People on Pilings!

That is what we are.

Not out of desire, but out of necessity.

After years of writing about the Louisiana wetlands, speaking about them, taking people out to see them, advocating for them, and replanting them, I’ve finally reached the conclusion that the coast of Louisiana is not going to be restored to the 1950’s landscape necessary to give bayou people the natural barriers that previously protected us from storm surge and rising tides.

Today, coastal communities flood from south winds and high tides, which work together raising water levels not just in the bayou, but in the ditches along the highways and our front yards, and actually into our yards. This high water has nothing do with hurricane-driven storm surges, which is another category of flooding.

Another water factor we contend with on a near-local level, is the forced drainage from cities north of us.  On a much larger scale, coastal Louisiana is the watershed for about two thirds of the nation.  We are the spout at the end of that funnel.  We get all that water and everything that is in it.

Image property of CRCL

To bring it home and make it very personal to you, since you’ve chosen to return here to read more about bayou life time and again, my parish (Terrebonne, meaning “good earth”) doesn’t have a whole lot of good earth left, and sits smack dab in the middle of the most rapidly disappearing wetland IN THE WORLD.  The blue arrow indicates the approximate location of my home, which sits on a bayou that flows into the Gulf of Mexico, which is rapidly becoming our front yards.

If you would, take a moment to let all of this information soak into your brilliant brains.  Now look at the map and find your home.  Do you have a river near your home?  If so, chances are some of the sediment from your river will travel down this way via the Mighty Mississippi.  Ideally, it would end up replenishing this dying delta; but the ideal does not happen.  What happens is, the sediment that manages to make it this far downriver (through all the locks and dams) ends up off the continental shelf in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM).

Image property of NRCAN

At the right price, man could use this sediment to humanly restore coastal marshlands, which could then be planted for speedy establishment, or left to self-seed, which takes longer, naturally.  The point is, even though the sediment loads are much less than what they were before the Miss. was levied and dammed, the river is still dredged for navigation, and THAT sediment is then barged and dumped off the shelf.  At least that is my simplistic understanding.

Again, none of this sediment is being used to restore the wetlands that once protected us from high tides and/or storm surge; and while I say that to you, I forget that most of you probably do not understand the concept, so let me explain.

Let’s say I live 21 miles from the GOM (which I do).  For every 3 miles of healthy marsh, 1 foot of tidal surge is absorbed.  Or say it like this:  For every 3 miles of healthy marsh, a storm-driven wave is reduced by 1 foot.

Question:  If there were 21 miles of healthy marsh between my house and the GOM, what is the highest wave that would be absorbed before it reached my house?

Answer?  A 7-foot wave.

Next question:   My house is 21 miles from the GOM.  It sits 4 feet off the ground, and if there were 21 miles of healthy marsh between my house and the GOM, and a 9-foot storm surge came along, how many feet of water would there be under my house?

Answer?  2 feet of water

Next question:  If my house is 21 miles from the GOM, sits 4 feet off the ground, and 9-foot storm surge put 1 foot of water inside my house, what conclusion could you draw as to the existence of the marsh between my house and the GOM?

My home after hurricane storm surge waters receded.

The only conclusion you can make is that the healthy marsh does not exist any longer, and that we are now operating in a deficit.  Coastal Louisiana is literally sliding into the GOM.

With no immediate reassurance that major restoration will take place using dredged sediment materials, there is only one thing left for the bayou people and coastal residents to do:  ELEVATE OUR HOMES.

We are not opposed to doing so, but know this.  The cost to elevate an existing home is probably more than it cost our parents to build a home.  The price tag of elevating a brick home on a slab is more than it could cost to demolish and start over, in most cases.  Don’t believe me?  Some of my bayou neighbors just paid about $120,000 to have it done.  I’ve talked to other folks who have paid up to $160,000 for this service.  The magic number for elevating a 1000 sq. foot wood-frame house starts at $30,000 and goes up from there.

