Louisiana wetlands are disappearing at a rate of up to 25 square miles per year — and taking centuries-old communities with them.
Part 7 of Losing Louisiana, a series originally published in onEarth.
ON MY MAP, LAKE CHIEN is tiny, jutting cove-like into the bottom of Louisiana. It looks like the top of a four-tiered snowman, connected to a larger lake, and then another, and then a bay. This is how much of southernmost Louisiana appears on paper: a jagged and fertile nether-zone that connects the land to the sea.
Sitting on this boat, though, Lake Chien doesn’t look tiny at all. The open water extends almost to the end of my sight line. As my hosts are explaining, it wasn’t always like this, even in their lifetimes.
I’m visiting several leaders of the 680-member Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe whose French-speaking community lines both sides of a bayou that opens into Lake Chien. It’s near the end of a two-lane cul-de-sac, six miles south of the unincorporated town of Pointe-aux-Chenes. (The tribe’s name means Dog Point; the town’s means Oak Point. Therein lies a local linguistic dispute.) Pointe-aux-Chenes was one of the earliest populated areas to see oil from the BP spill; it washed into Lake Chien and coated the nearby marsh grass a month after the Deepwater Horizon blowout. But long before the spill directed national attention toward Louisiana’s coast, the Pointe-au-Chien tribe was dealing with a more systemic crisis: the disappearance of the wetlands to its south as well as the very land that supports its stilted houses.
On this shrimping boat, two members of the tribe, Chuckie Verdin and Theresa Dardar, are helping me imagine what this landscape looked like just a few decades ago: a tapestry of marsh, water, and woods, some places thick with live oaks that provided canopy to the palmettos growing at their bases.
“All this area was built from sediments from the Mississippi River,” says Verdin, the tribe’s chairman. He’s 53 and square-jawed, with thick brows, crinkly eyes, and forearms chiseled by hard work. “Now the land is washing back to the sea. When I started shrimping in ’75, we used to go to some islands on Timbelier Bay,” a few miles closer to the Gulf. “The oil companies dug canals inside these islands, and we used to go in there to get out of the weather.” In 1980, Verdin bought bigger boats and spent more than two decades shrimping farther off-shore. When he began working closer to home again in 2004, the land where he had once sought refuge now sat under seven or eight feet of water. “The islands just washed away,” he says.
Dardar, who is 56, tells me about a conversation she had with a tribal elder who claimed Lake Chien was once so small that a hunter standing on one bank could fell an animal on the other. “It could be an exaggeration,” she says. What’s indisputable, though, is that on her husband Donald’s global positioning system, this lake appears as a patchwork of land and water. “According to the GPS, he’s shrimping on land,” she says — which means the wetlands are disappearing faster than mapmakers can track the changes.
Without sufficient wetlands to protect the mainland, it too is eroding. “The back of our house, it used to be trees,” she says. “Now [people] are fishing crabs there.”
Louisiana’s bottom-most ribbon is literally sinking, and taking communities with it. According to David Burley, an assistant professor of sociology at Southeastern Louisiana University, the Pointe-au-Chien tribe’s experience is being replicated throughout the region. “Tropical storms batter these places like they didn’t do 20 years ago because of the land loss,” says Burley, whose 2010 book Losing Ground documents the phenomenon. “Damage accumulates, accumulates, accumulates, and then you have the oil spill and the continuing decline of fishing.” In 2007, the Christian Science Monitor reported that 10,000 Louisianans have migrated northward as coastal lands have disappeared. Two experts I checked with — Burley and Kristina Peterson, a senior researcher at the University of New Orleans’ Center for Hazards Assessment, Response, and Technology — believe this represents a vast undercount.
Peterson, who is also a Presbyterian minister, has been working with coastal Louisianans threatened with land loss. She introduced me to Verdin and Dardar and is with us today on the boat. Also here are two Inupiat Eskimo whalers from Alaska, who are concerned about plans by Shell and ConocoPhillips to drill on their state’s North Slope.
As we headed into the lake this afternoon, Verdin pointed out places that no longer exist. “When I was kid, we had a store right here,” he said, his head cocked toward the moist borderland between the marsh grass and the water. It was hard for me to imagine a building ever standing there.
We passed some egrets. In the distance rose a cross from the tribe’s first cemetery. “This is really beautiful,” I said to Verdin.
“What’s left of it,” he replied.
OVER THE CENTURY, LOUISIANA has suffered a quadruple whammy that has caused coastal lands to disappear at the rate of up to 25 square miles per year, according to one state estimate. First, the leveeing of the Mississippi River for flood control and navigation cut off its ability to replenish the Gulf Coast’s wetlands with the sediment that, in a more natural system, would overtop its banks during flood stages. That process is necessary to rebuild terrain lost to the natural compacting of wetland soils and the “subsidence,” or sinking, of the land. Second, the dredging of thousands of miles of canals to facilitate both navigation and oil-and-gas extraction has sliced up the wetlands, increasing erosion and providing straight, easy routes for saltwater to funnel into fresh or brackish areas. That in turn has killed off protective vegetation like cypresses. Third, oil and gas extraction has literally sucked mass out of the sea floor, forcing the land to subside even further. And finally, sea-level rise linked to global warming swallows up even more land — a minor factor until now, but one that scientists predict will grow in importance.
In nature, coastal areas like the Mississippi River Delta regularly lose and rebuild land. But human intervention has severely limited the river’s capacity to rebuild. With fewer wetlands, coastal communities have scant protection against hurricanes and other disasters, including the intrusion of oil from the BP spill.
