Reflections on Southern Louisiana

Southern Louisiana is eroding. New Orleans will one day be underwater. Yet for residents, the bayou is not just a geographical location; it is fundamentally tied to communities and ways of life that cannot be transported.

By Muriel Leung 

LUMCON, Cocodrie

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Sunset on the salt marshes surrounding LUMCON. Photo by Muriel Leung.

Stilt houses grew taller and taller, more stilt than house, as we sped down Highway 56 through the delicate web of the Mississippi River Delta toward the water. In Cocodrie, flooding is part of the way of life.

A tower-topped complex rose from the bayou like a fortress: LUMCON, the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, our home base for two nights. There, we were treated to a crawfish boil: crawfish, sausage, baked potatoes, corn, and mushrooms, which we ate to the point of nausea. We danced the two-step and waltz to Craig’s fiddle—small tastes of Louisiana.

After sunset, we went to the river to fish. Like mythical creatures, the alligators lurked in our imaginations but out of sight. Walking back, a Porsche sleeping in the driveway reminded us that we were visitors who could, at the end of the day, drive away from the bayou’s problems.       

Grand Isle

Mayor David Camardelle and Town Supervisor Chris Hernandez
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The shores of Grand Isle, where flooding and storms have already eroded sand bags and other protective measures installed last fall. Photo by Muriel Leung.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf spilled 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The oil poisoned marine life and suffocated Grand Isle’s shore with tar. In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the island less than a month apart.

Families come to the Mayor Camardelle asking, “Where will we go now?” and he tells them, “You’ve got yourself and you’ve got your family,” but cannot answer. The mayor cried as he talked to us and our Chris Hernandez threw an arm around his shoulder.

On the shore’s sands, they drew designs for rock jetties to protect the islands. Environmental activists from distant places—perhaps people like us—protest these jetties, which would upset local bird populations. The mayor asked us, “Is it worth it to save a small population of birds if a whole community is lost?”

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Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians
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Chief Shirell Parfait Dardar describes how floods and storms are imperiling her community’s lands–and how an arduous tribal recognition process has complicated their efforts to prepare for a changing climate. Photo by Meredith Carroll.

She spoke of their twenty years fighting for federal tribal recognition, and another expected twenty years more: gathering detailed documentation of their tribal history and tradition, like cataloguing the grains of sand on a beach. Before the internet took off and sometimes even now, they have to travel as far as Texas to gather information. There is no guarantee of success.

“We keep fighting because we have no choice.”

Chief Shirell was young for a chief, thirty-something, with long black hair down to her waist and paralegal training. Her ancestors had chosen her, she said, to bridge the divide between generations. She’d already identified her heir when he was twelve. He was studying engineering. “We want them to go off and get educated. But ultimately he has to come back home.”

She took us to her people’s graveyard. Graves, uprooted by hurricanes and storms, stood completely above ground like they were waiting for us to recover them. The graveyard was packed too tightly for dignity. The chief leaned against her father’s grave and touched his picture.

They planned to create more cemetery space to honor their dead, but if the ocean submerged the site, then they would mark it with a floating memorial. That way, families would be able to ride out in boats to visit. “We’re not giving up. But we have a backup plan in case things don’t work out.”

As we left, we drove through a gated community called Southern Comfort that sat on land once belonging to the tribe. Bulkheads, which the tribe’s people lacked, protected the shiny, untouched mansions and pleasure boats that could easily be packed up and jetted away from this eroding, fragile, and vibrant place that will almost certainly one day be underwater.     

Thoughts from Mystic

Southern Louisiana is eroding. New Orleans will one day be underwater.  Bulkheads and levees will not stop the rising sea level or the hurricanes that come more and more insistently. Everyone: the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, the Cocodrie Cajuns, the summer-vacationers—everyone except perhaps Port Fourchon pitting oil money against nature—will one day have to leave.

Yet imagine Chief Shirell or Mayor Camardelle telling their people the fight is lost, and that they must pack up and move. For them, the bayou is not just a geographical location; it is fundamentally tied to communities and ways of life that cannot be transported.