Before you let that critical thought and the question it evokes go from your brain to your lips, I must first ask you some thought-provoking questions.  Do you have family where you live?  Have you been there your whole life?  Maybe your family has a farm, so you’ve stayed to run the farm.  Maybe you are now running your parents’ business?  Maybe where you live there are geographically specific vocations?  Regardless of which of these applies to you, you LIKE where you live.  It is home, for whatever reason.  So please do not ask me why we stay or why we don’t just leave.  That is just uncaring and unthoughtful.

This is home.  Many of us have lived here for generations.  The family shrimping, crabbing, or oyster business has been passed down.   We can’t do what we do anywhere else in the country.  Just ask the fishermen at Chesapeake Bay if they want to share their fishing grounds with us.  Better yet, go on up to Maine and ask those lobster fishermen if we can get in on their action.  It just ain’t happening, folks.

Many of our bayou people aren’t educated.  I know in modern-day America it seems impossible that someone in their thirties can’t read.  But it’s true.  They can certainly do math, because they learned it working on the boat weighing, counting, multiplying price times pounds; calculating fuel in gallons per hour, etc.  Not having finished school or not earning a college degree does not make our lifestyle less significant than that of those who are more educated.  Would you agree with that?

And, uhum, don’t answer this with your mouth full; but how many of you love you some seafood?  Did I make my point?

So we stay.  We love our lives.  We love the bayou and the ever-encroaching Gulf of Mexico and her beguiling brine.  It’s becoming a love-hate relationship, I fear.

I’ve decided, until legal authorities advise me otherwise, that I am going to be very open with you all.  Through a combination of repetitive flooding, flood insurance claims, grant programs, giving people, a loving God, good friends, and sheer force of will (there’s that tenacity again), we are  rebuilding here on our three acres of Louisiana wetland about 12 above the flood plain.

Thus starts the ongoing series:  People on Pilings or How BW Rises Above the Adversity of living in a repetitive loss community with no hope in sight for restoration of much-needed natural marsh protection.

Anybody interested in knowing more in 2010?

On Cloud 9,

BW

Oh, and Happy New Year!

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Comments

People on Pilings! — 43 Comments

  1. This is a great post. I was first made aware of the situation by a friend who lives near Bayou Cane.
    I read “Rising Tide” as a result, and came to Louisiana for the first time partly to begin to learn about the situation.
    (The other part involved Breaux Bridge, Acadiana and all that, but social/cultural multi-tasking has a lot to commend it.)

    Your last photo looks like my area post-Ike. I’m on the edge of Galveston Bay. But as you note, a hurricane is one thing. This is another. I’ll be linking to this on another site after the first of the year, when I can get myself organized.

    In the meantime, a happy new year to you. And yes, I’m interested in knowing more.

    • Thank you for the kind words . . . means a lot coming from such a fine writer/blogger of your stature! Please do come back and send your friend from Bayou Cane . . . not far from here . . . her rains drain down to my bayou, you know! We are so connected by water here. And having survived Ike, you do know a thing or two about hurricanes and storm surge now. And thank you for the link. BW

  2. This article was so beautifully written it brought tears to my eyes.
    Hubby and I live exactly three quarters of a mile from the banks of the Mississippi River just north of Baton Rouge, with only the dirt levee half a mile away separating our mobile home from it’s waters. Many times we’ve fished off it’s banks, watching everything you could imagine heading your way. It’s our home, and to actually leave the area would be the hardest thing we could imagine. We’ve watched part of our land gradually sinking over the last thirty-five years. Many people hear this and look at us like we are a bit strange, but we’ve seen it happening. River seepage is a constant problem that is pulling our earth away with it when it subsides.
    At this time they are currently installing what I would call ‘overflow wells’ beneath that levee to possibly avoid a break there. This will throw excess water under the blacktop highway (via culverts) that skirts this levee, sending it into the ditches along the roadway and into the farmers’ fields and possibly causing even more problems in my opinion.
    I will be forwarding this blog post to many of my friends and family, most of them who’ve moved out of state. They love their lives of living in other states, yet when we speak to one another it’s always said ‘when we can get home’. Home to Louisiana…I, as well as they, totally understand your point.

