Awards Announced by Governor Edwards to Assist in Closing Digital Gaps in Louisiana

Louisiana Governor, John Bel Edwards, announced that over the course of the next 18-24 months, over $35 million will be distributed in order to bring affordable high-speed internet to nearly 15,000 locations, according to this article from The Houma Times.  The goal is to close the digital gaps seen in many areas throughout the state.

The announcement was made as the Louisiana Governor was joined by federal, state, and locally elected officials and community leaders at the state’s inaugural Broadband Solutions Summit. This was where it was also announced by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), that Louisiana is the first state in the nation to have received two grant awards funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, a law that will help to expand internet service statewide in order to close digital gaps. The two grants were a State Digital Equity Planning Grant for $941,542.28 and a Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program planning grant for $2,000,000.

It was also announced that two new parishes, Vernon and LaSalle Parish, will also be impacted by this second wave of awards that have been provided through Louisiana’s broadband program, Granting Unserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities, or GUMBO.

Earlier this year in July, Governor John Bel Edwards announced the first wave of GUMBO awards as a result of the American Rescue Plan’s $130 million investment to provide broadband access to more than 66,000 households and small businesses through Internet Service Providers in 50 parishes. Governor Edwards commented on this additional opportunity to the July 2019 announcement by saying, “in 2019, we set a goal to close Louisiana’s digital divide by 2029, and this announcement is another step in the right direction.”

He continued, “I am so grateful for the progress we are making, thanks to the help from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Some of us take access to broadband for granted, but there are still many people who do not have reliable or affordable connections, especially in the rural parts of our state. If we can connect those communities, we will improve health outcomes, grow our economy, increase access to educational opportunities, and enhance the quality of life for so many people.”

Veneeth Iyengar, the Executive Director of ConnectLa, commented on this second round of awarded funds by saying, “we are grateful that NTIA has quickly approved our plans to draw down the first funds in the country for BEAD and Digital Equity to develop not only the 1st 5-year strategic plan for the state but also the first digital equity plan. “The approach we are going to take to address access, affordability, literacy, and the lack of devices will be highly innovative and move Louisiana’s economy forward.”

These GUMBO awards highlight the groundwork originally begun by Gov. Edwards in 2019 when the Governor signed an executive order that created the Broadband for Everyone Louisiana Commission. This Commission was created with the goal of eliminating the digital gaps in the state of Louisiana by 2029. Then, in 2020, Gov. Edwards created ConnectLA’s Office of Broadband Development and Connectivity, which is led by Executive Director Veneeth Iyengar,who called the establishing of ConnectLA the culmination of all “the hard work that our stakeholders (teacher, parents, small business owners, public safety, parish officials etc.) have given towards addressing the digital divide. These investments will not only address the access issues but will create hundreds and thousands of good paying jobs that will impact people’s trajectory in their communities.”

Additionally, in order to address the estimated 462,000 Louisiana citizens who lack basic digital literacy skills, ConnectLA partnered with the Louisiana Board of Regents, the Louisiana Department of Education, and the State Library of Louisiana, in order to establish pilot programs in multiple parishes to reduce the digital literacy rate by 50%.

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Louisiana Reflects One Year After Hurricane Ida

With the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Ida making landfall on Louisiana’s shores having recently passed, The Houma Times released a retrospective article that took a look back on how recovery efforts in the Bayou Region have taken shape in the past twelve months, as the area begins to prepare for yet another hurricane season.

The article focuses on how “Louisiana’s Cajun Bayou” saw the Category-4 storm’s destructive storm surges and winds brought with them the closing of local restaurants, attractions, events, and so much more, but despite all this, the storm didn’t deter the Cajun sense of perseverance against adversity. On the morning of August 30, many will recall that “neighbors helped neighbors, communities helped communities, and friends from around the country rushed to Louisiana’s aid, showcasing a shared camaraderie in the wake of the storm.