We must do something for the diverse people of Southern Louisiana so closely tied to the land. We cannot lie that the bayou will be there forever or that one more rock jetty will be the answer. But we must protect what remains for as long as we can in as sustainable a way we can, while educating the region’s next generation and allowing them to make their own decisions about their futures.


Muriel Leung, a physics major attending University of Pennsylvania, attended Williams-Mystic in Spring 2017. In addition to conducting climate research, Muriel enjoys creative writing; she edits and contributes to IMPACT, a student magazine at Penn that focuses on social justice-inspired topics. 

EnGULFed in Learning: Louisiana Field Seminar

Apologies to my loyal following of readers, all seven of you, for the great delay in posting this. The second half of the semester certainly picks up! Since our return, my peers and I been have been busy hunched over the tables in the Collections Research Center analyzing primary sources for our history papers, tending science projects, calling experts for their insights as we write marine policy research papers and finishing the epic Moby Dick.  But enough apologies and excuses…to the adventure!

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We landed in New Orleans and made haste toward the French Quarter for a walking tour to learn about the history and literary legacy that saturates every door and corner. We were set free for lunch, which for most included beignets. After strolling through the pulsing city center, we boarded the Natchez, New Orleans’ last true steamboat, for a ride on the Mississippi. The Big Muddy was as big and muddy as advertised. Floating on the mighty river and being able to look down on the roofs of homes below the river level revealed the true need for levees.

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Full steam ahead to the Natchez!

We visited the Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum, which integrates personal narratives from the storm alongside stirring images and information to help convey the profoundly devastating impacts of this disaster and its legacy in New Orleans and the nation. Understanding damage wrought by Katrina is essential moving forward to adequately prepare for future disasters to ensure a swift and just response.

From there, we rolled toward the Acme Oyster House. It was a rather loud affair and many of among us tried their hand slurping down oysters. We vegetarians relished in the salad, side options and large ice-cream sundaes.

The next day found us at Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (lovingly known as LUMCON) in Cochodrie. After a short orientation, we donned our sacrificial clothing and launched kayaks and canoes into the marsh. As we floated near the docks, Marlo and Lizzie sensed something was amiss with their brand new kayak. After a chorus of admonishment to just keep going, it became clear that they indeed were headed for the silty bottom. Expertly, they maneuvered the sinking vessel toward the dock and scrambled to safety. Removing the waterlogged kayak revealed a large crack in the side. Our brave survivors stood on the dock pumping their fists shouting “Not today, Gulf, not today!” (Not sure if that last sentence is really how it went down…but please imagine something dramatic if you will).

After Marlo and Lizzie were assigned an intact kayak, we all set out for the salt marsh for a morning of science and squelching through the mud. This was truly a rubber boots on the ground operation. Mike led a brief snail counting activity. the core of our visit to the marsh was to take a sediment sample. Using a massive tube apparatus assembled from home depot parts, ahem I mean a very serious piece of equipment, we drilled into the sediment. Students showed muscle lowering and lifting the tube through thirty feet of sediment.

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Nicola (CUNY-Hunter ’16) and her trusty boot observe from a safe distance.
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We’ve got to hand it to Chelsea (URI ’17) for her hard work on the core!
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Together, we “core”dinate the movement of the core. Back at LUMCON, we sawed it in half and examined the layers!

Back at LUMCOM, we cut open the core to read the layers. In engaging with the core, we discussed the geological role of the Mississippi. The Mississippi River has been delivering sediment to the Southern Gulf for thousands of years, spreading it in “lobes.” The location of delivery shifts slowly over time and the River delivers its sediment elsewhere. Devastating flood events like the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 also inspired the hardening of the river, which means that it can no longer deliver its fertile sediment to the regions that once relied on that input. Louisiana is truly the epicenter for climate change, losing land a frightening rate due the compounding factors of land subsidence and sea level rise.

Following a delicious gumbo lunch, we traveled down the road to speak with an oyster business owner. As she spoke about the ins and outs of running a business, we saw several boats dock and unload tremendous piles of oysters.

We spent the evening twirling and twisting and getting dizzy at the Jolly Inn. We came away a little breathless from hours of dancing to the sounds of the Couche Couche band. I’ll let the blurred photos speak for themselves:

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Jolly indeed! The Jolly Inn was declared the “official dancehall of Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program!”

