This one’s going to be raw and unpolished. What’s new, you might ask.
As we pack up to leave southern Louisiana, my mind is full. It’s a complex region full of complex challenges. But like most things, these are not Louisiana’s problems. They belong to all of us.
What follows is less journalism than it is reflection. It’s a Cliff Notes version of the science, history and sociology of the area, and for an outsider, I feel reasonably confident I am on track. But it is the briefest of introductions and each of the stories I’ll post in the coming weeks will round out the knowledge with local expertise and wisdom.
The watery land south of New Orleans was originally inhabited by several indigenous tribes who were joined by others when they fled the forced relocation during the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, leading to a diverse mix of cultures today, including Houma, Choctaw, Chitimacha, Biloxi and several other tribes.
Most tribes lived lightly on the land, and as storms and floods reshaped the delta and the bayous, they could relocate and adapt to the shifting landscape. That resilience and flexibility was limited with the introduction of colonial and western notions of land ownership. Parcels were sold, owned and fixed on the register. As individuals developed that land, they also wanted to protect it.
So when the big Mississippi River flood of 1927 rolled through and left massive destruction of personal property in its wake, folks said, “Never again!” and a system of levies and flood gates were developed to tame the river.
It worked. The regular cycles of flooding ended and along with it, the natural rhythms of the river. However, the floods had also brought nourishing silt. The floods wiped out land in some places but built it up in others.
About that time, oil was discovered in the Gulf and the technology quickly developed to extract it with off-shore platforms. In the process 10,000 miles of pipeline canals and shipping channels were dug through the marshlands and estuaries that had historically served as a buffer to the biggest storms and absorbed some of the fury before they reached the mainland.
That, it turns out, was a mistake. And it has led to one of the largest environmental disasters of our history. The new channels let in the saltwater from the Gulf and that saltwater intrusion killed off the native vegetation. The plants died, the roots let go of the fragile soil, and the next time a storm came ashore, the land simply washed away.
We doubled down on engineering. More levies, more floodgates. The buildings that couldn’t be walled in were raised up on stilts. But the simple truth remains…the land is sinking, much of it below sea level. The storms are getting bigger. The floods are more punishing. A new disaster hits before recovery from the previous one is complete.
One tribal chief I interviewed has resorted to telling his people to leave. Just get out, because this is a losing battle.
But with the loss of home comes the loss of culture. The loss of connection. Some members, he said, were afraid if they left their lands that rich folks would come build expensive fishing camps and only then get the protection of levies. It’s a fear that is rooted in experience.
A parish councilman said he was trying to do more to save his community with fewer resources. Just over a decade ago, oil drilling royalties delivered $50 million a year to his parish (the Louisiana equivalent of a county) and last year those royalties were closer to $4 million. The drilling has moved farther off shore on federal land and those royalties don’t flow directly to the local governments.
The floodgates can be closed when a hurricane or even a storm surge from high winds approaches to protect communities. But when the floodgates are closed, the fleets of fishing boats can’t come and go. Last year, some of the floodgates were closed 100 days. It saved homes but hurts the local fishing industry.
There are plans to divert some river flow to again deliver silt and help reduce some of the land loss. But for generations now, shrimpers and oyster fishers have been relying on the brackish waters of the altered landscape. Pump in more fresh water to restore some natural cycles and you may restore the land but you may also push those fishers another 100 miles off shore to get their catch. That turns into extra time and extra money for gas in an industry that often lives a tenuous existence as it is.
There are culture camps to try to preserve traditional ways. There are discussions about how to help people stay. And even as some people leave, others are still arriving. Immigrants from Vietnam, Honduras and other coastal regions that find something familiar in the landscape.
Plans are in place to rebuild barrier islands. Install locks with the floodgates that would allow fishing boats to pass even when the gates are closed. Grants for more fuel efficient boat engines to offset the movement of fishing waters farther off shore. Talk of building schools on floating barges that can be pushed up the bayou when storms threaten. Raise more structures on stilts.
As one person put it, “We are the first of the climate refugees.”
“I’ve been an exile before,” one man told me. “I headed north after Katrina and I found about a week of grace and compassion. After that, I was just another person in line at the gas station and another person in front of you at the grocery store.”
These weren’t his exact words, but his meaning was clear. This is a problem for all of us. We’re going to have to figure this out, or y’all are going to have to make room for us as we come live in your back yard.