    • Thanks for sharing your Miss. River experiences, Pamela! We’re all in the “same boat”, or we will be if we don’t get elevated. And thanks for sharing this post with others. BW

  3. BW, VERY well written! I only wish more people were aware of AND CARED about the erosion problems our state faces. Keep up the good work.
    P.S. I’m glad to see Termite got that Erector Set and used it with the giant Lincoln Logs. Happy New Year everyone!

  4. Thank you for posting this passionate summary of where we are on this last night of December 2009.

    We are the coastal residents in 19 parishes who lost lost family, friends, businesses, homes and all the long-range projects we had lined up for the future on August 26, 2005.

    Katrina-Rita are the book ends for everything in our past and everthing in our future. August 29, 2005. September 23-24 October 2005.

    Katrina-Rita did bring national attention to the coastal crisis in Louisiana.

    Later tonight I will be writing about some Katrina-Rita miracles.

    When the Europeans settled across the Louisiana coast, they only flooded once. Then they elevated. Louisiana plantations use the first floor for storing lawn equipment or grilling food for out door fun with the family. We need to look at how they lived in the 1800s without electricity.

    They had the money to elevate their homes.

    We will find a way to elevate our communities.

    Nicholls State is my university. Unless the people below the Intracoastal are protected, it will be time to conduct last Rites for Thibodaux.

    Channel 22 on Comcast has been repeating the December Coastal Zone Management Meeting.

    Everyone needs to watch this meeting. There are citizens who are going to fight to save and restore….not back to the 1950s. Maybe not even back to Betsy but at least back to Hurricane Juan in 1985.

    We must all come together and merge our voices, our efforts, our hopes and dreams in 2010.

    We must beleive in tommorrow, beginning tonight!

    Wishing every one who reads BW a blessed New Year.

    BTW- the beneficial use of every ounce of dredged sediment is currently being addressed by Governor Jindal with the White House as well as both houses of Congress.

    Pipelines are being built in three parishes. I will be more specific later.

    • Thanks for contributing, Lillian. You make a good point that I considered adding while editing: That we did not “settle” in a flood zone . . . this area had natural barriers and protection. Camp Dularge aka Cypress Cottage is 80 years old and flooded for the first time during Hurricane Rita in 2005. BW

  5. I shall link this post in my journals, to help spread the word.

    I’m 15 ft. above sea level in Slidell, yet Katrina’s surge brought Bayou Liberty six inches under my house (which is five cement blocks up.). Yet developers continue building, which means hundreds of trees (water storage units) keep disappearing year after year.

    • Thanks Sue! I do appreciate the sharing of our story. I’m sure those six inches were quite disconcerting! Once the floor gets wet, you might as well have six feet, seriously. BW

  6. This was a very informative post. This subject has been near and dear to my heart. As a result, I met you Wendy. I no longer live in beautiful southern Louisiana. I miss it! Many of my favorite areas in the state are changing greatly. I’m sorry I didn’t get to see LA in its glory. I will and have pass this blog along to others. Your message is very important!

    • All . . . Kim and I met at a four-day paddle trip called Paddle Bayou Lafourche designed to bring awareness to the plight of coastal Louisiana. Hers is a friendship I have treasured from a distance for about five years now.

      Kim, thanks for passing the blog along. I hope it will be a fountain of information while many of us (including Lillian) are working on “storm resistant elevated housing plans” for coastal residents.

  7. It’s wonderful your readers are sending your posts to others. There is no better voice than yours to state our case for the wetlands and coasts. Unless someone from around the country knows someone from here I don’t think they have a clue that our area is so vital to the rest of the country.

    I’m heartened to see the pilings going up Cuz. Keep your eyes peeled and camera in hand during the entire process but you already know that.

    Here’s praying the new year will be gentle and kind to you.

  8. Thanks for your article. A lot of people in other parts of the country are not aware how bad the flooding can really be down there. Those pictures were very eye-opening. We have flooding from time to time around the Chesapeake Bay, but not to that extent. It’s also hard to leave an area where you’ve lived your entire life. As you said, a lot of us work in geographically-specific industries. I sure do. And that’s all we know. Because of that, some of us have to live where we do. Hence, it’s not always reasonable to say, “Just get up and leave!”