Similarly, released a one-year reflection piece that detailed a collection of recent post-Hurricane Ida coverage that has been written by and The Times-Picayune about what’s happening in the state in terms of housing, insurance, power, and more.” Some of this coverage, in particular this piece that focuses on the communities of St. John Parish, details how LaPlace, Louisiana’s residents are still rebounding from the August 29th storm, despite still being in harm’s way for the upcoming hurricane season.

The informative article reported that according to the Louisiana Office of Community Development, “nearly 5,000 owner-occupied homes and some 3,700 renters were affected by [Hurricane] Ida” in St. John Parish with data suggesting “that, on a per-capita basis, St. John was Louisiana’s hardest-hit parish.” This data also purported that over 75% of homes in the parish had sustained wind damage claims, which is the highest rate of any Louisiana Parish. This was in addition to St. John Parish also seeing 60% of its homeowners with flood-insurance policies also file claims.

It’s well-knoen that St John Parish was particularly hit hard by Hurricane Ida, but one year after the fact has seen a recovery that has unfortunately been challenged by the state’s homeowners insurance crisis, which was triggered by the four hurricanes that have made landfall in Louisiana since late 2020. Since then, “eight companies have collapsed under financial strain and a growing number of them are pulling out of Louisiana, [and these] failed insurers have left behind more than 26,000 unresolved claims for the state’s industry bailout program to handle.”

St. John Parish Councilman Robert Arcuri commented on the recovery efforts in the area saying, “the devastation after the storm was incredible because not only did people flood, but we also had a lot of structural damage on properties. We still have a lot of residents that are fighting with their insurance company and some of them are just starting to rebuild. That’s a problem, but it’s not a big problem; I see a lot of progress that’s happening in our parish.”

Elsewhere in the state, local leaders at the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness or GOHSEP, have reported that they are hard at work to prepare for what’s to come in 2022’s hurricane season and beyond. Specifically, GOHSEP has since revamped how they communicate with federal and state agencies “to clarify the responsibility and investments in sheltering, rescue, and response.”

Despite the multiple levels of preparedness going into effect across the state at various levels, one of the most effective methods of preparing for the next storm is to get an emergency kit ready on your own accord. Luckily, Louisiana’s Get a Game Plan organization has a collection of resources to not only stock your own emergency kit, but they have a guide to preparing yourself and your family for conceivably every possible scenario.

In his statement concerning the anniversaries of Hurricanes Ida, Katrina, and Laura, Governor John Bel Edwardsissued the following words to the citizens of Louisiana, “the road to recovery is never easy, and we still have much work ahead of us. But I am optimistic knowing that Louisiana is in a much stronger place than we were even a year ago. Homes, businesses and schools are being rebuilt. More of our citizens are employed than ever before. Our levee system has never been stronger. There is no challenge we can’t overcome by working together, and I am inspired by the people of this great state who continue to persevere.”

These words ring true, not only because they highlight how the state of Louisiana has bounced back in some ways after each storm, but because it sets the tone for yet another hurricane season as one that ushers in an air of preparedness, foresight, and community.

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A New Board is Hoping to Revitalize Downtown Houma

Recently, a new nine-member board created by the Terrebonne Parish Council has begun its mission to revive and revitalize downtown Houma, according to this article from Houmatoday.

 Created earlier this year by the Louisiana State Legislature as a result of a bill introduced by Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, this board has begun to appoint new members, such as Houma’s Kevin Champagne, in its effort to bring more shops, restaurants, and foot traffic to Houma’s potentially vibrant downtown scene. The board, which has yet to have all 9 of its members appointed for their 6-year terms, has a starting budget of about $1 million, and it holds the authority to purchase, repair, and sell property and buildings in downtown Houma in its efforts to inject life into its culture and economy. This board would also have authority within the Houma Restoration District, which is defined by the law as Main and Park avenues from Morgan Street to Grand Caillou Road.

