DAVANT, Louisiana, July 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Like most 17-year-olds, Allen Williams has lots of plans. High on his list is figuring out how to cope with the rising water eating away the land where he lives on the Louisiana coast.
"One night, we might be sleeping and the water come in and we don't know, and we stuck and we trapped down here," he said at a recent meeting seeking input from local residents on ways to adapt to the changing lowland environment.
"So having a plan - we can have a plan to get out before we stuck here," Williams told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The meeting was one in a series staged by LA SAFE (Louisiana's Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments), a federally funded project to design ways of making vulnerable coastal communities more resilient to climate change and other threats.
Williams lives on the east bank of Plaquemines Parish, a sparsely populated county mostly surrounded by water - the Mississippi River on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other.
The grassy river delta is dotted with houses elevated - some awkwardly, some gracefully - on cinder-block columns.
Much of the landscape is wetlands, accessible only by boat, that once were naturally rebuilt by the sediment-filled Mississippi but are now rapidly disappearing.
Lined by levees designed to limit flooding, the river is funneled to the Gulf rather than depositing sediment and replenishing the wetlands along its way.
The shrinking wetlands are letting salt water intrude into the fresh water, dramatically affecting seafood harvests, while sea level rise in the Gulf is submerging land as well.
Even in the face of such pressures, Williams and his friends say they would like to live their adult lives on the quiet peninsula, but worry it could be abandoned.
The east bank of Plaquemines Parish has lost nearly 40 percent of its population since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when levees failed and it was submerged by a storm surge of more than 20 feet (6 m) of water.
Businesses did not return after the disaster, and the declining economy, combined with land loss and flood risks, has made it hard to attract and sustain jobs, according to LA SAFE.
Williams said there were just four other students in his school grade this year.
A lone store sells groceries in the town of Pointe à la Hache, with a population of 188 according to the last census, and the nearest gas station is nearly 30 miles (48 km) north.
The closest sizable town, with doctors and dentists, is a drive of almost 40 miles and a ferry ride across the Mississippi.
"To keep it from being a ghost town, it's about putting more businesses down here," said Julius Tarrence, also 17. He wants to go away to college but return to east Plaquemines as a high-school math teacher.
Williams said he sees himself going to college in New Orleans, nearly 50 miles up river, joining the U.S. Navy, and returning to open a garage to repair boats.
"A lot of people down here, they have messed-up boats," he explained.
Participating in projects such as LA SAFE can help the younger generation stay in Plaquemines, Williams said.
"If we get more people to get involved, if they see us leaving, doing something, coming back, giving back to the community, they'd probably want to do it," he said.
Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, editing by Megan Rowling.
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