In spite of the night of dancing, we all managed to rise early the next morning to set out for our visit to Grand Isle. On the long drive, we looked over the submerged roads leading to Port Fourchon, an oil hub responsible for receiving a considerable percentage of the nation’s oil. Conversations about oil in Southern Louisiana carry a cruel irony. Many lives and local economies are intimately tied to oil drilling and the associated industries, yet the burning of fossil fuels is contributing to the rising seas that are gnawing at the Gulf Coast, submerging a football field of Louisiana’s land every hour. How to reconcile the importance of oil in the economy and the environmental impacts remains a difficult question that this field seminar encourages us to ruminate upon. As students of the ocean and future educators, scientists, artists, lawyers and citizens, we must know and understand where our energy comes from and the impacts that our consumption has on coastal communities.

After seeing the industrial, austere Port Fouchon, we traveled through low-lying marsh toward Grand Isle. Chris Hernandez, a town official and friend of the program, met us to give us an intimate orientation on this barrier island which is truly on the front lines of storms, rising sea level and oil spills. Since being ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Grand Isle has rebuilt and rebounded. Mr. Hernandez presented a passionate plea that Grand Isle continue to receive federal and state funding to stave off the waves. It was a sobering moment to see the tangible and dramatic impacts of coastal erosion as we stood above a recently constructed beach access point that led into the sea,. Mr. Hernandez welcomed us into his home, more specifically his “Man Cave,” to meet his delightful family for a lunch celebration. Many of us walked away sincerely impressed by the resiliency of the community and touched by the generosity of our host. On the macro-scale, many us are conflicted by the future of developed barrier islands. Katy, our marine policy professor, encouraged us to think critically about the social and policy considerations in this case, and we have continued to ponder these important issues back in Mystic.

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Chris Hernandez, a Grand Isle town official, opened his home to Williams-Mystic

We could not leave Grand Isle without a visit to the beach to hear about the history and marine biology of the region, and, of course, the canonical literary work of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. To be in a place and read a work written a century before about that location is a unique opportunity. Of course, the faculty could not lecture without letting us explore the shore.

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Marlo, Jessica, Lizzie & Thomas shore look like they’re having fun!
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Cloey (College of New Rochelle ’16), Lizzie (Millersville ’18) and Amelia (Williams ’17) were just trying to saw hello!

 

In the evening, it was a crawfish extravaganza:

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Examining the feast…
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And so it begins…
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Thomas (San Francisco State ’15) and his crawfish

We began our final morning with one of ZAM’s world famous Swamp Tours. Bayou’ve got to see this to believe it. We soon said later, alligator (yes, we saw several alligators!) to Zam’s and were on our way.

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Unfortunately, we did not have a chance to hear from the environmental justice speaker planned for the afternoon because of inclement weather. Williams-Mystic Spring 16 has been eager to continue the conversation and engage with issues of environmental justice in Southern Louisiana. Field seminars offer an opportunity to engage with different perspectives and new environments, and it is inspiring to see my peers so invested in enhancing the experience suggestions about how to further integrate issues of issues of race, class and gender into the curriculum.

Our short visit to Louisiana was brimming with Mississippi River mud, crawfish, discussion about climate change and exposure to new ideas. I am writing this during “Climate Week” at the Mystic campus, so, of course, the Gulf Coast field seminar is weighing heavily on our minds.

 

We may be done with the field seminars, but please check in soon for updates about life here in Mystic.

Life on the Dynamic Edge: The Mississippi Delta Field Seminar

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We’ve done it! Our third and final field seminar is complete, and like Kate Chopin, who aptly characterized the very region we visited in her novel The Awakening, we have also been truly “awakened” by the experience in southern Louisiana. In contrast to Puerto Rico and the Pacific Northwest, this trip focused on the people of the area, perhaps because they provide the most accurate understanding of how difficult it is to be certain of our role with respect to nature on a coastline that is so rapidly changing. As Professor Ronadh Cox put it in our first lecture series upon arrival, down here the edge where land meets sea is “soft and squishy” rather than the hardened stone faces of the cliffs we regarded with awe in the Pacific Northwest.

