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.
Mayor David Camardelle and Town Supervisor Chris Hernandez
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?”
Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians
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.