The human impact of this damage cuts across racial, economic, and rural-urban lines. But some of Louisiana’s most vulnerable citizens are Native Americans like the Pointe-au-Chien tribe, whose survival has depended on both the coast’s biological abundance and the dense social fabric that comes in part from living in close physical proximity. According to the tribe’s own account, the families that originally settled along the bayou were the products of intertribal marriages. They farmed the land — watermelon, corn, field peas — and by the 1850s were successfully growing sugar cane for sale in New Orleans. The Pointe-au-Chien originally built their homes from palmetto, practiced traditional medicine, and were kept segregated by state laws that until the 1960s restricted Native American access to public schools.
The latest crisis facing the Pointe-au-Chien becomes particularly vivid as I listen to Theresa Dardar. She has long dark hair and a tendency to lean close to people and talk softly, which makes her an intimate and compelling story teller. Dardar didn’t grow up in Pointe-aux-Chenes: her parents moved 20 miles northwest to the city of Houma so her father could work on the oyster boats there. Still, her roots in the community go back for generations. When she returned in 1973 — first to live with her sister, then to marry Donald — “it was like coming home,” she says. “In Houma, people care more about how they look, how they dress. On the bayou, it didn’t matter.”
At first Dardar commuted back to Houma, where she worked at a department store. She quit to work with her husband on the shrimp boat. In the winter, when he wasn’t employed as a roustabout or a tugboat deckhand, Donald would trap mammals for their fur. Dardar learned how to skin, clean, and dry muskrat, raccoon, and nutria — “I had to get used to the stinky smell” of animal carcasses, she says — while leaving the valuable otter and mink to her more experienced mother-in-law. The Dardars raised horses for a while. Some of their neighbors raised cattle. The area was full of trees: oak, pecan, cypress, hackberry, weeping willow, persimmon.
Those trees are mostly gone now, as the Gulf eats at tribe members’ land. So is the majority of the livestock. Children whom Dardar watched grow up have married and moved away. “Every now and then, Donald makes the statement, ‘We gotta go out and buy some children somewhere,'” she says. “Pretty soon, it will be just us old people.” Then, Dardar worries, it will be no one. “We don’t want to move,” she says. “But if something is not done, I don’t know how long Pointe-aux-Chenes can last.”
Verdin, the tribal chairman, thinks about this all the time. “The place where we used to play baseball and football as kids, it’s now under water,” he says. Only 70 percent of the tribe lives around Pointe-aux-Chenes anymore, he says, and even some of those have left the immediate bayou community. When I ask him to predict the next few decades, he lets out a long, sad chuckle. “Well, it might not be here,” he says. “t’s plain and simple. It’s liable not be here in another 20 years. It might take a little longer if they put a little ring levee around here, slow it back some. But you get a storm or hurricane, it’s liable to finish all that off. Even without a hurricane, it’ll keep on washing away, and after you got no more barrier islands down here, this place is gone that much quicker.”
BEFORE WE LEAVE POINTE-AUX-CHENES, the Rev. Peterson urges the Alaskans and me to take a side trip to Isle de Jean Charles, a ridge four miles away. This is the historic home of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha Indians. In 2002, 320 people lived in the community, says Chief Albert Naquin. Now the population is down to about 70.
Because of its location and almost complete lack of protection — and because a spate of nearby canal dredging starting in the 1950s has been sucking in Gulf saltwater — Isle de Jean Charles is even more vulnerable than Pointe-aux-Chenes. As Garret Graves, director of the Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities, told me, the Band could not have anticipated this land loss when its members began buying property from the state of Louisiana in 1876. “The community did not move to the vulnerability,” Graves says. “They had miles of productive wetlands between them and the Gulf of Mexico.”
Now, during hurricanes, Naquin says, “the canal becomes a small bay, then a small lake, until we’re wide open to the water.” Between 2002 and 2008, there were five major floods. “People kept packing up and leaving,” he says. “They couldn’t handle the hassle.”
Getting onto Isle de Jean Charles is a driving challenge. The two-lane road connecting it to the mainland looks like it was hit by an earthquake; huge chunks of asphalt have broken off and fallen into the water. Every few car lengths stands an orange-and-white reflector mounted on a pole and held in place by a rubber tire. Oncoming vehicles stop and take turns letting one another squeeze by. In town, I can easily see both sides of a ridge that once stretched four miles wide. There are still signs of normalcy: children playing in their front yards; small dogs running up and down the road. But the occupied houses, many of them on stilts that are taller than the buildings themselves, are outnumbered by the abandoned ones. Some are gutted, their contents heaped outside.
Naquin, who himself lives in Pointe-aux-Chenes, says the fate of Isle de Jean Charles as a place is already sealed. “That community is coming to an end,” he says. “It’s going to die.” With it will end the sense of togetherness that cultures get from spending daily life together — unless the band can move en masse. Naquin wants to relocate them to safer ground, and has talked with staffers for both of Louisiana’s U.S. senators. But the funds don’t seem to be forthcoming. It doesn’t help, he says, that the Isle de Jean Charles Indians have state but not federal recognition. (Neither Senator David Vitter nor Senator Mary Landrieu’s office returned phone calls seeking comment. Graves says there’s state funding available if the band can unite around a relocation plan, but this comes as news to Naquin. “Nobody told us,” he says.)
“I want to bring the community back together, but it takes money,” he says. “We need help. All alone, we can’t do it.”