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Malaise on the Bayou

In an excerpt from his new book Holding Back the Sea, Christopher Hallowell meets the people who live on the Louisiana wetlands and fear for its future.

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In the late 1950s, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet 500 feet wide. Now, erosion from ships and storms has gouged it 2,000 feet wide and made it a freeway to New Orleans for any hurricane that happens to come from the right direction.

Growing up in Massachusetts, Christopher Hallowell was always mesmerized by the swampy lowlands on his family's dairy farm. Years later, this feeling would revisit him when he looked out the airplane window on a trip to New Orleans.

"I flew over the Delta and I looked down on this world that I couldn't believe existed," recalls Hallowell, who returns to New Orleans this week for a series of events surrounding the publishing of his new book Holding Back the Sea (see below for information about local signings). "From that point on, I've been fascinated by south Louisiana and its wetlands."

For this reason, Hallowell, who directs the undergraduate journalism and creative writing programs at Baruch College (CUNY) in New York, devoted the past three years to researching and interviewing hundreds of people about the current state of the Louisiana wetlands. What he found, he says, was not a happy story.

"What you have down there is invaluable, one of if not the most productive areas in the continental United States. Louisiana is kind of leading a lonely life. The rest of the country knows about New Orleans and Mardi Gras and music and Cajun food, but not many people in other parts of the country know anything about the 3 1/2 million acres of marsh that is out there and dying, and producing much of their seafood, with a quarter of their natural gas coursing over it, and a hefty percentage of their oil."

During his time in Louisiana, Hallowell talked with shrimpers, fur trappers, scientists and politicians. The result is a book that he describes as an outcry. "It's a warning to the rest of the country that this area needs help," he says. "It needs a national effort."

In the following excerpt, Hallowell rides through the marsh with St. Bernard Parish Councilman Junior Rodriguez and attends a meeting in Thibodaux that offers hope that a wetland renewal may at long last be underway.

The future is not bright for the Gulf Coast, and it is peculiar that while so much political and economic attention has turned to saving the Everglades, the Chesapeake, the Great Lakes, and old growth forests, few people outside of Louisiana understand the destruction and its implications. Few people, even in New Orleans, understand it. A way of life is disappearing, perhaps profoundly the saddest part of this story, for it affects those who have lived close to the land for generations. People who have built their homes up and down the bayous, who have tied their luggers and shrimpers -- their means of supporting their families -- almost literally to their doorsteps, are finding that the marsh no longer sustains them with the same predictability that their forebears enjoyed.

Louisianans have long taken advantage of the state's mixed economy -- working for stints in the oil industry as roustabouts and welders between pursuing the traditional activities of fur trapping and shrimping. That they must turn away from the marsh -- the footing of their lives and traditions -- contributes to a malaise coursing through the bayous. The petrochemical industry, devoid of family solidarity, empty of stories to be passed down through the generations, lacking in heroics, focusing on work for pay, is increasingly their permanent god, soulless and mechanical.

While the leveeing of the Mississippi, its tributaries, and its distributaries to narrow beds is responsible for much of the damage, some insults to the ecosystem always receive extra vituperation. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet is everyone's whipping boy. It's a 76-mile canal dredged in the late 1950s by the Army Corps of Engineers to enable container ships to travel a straight line from the Gulf to New Orleans rather than having to spend 10 hours winding up the Mississippi's tortuous route. The Corps dredged it 500 feet wide. Now, erosion from ships and storms has gouged it 2,000 feet wide and made it a freeway to New Orleans for any hurricane that happens to come from the right direction.

In all fairness, the Corps, in its recent, much-flaunted reincarnation as environmentally friendly, realizes that dredging the MR.GO., as it is awkwardly and often referred to, was a big mistake. The Corps has made recent moves to close it to shipping, though the motives are driven by economics on two fronts, rather than concern for the environment. First is that container ships, which the MR.GO. was created for, have grown so large that their draft exceeds the 36-foot depth at which the channel is maintained. Newer container ships are thus forced to wend their way up the Mississippi, making the MR.GO. obsolete. And second, the positioning of the canal facing the Gulf makes it prone to rapid siltation. After Hurricane Georges blew through in 1998, the Corps had to spend $35 million clearing away the silt, which calculates at $48,000 for each of the 730 ships that used it that year.

Like a thumb drawn through soft butter, the MR.GO. cuts across a valuable freshwater marsh and four natural levees, remnants of a former route the Mississippi followed to the Gulf. The surrounding marsh, now vulnerable to storms and salt water, has all but died as a result, along with 40,000 acres of mature cypress trees. Now, storm surges can invade the marsh through the straight-arrow channel and smash into New Orleans. Intruding saltwater has killed off the marsh's muskrat, crawfish and diverse grass species. And the flooding that the channel causes has dislocated thousands of people.