Members of this board will each serve a six-year term without being paid, and these members will be appointed by the Terrebonne Parish Council, Terrebonne Parish President, state lawmakers representing the area, the Chamber of Commerce, the Houma Downtown Development Corporation, and the Houma Historic Preservation District.

In order for Houma’s downtown area to build back up to its full potential after suffering various degrees of detrimental loss from recent Hurricanes, members of the board will have to be determined, spirited, and supplied with an enthusiastic vision of what Main Street could look like in its full economic glory. Luckily, one such advocate for this future was recently appointed by the Terrebonne Parish Council to this cause after he volunteered. Kevin Champagneis the head of MacDonnell Children’s Services, an organization that provides shelter and an array of other programs for youths who come from troubled homes.

Champagne voiced his support for revitalizing downtown Houma by saying, “t​​he whole purpose of the board is for historic preservation and economic development, and those are two things that are important to me. I’m on the chamber, I’m part of the Rotary Club and just invested in the community. I grew up here and I want to make sure we leave something for my children and the community.” When asked what sparked his interest in volunteering to be a member of the downtown revitalization board, Champagne attributed the reason to his being a resident of Houma’s east side, and he wanted to ensure that his portion of the town was represented.

One potentially key milestone in the effort to reshape downtown Houma is the potential deal between the State of Louisiana and Terrebonne Parish to swap Main Street for another road, which would allow the present Main Street to no longer be plagued by heavy amounts of traffic, which according to business owners has dissuaded patrons and shoppers from the area.

The creator of House Bill 780, Rep. Tanner Magee, is an advocate for this approach since it redesigns the traffic and flow of downtown Houma, potentially setting the stage for a comeback. When speaking on this vision, Magee said, “I’m not slouching on what we currently have — I mean, Ida took a toll, but it probably wasn’t all that great before, so I think we need to get it going again. That’s kind of the dream here, to have a vibrant downtown with lots of buildings, lots of diversity, and kind of the people who work and live down here. The idea is to get all these [derelict properties] back into private hands and back into commerce, but if there’s something that’s being stuck, that this entity can buy it, maybe renovate it or even do some innovative ideas like some sort of business incubator.”

Another stakeholder in the future of downtown Houma is Parish Councilwoman Jessica Domangue, who is from Houma. Councilwoman Domangue expressed her excitement by saying, “for us as a government, Terrebonne Parishis so big and Main Street is one little piece of that, and so the focus of government cannot always be on Main Street. It’s going to bring a freshness, a new perspective because let’s be honest with ourselves, we’ve been trying to do the same thing over and over and over for many years and it just hasn’t worked.”

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Lake Charles TV Station Set to Rebuild Downtown

Nearly two years after being destroyed by a hurricane, KPLC is set to rebuild, according to this article. In the early morning hours of August 27, 2020, Hurricane Laura made landfall on the southwest shore of Louisiana. At Category 4 strength with sustained winds of 150 miles per hour, Laura was the strongest hurricane to hit that corner of the state since storm records began in 1851. As Laura’s eyewall passed over Lake Charles and its metropolitan area, the storm was still a devastating Category 4. The damage inflicted on homes and businesses was nearly incomprehensible.

One such hard-hit business was the KPLC news station. In a worst-case scenario event, the station’s 400 foot transmission tower snapped in half, causing the top portion to crash down into the station’s broadcast studio, which was housed below, knocking the news station off the air. Station staff had evacuated the studio a mere 12 hours before.

John Ware, KPLC-TV’s general manager, went out to inspect the damage to the station later that morning. “To see the tower sticking through the studio roof into the room that we would have been broadcasting from was absolutely sickening,” said Ware.

Despite the fact that their studio was in ruins, the station and its staff still found ways to get important and desperately sought after information to the people of the Lake Charles area. This included assistant news director and anchor Jillian Corder and a group of KPLC journalists reporting on the ground while their colleagues worked from the WAFBstation in Baton Rouge. Many residents view these journalists’ actions as heroic for never giving up and finding creative ways to show them what things looked like in their neighborhoods and for letting them know when it was safe to return home. “In a lot of stories, you attempt to relate to your subject matter, to your viewer, you try to deliver what you think is important to them,” Corder said. “In the moments after the storm, after Laura, you knew what was important to them — because you were going through it, too.”

