Coastal Restoration: Beating a Dead Horse?

My Shrimp Boots

When writing a blog, if you make good use of available search-engine tools, web surfers from around the world will find you just by typing in a few key words.  In a time of crisis in coastal Louisiana, aka bayou country, a blog called “Bayou Woman: Life in the Louisiana Wetland” can quickly become a target for journalists looking for an inroads.

In the spring of 2010, my email box was inundated with writers looking for the softer side of the story of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and following oil spill disaster.  These seekers of a different angle flocked to Bayou DuLarge to interview my shrimping neighbors.  As a wetland advocate, I wondered how I could use this man-made disaster as a platform to further the cause of education and awareness.

It became clear to me early on that most of the journalists who arrived at my door really had no clue about our culture and way of life.  So, if they wanted a story about how the oil spill had impacted us, then they must humor me and allow me to educate them about this vanishing ecosystem and its people.

What these well-meaning journalists needed first was a foundational perspective from the standpoint of a population of coastal communities who were suffering yet one more blow to their way of life.  As a woman who lives, works, and fishes here, I could give them that perspective, which was simply this:

This oil spill was not an isolated disaster for the people of coastal Louisiana.  It was like being kicked when we were already down.  And here’s why.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and folks across the country are tired of hearing about it.  However, what the media did not focus on was the second hurricane that came about a month later–Hurricane Rita– that seriously flooded coastal communities to the west of New Orleans, causing substantial destruction of homes and businesses (mine included).

My Front Porch after Hurricane Rita Floodwater

After the flood waters receded, I sat on my porch, begging for a breeze—the only sound was the steady humming of the generator powering box fans I had placed in one room at a time in an attempt to dry out the floors.  I was both amazed and appalled as a sport fisherman blew past my house, headed down to launch his boat and go fishing.  I remember thinking I wished that was all I had to do.

I couldn’t blame him, though, because any angler worth his salt knows that the coastal waters are rich with nutrients after a hurricane storm surge.  As the flood waters recede, they carry a phytoplankton feast for estuary inhabitants and fishing is fantastic.

Hurricane Gustave Wind Damage to Camp Dularge

The red tape of hurricane disaster recovery made a tedious process even more difficult.  So much so that when two more hurricanes struck in 2008, many of us were still not settled in our homes. Hurricane Gustav struck Grand Isle first, then a month later, Hurricane Ike made landfall at Galveston, Texas pushing storm surges that once again flooded communities across the coast of Louisiana just after the paint had dried.

Mucking out the mud at Camp Dularge

With Ike, though, the flood waters moved further inland than Hurricane Rita, due to the tremendous loss of coastline caused by the 2005 storms.  Hurricanes Katrina and Rita combined caused about 217 square miles of wetland loss in 2005.  Hurricanes Gustave and Ike caused about 250 square miles of coastal land loss—losses we could not afford.

At this point, you should be reminded why the marshlands between our homes and the Gulf are so significant.  For every 2.7 miles of healthy marsh, storm surge is reduced by one foot as it passes over that marsh, providing a natural barrier.  Just let that soak in for a while. In reality, there is very little healthy marsh left to provide the natural protection.  That is why coastal restoration is so vital to our existence here.

Gulf of Mexico oil

Fast forward to April 20, 2010—when natural gas from the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico came rushing up through cracks in the casing and KABOOM! Oil Hell broke loose from the depths of the earth.  Crude oil leaked out by the millions of barrels–at a time when many of the coastal dwellers had still not recovered mentally, emotionally, and financially from all the past hurricane damage. An already-crippled coast is now being inundated with oil.

And here’s that perspective again that I drove home to those journalists:  This oil spill could not be treated as an isolated incident.  It had to be seen as strike three in a ballgame of disasters: 2005 hurricanes, 2008 hurricanes, and now the 2010 oil spill.

It was the largest man-made catastrophe in the history of drilling, and it was messing with our livelihoods.  Shrimpers on every bayou had been getting their boats ready for the “May season”, the first shrimp haul of the season. But as the oil spread from the well, the Gulf of Mexico waters were closed to all fishing activity.  No one was allowed to fish—commercially or for sport.  No shrimp season.

What those journalists needed to know before I took them to interview my neighbors was that ordinarily, these are very tenacious people for the simple reason that they stay, storm after storm and continue to make their living off the water and wetland. And they do it because their families have been commercial fishermen for generations.  But not just the commercial fishermen were affected this time.

Sport fishing tournaments (called rodeos) were canceled.  My businesses suffered great losses due to the water closures.  Sport fishermen complained just as loudly about the fact that they couldn’t fish as the commercial fishermen did.