More stationary than usual, we settled in for our short four-day stay at the Louisiana University Marine Consortium (LUMCON), a rectangular building perched on concrete pillars and the center for coastal and estuarine studies. With LUMCON as our base, we traveled into the bayou with a spirited Cajun tour guide to see the alligators and red-eared sliders sunning themselves in the vegetation on the banks (yes, we did see sun – if only for the day). We listened to our professors give mini-lectures on the historic use and current state of the Mississippi River as we ate lunch on the levee that prevents the river from draining into the sinking land where people have made their homes. We kayaked out into the marsh to watch bemusedly as Sheick sunk into the thick mud up to his knees while helping Dr. Sam Bentley from LSU (and a Williams-Mystic alumnus!) collect a core sample.

Perhaps the most memorable moments were those that allowed us to immerse ourselves in the culture for which this region is so well-known. One evening we trekked to Houma, where we visited the Jolly Inn for some Cajun dancing. Glenn Gordinier spun us around the room with as much ease as our denim-adorned hosts who had been dancing for thirty years; my classmates Julia and Hannah immediately took it upon themselves to accompany the music of the fiddle and the banjo with washboards struck with whisks as they danced.

On another occasion we spent the day with Mr. Chris Hernandez on Grand Isle – the site of Chopin’s novel. With a booming voice and contagious laugh, Mr. Chris took us on a tour of the narrow strip of land that is the disappearing barrier protecting New Orleans from the wrath of the sea. He graciously invited us to his home, offering stories of Hurricane Katrina and his experiences with the BP oil spill that struck the Gulf with so much force. We even had a visit from the mayor of Grand Isle, whose emotional reminder of the importance of human life in an area consistently battered with dangerous storms left few dry eyes in the audience.

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Back at LUMCON on our last evening, we listened to Mr. Carl Sevin describe the effects of living on land that is being slowly but steadily overtaken by water. His words resonated with us as we left Cocodrie to head to the Big Easy: “I’m a grown man, but I will cry if I see my house destroyed.”

Our final morning brought us to the French Quarter in New Orleans in the torrential downpour of a thunderstorm and our lunch onboard the steamship Natchez ended the trip on a positive note. however, we were all greatly affected by everything that we had seen and heard. As we drove over raised highways throughout these four days, we could see the roads below us being covered by the spreading expanses of water in the endless marshes, roads that past Mystic programs had traveled as little as four years ago. We learned of the complicated relationship between the oil industry at Port Fourchon, which has a huge monopoly on the economy of southern Louisiana, and the people who have become wholly dependent on it despite the adverse effects to both nature and lifestyle. Most importantly, the uncertainty of the future of the area proved a theme in every discussion.

Personally, it was difficult for me to imagine that the next time I visit, I will undoubtedly be able to witness the changes that have occurred as a result of the dynamic environment…the land completely gone in many areas, the levees built higher, the cypress trees sinking just a little bit more. I am incredibly grateful for the awareness I gained of the very special culture that has become a fixture in this place—the music, the food, the language, and, most of all, the resilience of the people that all mesh to render Louisiana incredibly unique.

Fair Winds,

Alex

Mississippi River Delta Field Seminar: A Muddy Account of Bayous, Beignets, and Beaches.

ImageI write now the final report of our travels as Williams-Mystic S’13 students. The time has flown by at an unimaginable speed, and our final journey has brought us closer than ever. We are also even more grateful for the experiences that Williams-Mystic provides: we have been back from Louisiana for about a week now, and the time to cease conversations about the experiences we shared there is nowhere in sight. Our class still shares laughs over the looks on our professor’s faces as they held snakes and baby alligators at Zam’s in Kraemer on the Bayou Boeuf, wax nostalgic over pictures from our Cajun Dancing excursion, and speak passionately about the ethical and political issues we encountered during our time on Grand Isle on the Gulf of Mexico.