The KPLC station has been housed downtown in Lake Charles for its entire 65 year history. A decision had to be made on whether to rebuild in the same location or to move the station elsewhere. Gray Television, KPLC’s parent company, along with KPLC, has spent the last two years creating a plan to move forward. They recently announced their decision to keep the station at its Division Street location. The multi-million dollar project will include expanded television production facilities, two new broadcasting studios, a larger parking lot, and a new building entrance with lots of glass and natural light. “We think it will be a great facelift for the area,” said Ware. “We worked with the city to make sure it reflects the architectural significance of the area.”

The biggest challenge for the rebuild will be the fact that the station will continue to broadcast from the location throughout construction. As a result, the construction will have to be done in phases. But keeping the station downtown is worth this inconvenience, according to mayor Nic Hunter. “We got to a point today where there was a group commitment to come back and reinvest in what has been a historic location and a very important anchor for downtown Lake Charles,” said Hunter. “KPLC has been a trusted source of news and updates in this community since 1954. It’s an important thing when new companies come into Lake Charles; it’s also an important thing when existing companies make the decision to reinvest and retain jobs in Lake Charles.”

Pat Williams Construction, a local company, is leading the project and construction is slated to begin in the first half of August. The building should be completed in about 18 months, weather permitting. “When something’s good for downtown Lake Charles, it’s good for the entire city of Lake Charles.” Mayor Hunter said. “This reinvestment not only affects KPLC, but the bigger picture is the spin-off benefits it has for the surrounding businesses and the surrounding communities.”

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New Orleans Levee System is Completed ahead of the 2022 Atlantic Hurricane Season

A celebration was recently held to commemorate the completion of the Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System, an expansive levee system consisting of gates and flood-walls that will defend the Greater New Orleans Area against severe storms, according to this feature by

Known colloquially as “the Great Wall of Louisiana,” the Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System (HSDRRS)’s completion was celebrated by Gov. John Bel Edwards, the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and various other state, local, and federal officials. The completion of the Greater New Orleans Hurricane System came just under two decades after Hurricane Katrinaprompted Congress to provide $14.5 billion to begin constructing a system that would provide the Greater New Orleans area with a protective system to help fend off future storm surges. That initial $14.5 investment allowed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to apply the latest data science and engineering practices in the design and construction processes.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards spoke of the project and the massive achievements of those involved in its completion by saying, “the HSDRRS is the largest civil works project in the Corps’ history and is the result of nearly two decades of hard work and collaboration at the local, state, and federal level. The people of New Orleans have experienced the worst Mother Nature has to offer, and with the completion of the system, they’ll be protected by the best of engineering, design, and hurricane protection.”

Now that the construction is completed, the federal government has formally turned over the completed system to Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority for purposes of operation and maintenance. Chip Kline, the chairman of Louisiana’s CPRA, called the system “one of the greatest engineering feats in the history of the world.” Kline went on to say, “this is a monumental day for Louisiana. In the past year, the state’s coastal program has made historic investments in restoration and hurricane protection across South Louisiana, and the turnover of the HSDRRSis yet another critical step in this effort. With its completion, nearly a million people and over $170 billion in assets are better protected.”

Because two New Orleans-area flood protection authorities will be taking over the maintenance and operations of the system upon its completion, both the East and West Louisiana Flood Protection Authority will fund the upkeep and operation of the levee system. This amounts to about $7.8 million for the west bank and $25 million for the east bank.

While forecasters are already predicting a particularly active hurricane season for the Gulf Coast, Louisiana State Officials are already determined to make it clear to residents that this levee system project will not eliminate all risk factors and that people should still make evacuation plans ahead of time. The Governor’s office reminded citizens that as the state and Greater New Orleans region enter into the 2022 Atlantic Hurricane Season, the HSDRRS should never be considered to be a “life safety system.”

