There are very few things I am as passionate about as the Louisiana wetlands. Below is a shorter version of an article written a mere 2 years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and outlying areas, and Hurricane Rita flooded my home and many coastal communities. Maybe you will learn a little more about the Bayou People from reading it and appreciate who we are and why we stay “down the bayou”.
America’s WETLAND: Does America Care?
Recently while driving my Louisiana bayou road into town, I realized the rhythm of the seasons is totally unaffected by the syncopated beat of the 2005 hurricane season. The Louisiana blue iris still bloomed in spring, and the mimosa trees soon followed suit. The cicadas sang their summer song high in the live oak trees. Fall is here, and with it a new hurricane season. However, Nature is not the only tenacious resident here.
The bayou people are just as tenacious. They cling to their homeland like a gator clings to its prey. Are they clinging to a dying victim? That dying victim is coastal Louisiana–America’s WETLAND—once home to nearly two million residents.
As I travel the bayou, I notice For Sale signs popped up in yards like toadstools after a spring rain. Since the flooding of Hurricane Rita, neighbors ask neighbors, “Are you leaving?” For some, their tenacity is stretched to the limit when they think about their choices.
Our future here in the heart of the Terrebonne Estuary System is uncertain. Not much viable wetland exists here anymore. The barrier islands and marshes, which once reduced hurricane storm surges, continue to decrease annually. Their enemies are natural subsidence, sped up by oil production, oilfield canals, and the ensuing saltwater intrusion into vital protective freshwater marshes.
Yet we stay here knowing that every hurricane season holds the potential for disaster.
Another storm, like Rita, that makes landfall to the west of us, will mean months of repairs. Thousands of homes will be flooded by the rising water of a hurricane tidal surge a mere 9 feet high. Each year as barrier islands erode, marshes die, and levees degrade and breach, the water rises higher. We expect hurricanes, but without our wetlands to help protect us, we will be forced further north away from the bayous that we love.
When I began working on the bayou in 1978, the local people intrigued me. They are mostly Native American and French people whose lives are tied directly to the wetland. Since last year’s flooding, outsiders ask why not move? To move would mean losing a culture and a way of life.
They live off the bayous, marsh, lakes, and seashore. The culture of these hard-working people revolves around the seasons of the wetland. Shrimping, crabbing, oystering, trapping, hunting, fishing, and gardening all have their season here.
By the time I married, the wetland had reached out, grabbed, and held me with its long, strong tendrils from the first cypress grove all the way out to the last stand of mangroves. I recall thick moss, which hung from majestic cypress trees cooling the swamp below. I used to dream of poling a pirogue under those trees. Now, 29 years later, those cypress groves are nothing more than graveyards of skeleton trees with bony fingers reaching out for the freshwater of elsewhere, yet another victim of saltwater intrusion.
After Hurricane Juan flooded our first home in 1985, my north Louisiana family tried but could not break the grip the wetland and its people had on me. There was no going back. This was where I belonged, though I could not speak the reasons to them in a language they would understand. Maybe only those who have become part of this interwoven culture can understand. Though the very land on which we live is threatened each hurricane season, leaving is not an option.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed about 217 square miles of much-needed wetland. As I drove the hardest hit post-Katrina coastal areas below New Orleans, I wept for the human loss and property loss I saw there. I wept equally for the loss of their wetland and at the possibility of this same complete devastation happening to our bayou community next.
As I remain in my damaged home this hurricane season, I have many questions that deserve answers. The most important one: Why is it so wrong for Louisiana coastal residents to ask for and expect to receive restoration of the protective wetland that is now so damaged—a wetland that once served as an ample buffer of hurricane storm surges?
If those who have the power to restore Louisiana’s wetland do not, then they alone have decided that our way of life doesn’t matter, that our culture here is not significant, and the contributions we make to this nation have no value.
The residents of the Louisiana wetlands need to know that America’s Wetland is as important to the nation as it is to their way of life. If America does not help, then we all lose—you, me, every one of us.