Nature’s Great Disappearing Act

By Erika Rosner

Down on the southeastern tip of Louisiana, about 63 miles from New Orleans, lies the small town of Buras, part of the Plaquemines Parish. It’s a scattered community sitting on a thin road, Highway 23, that snakes through the water-pocketed islands and peninsulas of southernmost Louisiana. The best fishing grounds on the Gulf of Mexico are found in this region; Buras is specifically known for hauling in much of Louisiana’s oysters. However, it is also in this region that the combined effects of Louisiana’s eroding coastline and significant rises in sea level are leaving the greatest and most visible impact on the land, economy and overall well-being of its inhabitants.

“This is the part where I scare you a little,” says Christa Russell, a New Orleans resident who works for the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. She holds up a large map of Louisiana’s disappearing land. The land is colored dark-green but is streaked with large pools of bright-red that outline the state’s coast and bleed into the state’s central land. The physical appearance of the map itself looks like something out of a horror movie. The red that represents future land loss occurring in the next 50 years completely envelops the outside of Louisiana’s coast.The red shading then seems to devour the land from the outside-in; it is something reminiscent of The Blob.

“So this red map is not actually here to scare you, but it is kind of scary,” Russell continues. “This is the state of Louisiana. You’ll notice that it doesn’t actually look the way it does on most maps because it doesn’t look like a boot, it looks more like a stiletto now that it lost a lot of land. I think it would save us a lot of grief if it just looked in maps the way it actually is.” Russell is the oyster shell recycling and monitoring coordinator for the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. The CRCL is “a non-profit organization whose mission is to drive bold, science-based action to rebuild Coastal Louisiana through outreach, restoration, and advocacy.” Russell speaks to a group of about 20 volunteers who are spending the day in Buras, Louisiana shoveling and bagging oysters as part of the CRCL’s Oyster Shell Recycling Program. Through this program, which began in 2014, over 3,000 tons of oysters shells have been collected.

Oysters are a Louisiana staple, served in many New Orleans-area restaurants. The CRCL collects oyster shells from 16 participating restaurants, including Superior Seafood and Oyster Bar, Arnaud’s Restaurant, and Restaurant R’evolution. Each restaurant has a recycling bin specifically used for collecting oyster shells that are picked up by the CRCL’s trucks and driven down to Buras. For the program’s first couple of years, the CRCL used money donated by Shell Oil Company to pay for the costs of recycling. Now that the donated money is spent, the restaurants pay for the costs of recycling themselves. A New Orleans resident doesn’t have to shovel and bag oyster shells to get involved. Simply eating oysters at one of the participating restaurants, they help support the CRCL’s mission to save Louisiana’s coast.

A close look at the map of Louisiana that Russell holds shows a couple of small, bright-green patches that represent land gained from building oyster reefs. The CRCL’s first reef was installed in Biloxi Marsh in November 2016 and is currently thriving and growing. The current volunteers are bagging oyster shells that are going to be used in constructing the next reef that is planned for Barataria Bay.

The reefs being constructed are imperative for protection against storms. Coastal erosion has taken away a large chunk of Louisiana’s marsh and wetlands that serve as protection. Russell explains, “All of the beautiful marsh and wetlands protect us from hurricanes. Think of it as a speed bump. When you have storm surges and waves hitting it, it slows everything down so by the time it reaches our cities, we’re not getting the worst of it. This prevents us from getting hammered by hurricanes –- and we are losing it.”

Russell speaks to the volunteers amidst towering piles of oyster shells on a sandy plot of land that is right up against the Gulf of Mexico. There used to be miles of marsh that stretched out from this land before it hit the Gulf and now, due to coastal erosion and rising sea levels, the Gulf’s water slaps its shores.

On the drive down Highway 23 from New Orleans to Buras, the threat of an eroding coastline and rising sea levels becomes more and more apparent with distanced travelled south. At some point houses and buildings begin to all have stilts and the farther south they are located, the higher up they are built. In Buras, nearly everything is raised or built on stilts-from high above-ground graves to South Plaquemines High School, which was rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina to be a fortress on giant stilts. By creating buildings high above ground, the inhabitants of Plaquemines Parish are attempting to adapt to the changing environment caused by an eroding coastline and rising sea levels. However, they are only placing a band-aid over a giant leak on a sinking-ship.

“There are folks who live down in the Bird’s Foot Delta that are going to have to be relocated because their homes are going to be underwater,” says Molly Hughes, a restoration technician who works for the CRCL. “This is the first place in the United States that is going to experience relocation due to sea level rise. They are the first United States’ climate refugees.”

In response to this, an out-of-state volunteer quipped, “these are probably the same people that do not believe in climate change.”

“You’d think that,” Hughes replies, “but something I found in Louisiana is a lot of folks who aren’t from the state think that they have some idea of what people from the country or Louisiana are like, but these are the people that live and work in these places. They watch their land go. They may argue about why it’s going, but they ultimately don’t care. They still want to fix it. Everyone acknowledges that sea levels are rising. They don’t want to think about why, fine. Pick your battles.”

Gerhardt Weiss, a Tulane University student from New Orleans, agrees that the inhabitants of Southern Louisiana are aware of the effects of climate change-even though they may not believe in the cause of the changes itself. Weiss says, “My family and I have a lot of friends who live out in Delacroix and Venice, the Southern Louisiana region below New Orleans, and I would wager that if you asked them about coastal erosion they would say yes it’s a huge problem we should fix it. However, if you asked them about global warming and melting ice caps, they wouldn’t believe you. They would think it’s some kind of science conspiracy.” Weiss believes that a large part of the problem is, “A lot of people living in these areas affected by climate change and coastal erosion make their livelihoods on the very things that are destroying the ecosystems and land, such as the fishing, oil and gas, and therefore destroying their future sources of livelihood.”

Weiss regularly visits the marshes in Southern Louisiana to go hunting. He states, “Each time I’ve travelled to Southern Louisiana, I’ve noticed a difference in water levels in the marsh. Lately we’ve had a lot of problems with water levels and temperature. When there’s less water you can’t drive the boats out to fish or hunt and when water levels are warm, there are less ducks. So hunting has been going downhill.”

According to Weiss, climate change is not an issue commonly discussed in the New Orleans community. He explains, “People know of the climate change problem, but it’s not an issue that is in the collective consciousness. People don’t talk about it that much. The hunting circle talks about it as it affects hunting itself.”

Russell believes that the main difficulty is not getting people to believe in climate change, but getting enough people engaged to make change. She states, “You have to listen to everybody. You have to bring everybody in. That means you even have to listen to the guy down the street that you can’t stand.” However, she also admits, “It is my personal mission to get politicians to say the words ‘climate change’.”

“It’s not all doom and gloom,” Russell reassures. “It is possible to make change. We have a reef right now where one didn’t exist. I am making habitat. I have baby oysters on that reef that weren’t there before. So it does work. It’s small, but that small impact can have a huge impact on the area around it.”

 

Erika Rosner is a sophomore at Tulane University studying Public Health.

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