Now we were all in the same proverbial boat.

I believe the writers got more than they came for.  One of them was brought to tears by stories told by strong men with hands like leather who did not know how they would pay their bills. But it was important to me that their readers know that we aren’t a bunch of whining sissies down here.  With flood waters, we don our boots, grab a mop and get after it, but the oil spill was a disaster we didn’t know how to handle.  Tenacious people don’t do helpless very well.

The visiting journalists wrote articles for newspaper, magazines, and e-zines.  A couple of groups got video footage for documentaries. One man wrote a book, a copy of which arrived in my mailbox on the one-year anniversary of the infamous explosion.

The 2011 May shrimp season is quickly approaching–the first since the spill.  We’re holding our collective breath to see whether or not the larval shrimp were negatively affected by the oil and the dispersant that was used to sink the oil.

While the shrimpers hold their breath, sport fishermen are reporting record catches, with trout bigger than they’ve ever seen this time of year.  They’re also reporting a serious lack of school trout being caught. Because of the oil?  Because of the dispersant?  Who knows.

Louisiana, it seems, through all the canal-digging, inland drilling, turning our heads away, and not biting the (oily) hand that feeds, has ignored her own wounds for far too long.  She has allowed others–outsiders and insiders–to take and take and not give back.  She has let us use her and abuse her, continually giving generously from her inland and offshore bounties.

From the title, I guess you expected this story to be about coastal restoration; but after banging the gong for so long about the dire need for and the importance of restoring the coast of Louisiana to a 1950’s landscape, this oil spill has made me wonder if I’ve just been beating a dead horse all along.

I’m not so sure coastal restoration would change any of that, but I can’t give up.  So I leave you with food for thought.  What would it take for ALL users of the coastal zone to come together and advocate for restoration?  Has this ever been done?  Can it be done?

Ah, I hear the Wheels of Hope turning once again.

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  1. There is so much I could say, but I want to speak to the tenacity of the bayou people. That word is used a lot, but I got to experience what it means firsthand.

    I did a small part in helping Bayou Woman fix up Camp Dularge to get it ready to be rented. No sooner was it open for business, than Hurricanes Gustav and Ike struck. Gustav with winds and Ike with water.

    All of that hard work was gone in a flash. The cleanup, the doing again what we had just finished doing WAS A CHORE! It was depressing. It was exhausting. And it wasn’t even my house, and I was only doing it for the first time!

    Tenacity, tears, depression, less or no income – all the while trying to carry on everday life – repeatedly. Many people would just give up. The bayou people can’t. It’s all they know and what they’ve done for generations.

    And we have all “profited” from the historically low gasoline prices, abundant seafood and fish, the wildlife, the vacation spots, the music, and those awesome accents.

    I don’t know what will become of the coast of Louisiana. But I do know we must try to preserve it. Or lose it.

  2. That is probably the most powerfully written, emotionally charged, brutally honest piece explaining the state of things in S. Louisiana that I’ve seen/heard.

    One thing that many folk miss is the fact that this is representative of a larger problem – it’s not the only place these disasters and destruction have struck and been allowed to go unchecked – but it is every symptom, every culture, every family, every loss of life and livelihood to those who wallow in greed and apathy! People are STILL afraid of what they don’t understand and they are more afraid of learning, to the point that if it’s not on their doorstep, they turn a blind eye and hope it goes away.
    It’s not going to go away. WE won’t let it go away, because if it does, we might as well all walk into the oil-stained sea and swallow until we burst.
    For the sake of our ancestors, our children and a world that dies with every foot of Bayou destroyed, we MUST work together to save this!

    The indigenous peoples of North America have a saying: “Only when the last tree has been cut down; Only when the last river has been poisoned; Only when the last fish has been caught; Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.”

    Don’t let that be our epithet.

  3. I wish I could write something as moving as the previous two comments. I can’t. Another excellent post. As a friend, I know you have been through a lot in the six or so years that we’ve known each other. I also know how passionate you are on this subject. You move us all.

    1. Well, as someone who has spent a lot of time in wetlands across the country, including ours, I know you are as passionate about this subject as I am. So, I already know how you feel. Life goes on, my friend.

  4. OMG!! New Poggie boots and its not even Christmas! They look unusually comfortable for poggie boots.

    Everyone knows the reds always get backed up after a hurricane. No electricity at work or home, so if ya got ice in the chest, why waste it at the house? Bologna sandwichs always taste better in a boat. And we all know that the Game wardens are way too busy with important things to mess with poor fishermen at the time.

    Katrina the pumps wouldn’t start and the levee broke in NO, but Rita was a nasty storm which reminded me of some of the storms of my youth.