Commander of the USACE New Orleans District Col. Stephen Murphy spoke of his confidence in the project’s final form by saying, “we know that eventually, we will face a surge greater than the 1-percent elevations so we designed the HSDRRS to be overtopped. With all of the armoring now in place, this system enters the 2022 Hurricane Seasonstronger than it has ever been.”

Due to the detrimental active Hurricane season of the past two years, not only is the completion of this “Great Wall of Louisiana” greatly appreciated, but it should be noted that it is only one component of an individual or the state’s overall hurricane preparedness plan. For the state of Louisiana, that means the local, state, and federal emergency response plans, which are coordinated and rehearsed throughout the year, are also an integral part of preparing for the storms to come.

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UL Lafayette Announced Project to Increase Oyster Resilience

It was recently announced that The University of Louisiana at Lafayette will be spearheading a $14 million research initiative over a three year period to develop a resilient oyster broodstock that will have the ability to live in environments with low salinity, according to a press release from the university and an article from The Acadiana Advocate. The project to create oyster resilience, which is being funded by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, is called LO-SPAT or “Leveraging Opportunities and Strategic Partnerships to Advance Tolerant Oysters for Restoration. It’s designed to help sustain populations of shellfish and at the same time support the seafood industry.

The project’s principal investigator Dr. Beth Stauffe, commented on the project’s objective by saying, “the objective is to examine low-salinity tolerant populations of oysters. We’re researching how low salinity – and other environmental stressors – factor in, and identifying heritable traits that make some oysters hardier than others.”

Outside of being LO-SPAT’s principal investigator, Dr. Stauffe is an associate professor in the Department of Biologyat UL Lafayette as well as a phytoplankton ecologist. Alongside Dr. Stauffe, the project will be worked on by other researchers from UL Lafayette, scientists from the LSU Agricultural Center, and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. The project’s partner from the private sector is the Mississippi-based oyster aquaculture company Spat-Tech.

One of the principal efforts the project team focused on was the collective examination of the entire oyster life cycle– from larvae to broodstock to juveniles- at which point they can be deployed into nurseries and restored reef sites. In order to observe the entire life cycle, the team of researchers must both pool together its multiple sources of expertise in oyster husbandry, molecular biology, coastal ecology, restoration ecology, environmental monitoring, economics, and organismal biology.

The process to begin the creation of better oyster resilience and sustainable breeding operations for the oysters starts with the collecting of wild oysters, introducing them to what’s known as stressors, and using molecular tools to determine which oysters prove capable in unfavorable conditions. The resilient oysters that will emerge from this project will be incredibly impactful due to the fact that Louisiana is one of the nation’s major oyster-producing states.

Despite their popularity, the recent years haven’t been kind to the Louisiana shellfish, as production has declined due to the increases seen in rainfall and flooding in the state and along the Gulf Coast in recent years. This has created massive ecological and economic consequences because the increase in rainwater has introduced high amounts of freshwater into reefs and oyster habitats, which is disrupting the amount of salt that they need to survive, grow, and reproduce, therefore decreasing our oyster resilience.

The secretary of the LO-SPAT project’s funding partner, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, is Jack Montoucet. Montoucet commented on the impact of the project by saying, “A comprehensive approach to addressing a state, regional and national problem, and we’re excited to play a role in that. Developing an oyster that can tolerate low salinity for an extended period of time – which we don’t have now – is important to maintaining the industry as we know it. And with all of the research capabilities that exist today, we should be able to do that.

In order for a coastal ecosystem to be considered healthy, a resilient supply of oysters are absolutely essential, as they both build reefs that provide a habitat for fish and other marine life and filter massive volumes of water. The Gulf of Mexico produces approximately 46% of the United States’s oysters with the regional oyster industry producing an annual value of $66 million. Therefore, LO-SPAT and other similar initiatives are ever-more vital to a healthy economy and sealife.

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