Many of them are, or used to be, Junior Rodriguez's constituents in St. Bernard Parish. Embittered after 26 years of doing battle against the Port of New Orleans and the Corps as a parish councilman, he says that "closing the MR.GO. is the biggest challenge in my lifetime." An immense man with a barrel chest that produces oral thunder, his political career is lodged in distrust of the Corps and the Port of New Orleans' administrators. He tends to explode with colorful language at meetings about the MR.GO. At one I attended at Corps headquarters in New Orleans, he faced the engineering autocrats like a mountain. "The only reason I am sitting here is to see the MR.GO. closed. This thing has destroyed the parish. We got no swamp left; we got no marsh left. It ain't an option for the people of the parish to keep this open."

People are used to Junior's bolts. Someone tells him to hush up a bit. He turns like he might squash them, but then gives them a little smile and a nod.

Junior took me out into his parish's sinking marsh one day in a boat driven by his friend, Gatien Livaudais, a landowner who has seen more of his land disappear than he cares to think about. We were going to meet Gatien down at Penny's Cafe along Judge Perez Drive. We left from the St. Bernard Parish Government Complex where Junior's plaque- and photograph-studded office is as big as many people's homes. On the way in his tiny Mazda into which he angled himself in sections, he told me that he is an "Isleno." His ancestors had come here from the Canary Islands in the early 19th century with "a mule, two shovels, and a land grant," and settled on what was then pristine marsh. As we passed mall and subdivision after mall and subdivision, he commented on the distance the people of St. Bernard -- many of whom call themselves Islenos like him -- have put between their lives and the marsh. "Apathy, that's what I see. 'He' (the generic citizen) only cares if his trash is picked up. Otherwise, he's content. 'He's' not worried about land loss. The only time 'he' worries is when a hurricane comes." People are worrying more now. "It used to take a while for a storm surge to get here from the Gulf," Junior adds. "Now, with the marsh gone, it's here in hours."

At Penny's, a jumble of restaurant and general store surrounded by a crushed oyster shell parking lot, the woman behind the counter looked up as Junior came in. Some men sitting on stools with their back to the door asked her who had entered. "It ain't a customer, I'll tell you that," she said jovially. "It's shit. That's what come in here." Junior accepts this kind of attack as much as he dishes it out. One of the men was Gatien. With his wire-rimmed glasses, carefully clipped gray hair, and L.L. Bean-type outfit, he looked more like a New England college professor than the owner and overseer of 12,000 acres of marsh. He set me straight about his origins in about a second -- at least I guess that is what he was doing -- by informing me that he shared his first name with a cathedral in Tours, France. Forget New England. His family, with thick French roots, has owned marshland since 1904, back when muskrat pelts brought a good price. That is how his people supported themselves. Now, there are no muskrats, driven out by the encroaching salt water.

Minutes later, we were cruising down Violet Canal toward the MR.GO., the marsh on either side of us pockmarked with erosion and sinking. I asked Gatien to point out his land. He turned to me with a bemused look and said: "Why, as far as you can see, it's all mine." I could see to the horizon to the north and south. But then he added that he had lost thousands of acres to erosion. "There's no recourse when that happens," he said.

Junior, up in the bow, was being uncharacteristically quiet. He was hunkered down, wearing a solemn face. The marsh seemed to calm him, or make him still with anger, I couldn't tell. Even when we arrived at the MR.GO., he did not say much. The canal is actually not very interesting, unless perhaps you have watched it grow from year to year, chewing away at the marsh and now so wide that it runs through one edge of Lake Borgne. To me, it looked like an unnatural act, a trajectory driven through the wetlands as straight as a bore through a coal seam. Not until we arrived at a particular place down a bayou that angles off the canal did Junior perk up from his profound slouch. Towering trunks of thousands of dead cypress stuck up from the marsh like giant toothpicks. It is a lonely place, eerie in disease. Even the silhouettes of a gaggle of cormorants on the dead branches of a tree instilled no spirit of life here. "It's a monument to the marsh's death." Then he went quiet.

Efforts to make things right again in south Louisiana are unsubtle. It is one thing to have the environmentalists scream about abuse, it is another to have a pro-business politician such as Billy Tauzin try to draw attention to wetlands loss. A longtime, down-home Republican congressman (formerly Democratic -- a switch that has resulted in some career angst), Tauzin actually called a conference on wetlands preservation on Oct. 2, 1998, shortly after Hurricane Georges had blessedly spared New Orleans by 40 miles, smacking into Mississippi and Alabama, and a few weeks before Hurricane Mitch would slam into Central America. Georges had been on track to make a direct hit on the city, sidestepping to the east at the last minute, not the first time that had happened, almost as if hurricanes take pleasure in fooling with the nerves of New Orleanians.