    Now the spring planting and the rainwaters of the upper Ohio are headed this way with yet another dose of its high nitrates from the fertilizer. This years estimates of the “Dead zone” caused by the run-off waters are huge by previous forecasts.
    We make the waters poison and the only help that the coast gets is more damage. Man continues to believe in his own vanity that he can control nature and bend it to his will because he knows best.

    BW, do you remember all the beer and coke cans they used to fill with clean water and send down after a storm?

    1. Goldie, it’s hard for me to even think about the river waters that are rushing down as we speak . . . and how many years has the Morganza been closed? Well, it’s open now. The freshwater will also be a further setback for the oysters. It takes a minimum of three years to re-establish an oyster bed, so this wipes away the last six months while they were trying to reseed the beds. And no, I do not remember cans being filled with freshwater and sent down. Would you like to tell us a story? Please do.

      1. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, when a hurricane would hit Louisiana the beer brewers like Falstaff and Jax as well as Coco~Cola would replace their beverages in the cans with fresh clean water. It was how you were assured of clean drinking water in Venice, Dulac, Buras, Grand Isle, etc….

        It came in regular beer or coke cans so you couldn’t tell the difference between the real brews and the water unless someone managing it, would explain which was which. For years the cans were a great source of amusement with locals.”Hand Grandpa a can of beer”, and it would be water.

        Thats all there is, it was a hurricane thingie.

        I once listened to Dr.Green at Nichols (40 years ago), tell how we would probably see the end of edible gulf oysters in our lifetimes because they are one of the first indicators of the condition of our environment. I would have never believed it till I asked of the oysters served at a restaurant in Corpus and was informed they were flown in from Boston twice a week. That was 10 years ago.

        I love oysters and will hate to see that day come.

      2. Speaking of Morganza. I was there yesterdday and was hoping to paddle in the flooded area…..only it wasn’t flooded. So, we did some birding and saw some great birds. Then along comes a levee police telling us our lives were in danger and how we needed to leave immediately. I paddled the flooded spillway area about 5 or 6 years back. It had dozens and dozens of snakes hanging off every branch of every bush. I was hoping to witness that same snakedom again!

        1. One other thing – the river at St. Francisville is coming up a couple of feet every day. It’s already flooding homes down by the river. We hope to paddle Bayou Sara which is backing up from the river tomorrow.

    2. Foamheart, your next to last paragraph is the heart of the issue – the vanity of man. Bend a river to do man’s will and the land around it suffers; dig canals through all the healthy marsh to get the oil to market and not only the land, but the people also suffer. I’m sure there are more examples just in South LA.

      Man was made steward over everything, but we have used it and abused it to our ultimate detriment.

  5. Ditto on the Ditto! Keep up the good work you do. I understand you are facing an uphill battle against mother nature and the powers that be. AL

  6. It’s not that your beating a dead horse, it’s nobody is in the stables to hear it anymore. Very few people care about the land, the water, the way of life if it does not directly effect them, sadly sometimes even if it does. We teach our children to hunt and fish, not because they look good in camo but because it’s the way of my people: depend on yourself, let nature take care of you and you too will survive. However, when we as people play with that nature and spoil it for ourselves and generations to come, nobody can survive off of it. It just frustrates me to no end to see all of the struggles you and your neighbors have gone through but 2 years ago did I know about it? No, I had no idea until I stumbled across this site. It’s my prayer many others find their way here and do their part to help out.

    1. Great analogy, Tara! That means the people in the stable are just too close, right? Others farther away need to hear the sounds. Makes sense. Well, thank you for finding me and for continuing to come back. I hope when you come you will get a better idea of why we stay and you will be sucked in by the bayou and her people, too!

  7. What effects will the “excess” water coming down the MIssissippi have after it dumps itself into the Gulf?

    Will it be sufficiently diluted by the time it gets to your fishing grounds?

    (I’ve lived in the Slidell area most of my adult life–and was here for Betsy. One of these days I hope to go on one of your aquatic “outings.”)

    1. I would love for you to take an aquatic outing, Sue. The water, I fear, is going to increase the Dead Zone. Too many nutrients from fertilizer runoff dumped at the mouth of the Miss. at once increasing an already serious problem of algae blooms, decreased oxygen for the fish, and BOOM, dead fish floating. (note to self: good name for a book — Dead Fish Floating). Anyway, it’s not good for the oysterbeds either. And in nearby low lying areas with poor drainage, the Atchafalaya will flood them near Houma, seriously. They are already sand bagged and ready to evacuate.

