Report from Louisiana: Our Vanishing Coast

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Report from Louisiana: Our Vanishing Coast

By: Pat Austin

SHREVE­PORT – In a rare part­ner­ship and an attempt to revi­tal­ize “local jour­nal­ism,” the New York Times and NOLA/​The Times Picayune have part­nered to pro­duce a series of excel­lent arti­cles on the van­ish­ing Louisiana coast­line. This is a sub­ject near and dear to my heart; here in Louisiana we have been talk­ing about the frag­ile coast­line for decades and most of the time it seems that solu­tions are sim­ply hopeless.

When talk­ing about Louisiana’s endan­gered coast­line, the issue quickly becomes so polit­i­cally charged it is dif­fi­cult to get to the straight facts and to make progress. Through the years we have blamed both big oil, farm­ing, civ­i­liza­tion, hur­ri­canes, and global warm­ing. The finger-​pointing right now seems to be the ris­ing sea lev­els due to glacial melting.

What­ever the cause, the fact is that the coast­line is van­ish­ing so fast that we may not be able to save it.

The coast­line is “…like dis­in­te­grat­ing lace…”

That’s how the series authors describe what’s left of the land and marsh that make up Louisiana’s south­ern parishes.

In this series we are intro­duced to var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties and peo­ple in south Louisiana who are watch­ing not only their land but also their homes, their cul­ture and their way of life disappear.

It’s heart­break­ing and it doesn’t appear there are any clear answers. No amount of money thrown at this prob­lem will be able to solve it.

The authors point fin­gers at a num­ber of cul­prits: ris­ing sea lev­els due to cli­mate change, a series of destruc­tive storms, oil com­pa­nies who built and widened canals but never repaired them when they left, the con­struc­tion of lev­ees to con­trol the Mis­sis­sippi which stopped nat­ural land for­ma­tion from spring floods, and even plagues of insects and rodents who destroy vegetation.

This arti­cle about the com­mu­nity of Jean Lafitte, located just south of New Orleans, chron­i­cles the efforts of the long time mayor, Timmy Kerner, who has adopted the strat­egy of improv­ing his com­mu­nity to the point that it would be more eco­nom­i­cally fea­si­ble to save it from ero­sion than to let it go:

His strat­egy was to secure so much pub­lic invest­ment for Jean Lafitte that it would even­tu­ally become too valu­able to aban­don. In a decade, he had built a 1,300-seat audi­to­rium, a library, a wet­lands museum, a civic cen­ter and a base­ball park. Jean Lafitte did not have a stop­light, but it had a senior cen­ter, a med­ical clinic, an art gallery, a box­ing club, a nature trail and a vis­i­tor cen­ter where ani­ma­tronic pup­pets acted out the story of its pri­va­teer namesake.

Some of the facil­i­ties had been used spar­ingly, and many at the grand open­ing ques­tioned whether the seafood pavil­ion would be much dif­fer­ent. To the mayor that was largely beside the point. What mat­tered was that the struc­ture existed, that its poured con­crete and steel beams made Lafitte that much more per­ma­nent. “Do we lose that invest­ment, or do we pro­tect it?” Kerner asked…

The authors, Kevin Sack and John Schwartz, point out that a fourth of our wet­lands are already gone and in fifty years 2,000 square miles could also go. In human terms:

The Gulf Restora­tion Net­work, a non­profit con­ser­va­tion group, cal­cu­lates that there are 358,000 peo­ple and 116,000 houses in Louisiana cen­sus tracts that would be swamped in the surge of a cat­a­strophic hur­ri­cane by 2062. The Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey pre­dicts that in 200 years the state’s wet­lands could be gone altogether.

As Sack and Schwartz report it, the com­mu­nity of Jean Lafitte and every­thing else south of that New Orleans levee has basi­cally been aban­doned to the ele­ments, “left to the tides,” with the Corps of Engi­neers advo­cat­ing relo­ca­tion of the peo­ple. But that’s not to say that nobody is try­ing to solve the prob­lem. There are lots of com­mit­tees, levee boards, ecol­o­gists, politi­cians, envi­ron­men­tal­ists, and other experts work­ing to find and agree on solu­tions. And then there is the ever present prob­lem of funding.

There are so many fac­tors at play in this issue.

After you read about the com­mu­nity of Jean Lafitte, be sure you read this arti­cle about the Leeville com­mu­nity on Bayou Lafourche and the ceme­ter­ies that are wash­ing out to sea. It’s heartbreaking:

As Tal­bot explores the shore line, he finds a stone beneath the water, Thurs­day, August 24, 2017, and traces his fin­gers deeper into the mud for an inscrip­tion. “There’s def­i­nitely some­thing here,” he says. After sev­eral seri­ous tugs the stone piv­ots enough to break the sur­face, then fully erect, cov­ered in a thick, brown sludge. Water streaks paths down the face of the stone. A moment of awe envelopes him. Tal­bot splashes hand­fuls of bayou water against the stone and slowly his­tory is res­ur­rected. “FRAN­COIS GUIL­BEAU — Decedee 24 Jan­vier 1901 — age de 99 ans.” Over time, the Lefort Ceme­tery in Leeville, Louisiana has born the brunt of the worst that man and nature can bestow upon a coastal environment.

