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.