    Thank You

    • I’m SO GLAD someone from Chesapeake came by to visit. So glad your “google alerter” worked and landed you here. And a fishing captain at that? Did you know I do that, too? And what is your answer to our question of whether or not your fishing grounds can accommodate us? Both commercial and sport fishing? Thanks again for spreading this around, if you would. BW

  9. The journey has begun….people on pilings. Anyone who has spent the night at Camp Dularge knows how majestic it feels looking across the bayou toward Lake Decade with the sun falling down in the western sky.

    On New Years Eve a blue moon lit up the bonfire on the bayou we built on Bayou Black.

    Alligator Lane. Fifty years ago it was simply a snake and reptile farm and the bayous looked like thick jungles.

    Last August I began to comprehend that restoring wetlands and barrier islands would not save Terrebonne unless the people who live along these bayous stop the urban concrete sprawl.

    I now am convinced that by elevating homes on pilings it may be possible for us to live without killing the marsh and swamps we still have.

    Only by respecting and honoring God’s gift of land and water, can we keep the remaining in this place we know as the Good Earth. Our Native American ancestors understood the intrinstic value of the estuaries, the birds and trees, the water we drink, the land that provides crops.

    Before electricty lit up the night skies of towns and cities, people knew how to navigate by the moon and stars. This is a skill our sons and daughters need to learn.

    It will not be easy but by merging our voices and efforts, one home at a time, we can build proper foundations under our dream homes.

    • Eloquent as always, Lillian.

      Folks? It was the oilfield, a book, and a writer’s conference that brought Lillian and me together about five years ago. Last year, when I told her that the one thing we could do as a state is advocate for government funding to help elevate those who could not afford flood insurance and as a result would not qualify for the associated elevation program dollars, her response was disbelief that I would give up on coastal restoration. I have not given up on restoration . . . but it is a slow boat to China, and when the storm surges come, they come like steam freighters on jet fuel. The Army Corp has no control over what we do with our buildings. That IS the one thing we can control. And that is what I would like to see these housing organizations submitting for consideration. No more arguments about levees–leaky or not–because we don’t have time to argue while we sit exactly like sitting ducks about to be washed away by the next hurricane storm surge over seven feet. Now, can I get another Amen?

  10. I remember watching the news for hours on end when the flood waters rose in 2005. I watched and cried and thanked God that my family was close by and safe. When the tears subsided I resolved to do “something”, anything to help. I have made 9 trips since and love it more every time I go. I wish I could do more. I spread the message whenever possible so keep the words flowing and I will continue to send them out.

  11. While we dont have any bayou flooding up here in my little corner of Oklahoma we do have a river that gets nasty ever 50 years or so and takes homes with it downriver. My best friend lost everything in such a flood 8 weeks after an F5 tornado came through and damaged the area. Mother nature is a force to be reckoned with and all we can do is hope for the best. I completely understand your desire to stay. I’m never sure how to respond to people who say, well just pick up and move. Where do they expect you to move? Alaska with the snow, California with earthquakes, Oklahoma with tornadoes, everywhere has its drawbacks. So while I sit here in the snow and ice praying for a tornado and warmer weather I look forward to seeing how this all turns out! Thanks for taking me along on the journey.

    • Honey, I thought the holidays had eaten you alive! I haven’t been on FB since before Christmas, so I haven’t seen you around much! I’m so glad you made your way back down the bayou. Flooding is terrible no matter how or where it happens. Moving water is definitely a strong force to be reckoned with. Happy New Year, Tara!

  12. I’m so glad I came back and read the comments added after mine.

    There is a directness and simplicity to them which is deeply appealing. These are the voices of people who have been raised on the bayous or come to love them, and who live in relationship with them. Love is the best advocate in the world, and this may be the year that I add my voice to the chorus.

    • I, for one, would greatly welcome a voice from elsewhere, because our voices seem to only bounce back at us from the walls of the unhearing. And I very much look forward to your gracing us with your well-written presence. Welcome, again.

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