      1. Other than lowering water levels on the Mississippi, the only positive thing I’ve heard comes from crawfishermen. They are expecting a bumper crop like they had in 1973 when the Morganza spillway was opened.

  8. Human race….we are our own worst enemy. Nature was created, perfect in every way….humans determined to destroy…all the while thinking we will survive… But disasters are more numerous… who will survive? What areas will survive? How long will we survive?
    Atleast you know in your heart, you love your land and doing all you can to preserve and protect. Do not give up!

  9. I’ve been deep into flood stuff for the past couple of days, working on a new post, and once I get that done I’ll come back and address your original issues.

    I must say – there’s not a whole lot I can add. There are a lot of great responses here. What I will say is that I’ve been doing some reading about the 1927 flood, and many of the same issues of willful blindness are cropping up again. It’s amazing to me how similar the attitudes of the Corps of Engineers was then, and is now.

    I just got a good look at the new inundation map for Louisiana. I see Dulac’s got a pretty purple – 0-6 ft. Depending, of course. I hope the boyz don’t let the river get out of hand – if they do, buy property over in Morgan City, quick! 😉

  10. I have been watching the news and reading your blog and it looks like LA is going to get slammed again. I can see why you feel like you are beating a dead horse. But, as long as there is the tiniest bit of your freshwater area left, that horse is still alive. We all just need to shout a bit louder.

    I have been reading our local news and received a notice in my water bill about water restrictions here due to “zebra mussels”. Are they something you have to worry about too?

  11. as Bart Simpson was prone to say, “Damned if you do , damned if you don’t” , enjoy the fresh water influx.

    Overfishing my butt off on crappie and cooking crappie and stuff has me exhausted and sore. but going out to find bluegill this am.

    Happy Mother’s Day y’all.

    1. Happy Fishing Day Blu! It’s the fact that the “prediction” map is saying we may be 1-5 feet of flood water. Just don’t want that to happen. Yet, it’s to save New Orleans . . . . sacrifice the bayou communities . . . .

  12. Very well said, BW. There’s a reason why Mother Nature created marshlands and barrier islands. Sadly, I think it’s a losing battle here against developers and folks from ‘off’ who want beach vacations.

    Anyhoo, just wanted to stop by and say that I hope you have a lovely Mother’s Day!

  13. The Corps flooded a big section of Missouri to save Cairo,Il. If it was a referendum we would of voted to flood it out but we weren’t asked.

    1. Yes, I understand that totally. But if we look together at the projected flood inundation, there will be lots and lots of communities flooded just to spare New Orleans. The truth here is that the Army Corps is still gun shy about the integrity of their levees post-hurricane breeches of great magnitude in N.O., and I don’t think they are up for a big test on the levees from Natchez on down to the Gulf. So, it appears rather than see if those levees will hold up, they would prefer to take off the pressure and flood vast areas, though possibly less populated ones. It’s a trade-off. I feel for those people whose homes and businesses were allowed to flood to spare a city in IL. It doesn’t seem fair at all. And I guess this is one reason that flood insurance is a national program. The government makes the call to blow a levee and flood communities, well, then they should compensate those they inconvenienced and then some. JMHO.

  14. Good gosh. 1:30 in the morning? I need to get a life, and some sleep. But mother’s day was great – hope yours was likewise.

    Yes, that’s the map I saw. That map was being dissected and analyzed on weather underground Friday night. Here’s the link to the page. That whole blog has turned into flood central, and you’d do well to bookmark it.

    Two of the posters there, beell and docNDswamp really know their stuff. You remember Doc? He’s the one from Houma. Anyway, there’s all of the flood gages, notices, diagrams, etc. And a little humor.

    I read that article from the paper, and don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. If they aren’t happy with the inundation map the Corps produced that’s one thing, but the map’s there.

    As I understand it, one of the issues they’re dealing with is the integrity of the ORCS. There have been hints they don’t want to open it for fear something would go wrong and whoosh! there goes the Mississippi carving a new channel. Baton Rouge, NOLA, ports, economy – kaput. Score: Atchafalaya 1, Louisiana 0. But I’m learning – take nothing I say as gospel.

    I’m in the middle of John Barry’s Rising Tide now, after toting it around for three years. Talk about a hair-raising read. I finished 20 pages last night and wanted to hide under the bed. BUT, I did learn something interesting. The levees broke at New Madrid in 1927, too, all on their own. Apparently there’s something in the channel or whatever that makes that a weak spot. When the levee was rebuilt it was meant to be blown if necessary, and everyone’s known that. It’s just that after so many years, no one thought they’d have to do it.

    It’s complicated, for sure. But that WU blog will be a good source of info as the days go on.