's going to have ripple effects in both coastal cities and cities in the interior.

So what do we do? I have a few ideas.


PICHON BATTLE: We must reframe our understanding of the problem. Climate change is not the problem; climate change is the most horrible symptom of an economic system that has been built for a few to extract every precious value out of this planet and its people. To survive this next phase of our human existence, we will need to restructure our social and economic systems to develop our collective resilience. We must transform from a disposable, individual society into one that sees our collective long-term humanity, or else we will not make it. We must acknowledge that the only way you're going to survive is for us to figure out how to reach a shared liberation together.


ZOMORODI: Colette, I mean, on a day-to-day basis, what does that look like for you? How do you keep up this energy?

PICHON BATTLE: Yeah. You know, I have, over the last couple of years, called into my life a more spiritual approach to my work. So it's an honor now; it used to be a duty, and now I see it as an honor. I used to wake up with fire, and now I wake up - try to wake up with really calm water. This work will make me hate the water or even fear it, and that is absolutely not who I am or where I come from. It would even make me hate this place - right? - and hate people, and that is also not who I'm from. We are not a people who are energized by hatred. I come from people who are energized by joy. And we're real, real loud, just like that swamp, you know?

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

PICHON BATTLE: All those crickets and all that - you can hear us. You can smell us. You can come join us anytime. That's who I come from, and I was losing it. And so I have been on a spiritual journey.

We're running a Sacred Waters Pilgrimage right now with Black and Native women to heal the relationships of Native and Black folks with each other and to heal the relationship of humanity with our water, with our earth. We are literally doing a pilgrimage down the Mississippi River for the next seven months to make sure that we advance this - not using legislation, not even using technology; using traditional ecological knowledge and cultural traditions to advance our relationships with one another and our understanding of this planet and the water that she holds, which is our life.

ZOMORODI: The Sacred Waters Pilgrimage - what exactly happens on this? Can you tell me more about it?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Singing) Heya (ph).

PICHON BATTLE: So we pray (laughter). Black and Native women and two-spirit folks are invited to join the pilgrimage, and we come together, and we develop collective ceremony using African tradition and Native traditions. We started Juneteenth at the Headwaters in Minnesota, interestingly enough the state where George Floyd was killed. This was planned last year in July, by the way. The water called us to that place.


PICHON BATTLE: And so the prayers that were offered were not just that we heal our relationship with this earth, but it was that we humans heal our relationship with one another. And that is a place full of pain. You can feel it as soon as you arrive. And so we come together. We pray. We sing. We honor each other.

We have courageous conversations about our histories with one another and what colonizing forces had Black folks do to Native folks and what colonizing forces had Native folks do to Black folks. And we ask for reconciliation and forgiveness because we know that if the victims of the original sins of this country can get together and form a united front, we can actually change this country. So this is step one for us because we know that community is held by these folks.

ZOMORODI: And the water, right?

PICHON BATTLE: And the water. And the water. And the water.


ZOMORODI: That's Colette Pichon Battle. She's the executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy in Louisiana. You can see her full talk at

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