The near-miss scared the bejesus out of a lot of people and a lot of them became oracles overnight, predicting that Georges was a warning, that the next one was going to strike head on. Playing soothsayer is tempting now, with the planet warming and hurricanes on the rise.

The fear was Tauzin's cue. For an entire day, wetlands experts, state politicians, even Governor Mike Foster himself, and Army Corps of Engineers dignitaries from Washington, D.C., held forth in the auditorium at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, ruing the loss of Louisiana's marshes. Self-blame became their stigmata, "We have met the enemy and it is us," their chant, and cries for financial help, their group wail. Recriminations mounted. "Clean up your toy box," someone yelled out rhetorically to the oil industry for messing up God's plumbing of the marshes with canals going every which way. Someone else wondered how the rest of the country could take Louisiana's plight seriously, observing, "We have a national reputation for dumping chemicals in the marsh." Another observation quickly followed about the fact that Louisiana has more oil spills than any other state. So perhaps it's no wonder, someone concluded, that the federal government pours $100 million each year into restoring New Jersey's beaches for sun worshippers and property owners, but sees fit to fork over only $40 million per year to save one of the country's greatest wetlands.

Observers of and players in the environmental scene in Louisiana always agree on one thing: wetlands loss is someone else's or something's fault. And if you can blame the Corps or the oil and gas industry or the levees or the canals or just rising sea levels hard enough, you can make yourself and others feel better for a while, even though nothing gets fixed. Today, blame was being passed around like hot coals. But there was a difference in reaction, maybe helped along by Hurricane Georges. People in the audience seemed to sicken quickly of hearing the same old blame, and the denials that always followed. Tension was rising. The time had come to put a stop to all the talk.

It was the engineering industry that brought a halt to the talk. A surprise, for its members were the very people who had dredged all the canals willy-nilly in the first place, before anyone cared. Steve Smith rose to his feet to speak and the audience hushed up. An engineer himself and an executive with T. Baker Smith & Sons, his family's engineering firm, he broke through all the rhetoric. A young man, he's a good old boy from Houma who hems and haws and shuffles. A lot of people at the conference know him and he is obviously well liked.

There was silence. Steve Smith hulked up on the stage behind a lectern. Then he sucked in a volume of breath and exploded: "It doesn't matter if the land is sinking or the water is rising, we still have to get taller boots. Come on, let's do something."

The audience broke out in cheers and screams and thumping applause. Steve Smith had brought them back to reality. All the talk and finger pointing in the world wouldn't make the problem go away.

Hope had to return; there was no other option but to bring it back, a kind of optimism by necessity that is endemic to south Louisiana where every day, no matter how much manipulation goes on, nature is still going to be in your face. The engineering firms helped; there were half a dozen of them outside the auditorium. Their lavish poster displays, videos and brochures boasted their expertise in resurrecting the dying marsh, planting new marsh, removing spoil banks that have blocked nature's hydrology for half a century. Here was a can-do group who could save the coast -- for a fee, of course -- and never mind that their earth-moving in years past was partially responsible for wetlands destruction.

Congressman Tauzin helped out, too. Whatever people may feel about Billy Tauzin's environmental record, he's a consummate politician, and in Louisiana politicians who connect with the people are respected, and reelected. He's serving his 11th term now from the Third Congressional District, which includes a lot of marsh. Some years ago, the American Farm Bureau awarded him its annual Golden Plow Award, an honor that carries implications, like the clout to turn wetlands into farmlands. Now, constituents are beginning to understand that without wetlands, their lives will be in shambles. Tauzin is right there with them.

Fifty schoolchildren clinched the connection between marsh and continuity of the good life and, of course, Tauzin's continued success. They were marched on stage where some of them were asked to read letters they had written to President Clinton proclaiming their love for the marsh. Ashley Williams, a seventh grader, stammered out, face buried in a piece of paper: "It seems every time I go fishing, more of our land has disappeared." Eighth grader Andy Depret didn't mince words: "Mr. President," he read from his letter, "If we don't stop this erosion process now, you know where we will be. How would you like it if you lost an area the size of Rhode Island in your backyard every year?"

The effect was visceral. You could feel the audience go soft as the reading continued. There were a lot of mushy people in the auditorium by the time the kids marched offstage.

Then an oilman stood up. He was R. Michael Lyons, manager of regulatory affairs for the Mid-Continent Oil & Gas Association, and he reminded everyone, "We have been talking to ourselves for about 20 years" to little avail, as the wetlands crumble. Now, the challenge is to figure out how to get the nation interested.

No one said much after that. Perhaps Louisiana's isolation in the face of its grand disappearance -- a national dilemma -- was finally going to result in action instead of complaints.

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