After a long first day of travel, we made our way to our hosts for the remainder of the trip, the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), for dinner and to settle into our dorm-style rooms in Cocodrie, which is approximately 85 miles southwest of New Orleans. LUMCON provided us with a home base as well as our first introduction to real Louisiana style home cooking—biscuits and grits were staples during mealtime, as well as some very charismatic crawfish for dinner and fresh fish caught by our classmate Morgan!

LUMCON is situated directly on a marsh, which is perfect for studying the “lobes of Louisiana,” or the areas most directly affected by the shaping of the Mississippi Delta rivers, channels, plains and marshes. To better understand this dynamic landmass, Sam Bently, a Williams-Mystic graduate and professor at LSU, led us through the sampling of a vertical core of the marsh sediment using a vibracore, which gathered sediment samples from 3 to 5 meters below surface.

Our next excursion was to Grand Isle, with a stop at Port Fourchon, which supports half of the drilling activity in the Gulf and 75% of all deep water production on over 1,2000 developed acres of land. Our brief stop here was highlighted by a quick lecture by Katy Hall on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 and its impact on Port Fourchon and surrounding areas. We quickly piled back into the vans and arrived at Grand Isle, where Mr. Chris Hernandez, a Grand Isle town official, gave us a guided tour of the area with a stop at his home to meet his family. The day was capped by lectures on local author Kate Chopin, a literature lab at Grand Isle State Park, a quick dip in the Gulf, and free time on the beach.

Our final day brought us to New Orleans, where we had free time to explore the French Quarter after being shown the historic and state-wide landmarks on a walking tour by our history professor. Fresh beignets (an incredible powdered donut and New Orleans specialty) were enjoyed, pictures were taken, and we even had a ride on the Mississippi River on an old-fashioned steam sternwheeler, the Natchez!

After an action-packed trip, a nice long weekend helped us recover some much-needed sleep and classes began as usual Monday morning. Although the travel has ended, the days are longer and adventure waits at every corner here at Mystic Seaport.

Fair Winds,

Leah

Louisiana: Adventures with Alligators

While many of the adventures F12 has been on so far this semester have focused on the importance of place, the Louisiana field seminar focused largely on people. Our four days in the Mississippi River Delta region were so packed full with visits and activities that it was hard to find time to reflect until we arrived back in Mystic. After having had a few days to look back on our travels, I am more and more amazed by the surviving spirits and kindness of the friends we made.
Our trip began with a stop by the Mississippi River and lunch on a levee. After seeing the river and hearing from our professors, we went straight to the bayou. (Bayou is a term meaning marshy outlet used in the South). We were treated to a bayou tour given by Zam’s Swamp Tours. We all enjoyed learning from Mr. Derek and were interested to hear, among other things, the list of animals Cajuns are known to catch and eat. Our hosts even let us hold baby alligators and a very large snake! These scaly natives were mostly friendly and surprisingly cuddly—given that they’re reptiles.

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After leaving Zam’s, we drove to our home for the trip—LUMCON (Louisiana University Marine Consortium). For the next three days, our travels always brought us back to LUMCON, where we were well taken care of by the kind kitchen and security staff. Throughout our trip we also met many Williams-Mystic alums who live nearby. Learning their perspectives on the local area and hearing stories from their WM semesters was delightful.

Out of LUMCON, we kayaked and took a core of the Earth, had a Cajun dance, and visited Grand Isle. On Grand Isle, we learned about the literature of Kate Chopin where she wrote The Awakening, the science of levees, the policy of hurricane relief, and the history of the island. Most importantly, however, we learned the stories of those residents who survived Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill of 2010, and more. Their stories of the polluted gulf after the oil spill were especially poignant when we had free time to swim or wander along the now mostly clean beach. This trip to Louisiana inspired me to cherish the Gulf shore as more than just a site for great lectures on literature, science, policy, and history. The shore is a vital resource and a sine qua non of the culture in Louisiana.

As we settle back into our routines in Mystic, I know many of us are still thinking of our friends in the Gulf, missing the warm weather (sigh), and savoring our many new flavors of New Orleans-supplied hot sauces. As we gear up for policy and history research papers, we look forward to a Williams-Mystic Thanksgiving potluck this Sunday.

Fair Winds,
Anna