In just 80 years, some 2,000 square miles of its coastal landscape have turned to open water, wiping places off maps, bringing the Gulf of Mexico to the back door of New Orleans and posing a lethal threat to an energy and shipping corridor vital to the nation’s economy.
And it’s going to get worse, even quicker.
Scientists now say one of the greatest environmental and economic disasters in the nation’s history is rushing toward a catastrophic conclusion over the next 50 years, so far unabated and largely unnoticed.
At the current rates that the sea is rising and land is sinking, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists say by 2100 the Gulf of Mexico could rise as much as 4.3 feet across this landscape, which has an average elevation of about 3 feet. If that happens, everything outside the protective levees — most of Southeast Louisiana — would be underwater.
The effects would be felt far beyond bayou country. The region best known for its self-proclaimed motto “laissez les bons temps rouler” — let the good times roll — is one of the nation’s economic linchpins.
This land being swallowed by the Gulf is home to half of the country’s oil refineries, a matrix of pipelines that serve 90 percent of the nation’s offshore energy production and 30 percent of its total oil and gas supply, a port vital to 31 states, and 2 million people who would need to find other places to live.
The landscape on which all that is built is washing away at a rate of a football field every hour, 16 square miles per year.
For years, most residents didn’t notice because they live inside the levees and seldom travel into the wetlands. But even those who work or play in the marshes were misled for decades by the gradual changes in the landscape. A point of land eroding here, a bayou widening there, a spoil levee sinking a foot over 10 years. In an ecosystem covering thousands of square miles, those losses seemed insignificant. There always seemed to be so much left.
Now locals are trying to deal with the shock of losing places they had known all their lives — fishing camps, cypress swamps, beachfronts, even cattle pastures and backyards — with more disappearing every day.
Fishing guide Ryan Lambert is one of them. When he started fishing the wetlands out of Buras 34 years ago, he had to travel through six miles of healthy marshes, swamps and small bays to reach the Gulf of Mexico.
“Now it’s all open water,” Lambert said. “You can stand on the dock and see the Gulf.”
Two years ago, NOAA removed 31 bays and other features from the Buras charts. Some had been named by French explorers in the 1700s.
The people who knew this land when it was rich with wildlife and dotted with Spanish- and French-speaking villages are getting old. They say their grandchildren don’t understand what has been lost.
“I see what was,” said Lloyd “Wimpy” Serigne, who grew up in the fishing and trapping village of Delacroix, 20 miles southeast of New Orleans. It was once home to 700 people; now there are fewer than 15 permanent residents. “People today — like my nephew, he’s pretty young — he sees what is.”
If this trend is not reversed, a wetlands ecosystem that took nature 7,000 years to build will be destroyed in a human lifetime.
The story of how that happened is a tale of levees, oil wells and canals leading to destruction on a scale almost too big to comprehend — and perhaps too late to rebuild. It includes chapters on ignorance, unintended consequences and disregard for scientific warnings. It’s a story that is still unfolding.
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