Can the People Who Live in Coastal Towns Ever Be Safe From Hurricanes?


Earline Verdin has seen storms. After 68 years on Louisiana's coast, she has survived some of the worst of them -- hurricanes like Betsy, Andrew and Rita, which are as much part of the local lore as alligators and étouffé. But as she drove through Pointe-aux-Chenes last month, surveying the wreckage left by this year's evil twins, Gustav and Ike, even she couldn't help gasping at the carnage: her own home larded with mud and marsh grass, the back porch ripped from the house; her neighbors' homes flooded, tossed on their sides, their innards vomited onto the side of the road; and, just a few minutes away, the Isle de Jean Charles blitzed into a state of Ninth Ward-like smithereens.

"Rita was bad, but to me this is the worst," said Verdin, a mother of six whose eldest son is the chief of the Pointe-au-Chien Indian tribe. "Yeah, this is the worst."

All up and down Louisiana's coast, bayou towns and villages are still staggering from the double blows of Gustav and Ike, tag-team storms that arrived in nasty succession on Sept. 1 and 13. Most people don't actually realize that parts of Louisiana got strafed; after New Orleans "dodged" Gustav's bullet, the media skedaddled, and most news outlets never even bothered with Louisiana after Galveston got flattened. But while TV cameras were busy doing their business elsewhere -- in New Orleans' French Quarter, Houston's downtown, Sarah Palin's beehive -- something strange was happening in Louisiana's Bayou Country: It was filling up with water, flooding under a surge that, in some places, surpassed the records set by 2005's tidal monsters, Katrina and Rita. (All in all, however, the cumulative effect of this year's storms was smaller.)

For many bayou dwellers, this is devastation they can't afford; after all, they had barely finished gluing the scattered fragments of their lives back together from Katrina and Rita. But it is also devastation that shouldn't have happened -- particularly in the case of the flooding. The wind damage was one thing, because Gustav did rake itself directly over Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes, peeling the corrugated sides from trailers as if they were sardine cans. But the water, which came mostly from Ike, was a different matter; Ike never even hit the Louisiana coast.

"Ike should not have had the impact that he did on our communities," said Brenda Dardar Robichaux, principal chief of the United Houma Nation, whose members suffered extensive damage -- and the death of a 16-year-old boy -- from the combined whammies of this year's storms. "But there's nothing left. There's nothing left to protect us."

By "nothing left," Robichaux was referring to the wetlands and barrier islands that once formed the southern fringe of Louisiana but have since vanished: 1,900 square miles since the 1930s, an area the size of Delaware, all gone. And it's getting worse. These days the Louisiana coast -- one of the most productive in the country -- is among the fastest-disappearing regions on Earth, dissolving into the Gulf of Mexico at the terrifying rate of 25 to 35 square miles a year.

This is extremely serious, particularly for the Cajun, French-Indian and other coastal communities that have been shrinking alongside the coast. But it is also deeply unnatural, the handiwork of all kinds of efforts to extract as much as possible from the region. The oil companies bear much of the blame since they were the ones that spent the last eight or so decades drilling and dredging the life out of the coast. But the levees and dams that tamed the Mississippi River -- and rerouted the silt that once sustained the coast -- also deserve credit. Together they have left the coast in such tattered shape that storms that might have caused minimal flooding several decades ago became surge-spewing bruisers.

"There's no question that the impacts from Ike that we saw were directly related to coastal land loss," said Kerry St. Pé, program director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, an environmental group charged with restoring and protecting some of Louisiana's most vulnerable wetlands. "From Ike we experienced flooding in areas that have never been flooded before ... and that would have never occurred with our coastal landscape intact."

St. Pé is one of the growing chorus of experts who have been watching the coastline slip away for years, trying to draw attention to the unsettling changes: the strange saltwater fish that have begun popping up in freshwater bayous, the cow pastures that have shrunk to the size of cow patties, and, of course, the mythic flooding from storms. Once upon a time, he said, serious storm surge was a relatively rare event, even if hurricanes were not. But no longer.

When Rita smashed ashore in 2005, Terrebonne Parish was flooded at a rate that was "unprecedented in history," even though the actual eye of the storm landed 150 miles to the west of the parish. And now, with Ike, a storm that landed 200 miles to the west, the water surged even deeper into some of the wetlands (though this is not true everywhere). Who knows how far it will travel next time?

This doesn't have to be southern Louisiana's destiny, however. As St. Pé, academics and other experts will attest, there are ways to patch the holes in the wetlands -- solutions like diverting rivers, and harvesting sediment and redistributing it across the ragged edges of the barrier islands and coast. But all of this requires the kind of massive, coordinated government effort -- and money -- that has yet to materialize. And unless this happens soon, unless government gets serious within the next eight or nine years, "it will be too late," St. Pé warned. "It's already too late for many communities."

The tiny Isle de Jean Charles is one of these communities on the brink. Nestled on a narrow strip of eroding land, Jean Charles has been home to a small band of Biloxi-Chitimacha tribal members for some 130 years. But after Gustav and Ike blasted through, smashing up the place like Bruce Banner on a bender, people have begun to debate how -- and whether -- the island community can continue to exist. Some people are determined to stay; but in a sign of just how serious the situation has become, the chief, Albert Naquin, has begun pushing a plan to relocate the island's 100 or so residents. The idea, he said, is to keep tribal members together, even if this means leaving their longtime home, because otherwise "it's just a matter of time before everybody's scattered."

And yet, for all this, many people aren't ready to write the bayou's obituary. In the weeks since the storm, in Cajun neighborhoods and tribal communities, in hard-hit towns like Jean Lafitte, there has been plenty of frustration and despair, but also defiance and even determination to keep fighting for coastal justice. And, of course, there have been vows to rebuild.

Ten days after the storm, Janie Verret Luster, 56, stood on the porch of her house in Dularge, a small working-class bayou neighborhood, staring out over the yard filled with the soaked essentials of her life: mattress, washing machine, couch cushions, family photographs drying in the sun. She had barely finished recovering from Rita and now this. But, she said, "We will pick up and build again." And then, with a wry smile, she added: "At least my vacuum cleaner survived."

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