While there are plenty of prob­lems in Louisiana and we’ve long been known for our noto­ri­ous politi­cians and var­i­ous aspects of cor­rup­tion, (and tell me where, please, will you NOT find that?) this is one issue on which we should all be united. Whether you believe in global warm­ing or cli­mate change or not, whether you believe this land loss is due to greedy oil com­pa­nies and their neg­li­gence, or whether you believe it’s just a nat­ural course of events, this just can’t be allowed to happen.

There are few places more beau­ti­ful in my mind than south Louisiana. The swamps, the bay­ous, the peo­ple and their way of life, is unlike any­where else. It is unique.

There has got to be a way to restore and pre­serve our coast­line and our state.

The pho­tog­ra­phy and the writ­ing in this series is top notch and should be required read­ing. If you have a good source or rec­om­men­da­tion for fur­ther read­ing on this, please share with me in the comments!

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreve­port. Fol­low her on Insta­gram at patbecker25.

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – In a rare partnership and an attempt to revitalize “local journalism,” the New York Times and NOLA/The Times Picayune have partnered to produce a series of excellent articles on the vanishing Louisiana coastline.  This is a subject near and dear to my heart; here in Louisiana we have been talking about the fragile coastline for decades and most of the time it seems that solutions are simply hopeless.

When talking about Louisiana’s endangered coastline, the issue quickly becomes so politically charged it is difficult to get to the straight facts and to make progress.  Through the years we have blamed both big oil, farming, civilization, hurricanes, and global warming.  The finger-pointing right now seems to be the rising sea levels due to glacial melting.

Whatever the cause, the fact is that the coastline is vanishing so fast that we may not be able to save it.

The coastline is “…like disintegrating lace…”

That’s how the series authors describe what’s left of the land and marsh that make up Louisiana’s southern parishes.

In this series we are introduced to various communities and people in south Louisiana who are watching not only their land but also their homes, their culture and their way of life disappear.

It’s heartbreaking and it doesn’t appear there are any clear answers.  No amount of money thrown at this problem will be able to solve it.

The authors point fingers at a number of culprits: rising sea levels due to climate change, a series of destructive storms, oil companies who built and widened canals but never repaired them when they left, the construction of levees to control the Mississippi which stopped natural land formation from spring floods, and even plagues of insects and rodents who destroy vegetation.

This article about the community of Jean Lafitte, located just south of New Orleans, chronicles the efforts of the long time mayor, Timmy Kerner, who has adopted the strategy of improving his community to the point that it would be more economically feasible to save it from erosion than to let it go:

His strategy was to secure so much public investment for Jean Lafitte that it would eventually become too valuable to abandon. In a decade, he had built a 1,300-seat auditorium, a library, a wetlands museum, a civic center and a baseball park. Jean Lafitte did not have a stoplight, but it had a senior center, a medical clinic, an art gallery, a boxing club, a nature trail and a visitor center where animatronic puppets acted out the story of its privateer namesake.

Some of the facilities had been used sparingly, and many at the grand opening questioned whether the seafood pavilion would be much different. To the mayor that was largely beside the point. What mattered was that the structure existed, that its poured concrete and steel beams made Lafitte that much more permanent. “Do we lose that investment, or do we protect it?” Kerner asked…

The authors, Kevin Sack and John Schwartz, point out that a fourth of our wetlands are already gone and in fifty years 2,000 square miles could also go.  In human terms:

The Gulf Restoration Network, a nonprofit conservation group, calculates that there are 358,000 people and 116,000 houses in Louisiana census tracts that would be swamped in the surge of a catastrophic hurricane by 2062. The Geological Survey predicts that in 200 years the state’s wetlands could be gone altogether.

As Sack and Schwartz report it, the community of Jean Lafitte and everything else south of that New Orleans levee has basically been abandoned to the elements, “left to the tides,”  with the Corps of Engineers advocating relocation of the people.  But that’s not to say that nobody is trying to solve the problem. There are lots of committees, levee boards, ecologists, politicians, environmentalists, and other experts working to find and agree on solutions.  And then there is the ever present problem of funding.

There are so many factors at play in this issue.

After you read about the community of Jean Lafitte, be sure you read this article about the Leeville community on Bayou Lafourche and the cemeteries that are washing out to sea.  It’s heartbreaking:

As Talbot explores the shore line, he finds a stone beneath the water, Thursday, August 24, 2017, and traces his fingers deeper into the mud for an inscription. “There’s definitely something here,” he says. After several serious tugs the stone pivots enough to break the surface, then fully erect, covered in a thick, brown sludge. Water streaks paths down the face of the stone. A moment of awe envelopes him. Talbot splashes handfuls of bayou water against the stone and slowly history is resurrected. “FRANCOIS GUILBEAU – Decedee 24 Janvier 1901 – age de 99 ans.” Over time, the Lefort Cemetery in Leeville, Louisiana has born the brunt of the worst that man and nature can bestow upon a coastal environment.

While there are plenty of problems in Louisiana and we’ve long been known for our notorious politicians and various aspects of corruption, (and tell me where, please, will you NOT find that?) this is one issue on which we should all be united.  Whether you believe in global warming or climate change or not, whether you believe this land loss is due to greedy oil companies and their negligence, or whether you believe it’s just a natural course of events, this just can’t be allowed to happen.

There are few places more beautiful in my mind than south Louisiana. The swamps, the bayous, the people and their way of life, is unlike anywhere else.  It is unique.

There has got to be a way to restore and preserve our coastline and our state.

The photography and the writing in this series is top notch and should be required reading. If you have a good source or recommendation for further reading on this, please share with me in the comments!

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport.  Follow her on Instagram at patbecker25.