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Review and author interview: Disappearing land, vanishing identity for people of coastal Louisiana

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“Losing Ground”

By David M. Burley. University Press of Mississippi. 166 pages.

“Becky and William (Lake Catherine), sixty-nine and seventy, both retirees: [Becky] No trees. Nothing. [William] Fishing camps on Oak River. Big live oak trees and St. Augustine grass lawn. All those oak trees are gone. There’s no more oak trees. Not even the dead trees anymore. It’s all dissipated. The bayous have dissipated. [Becky] It was. It was really like a thick forest. And now you go there and it’s like skeletons.”

“Celestine (St. Bernard), a seventy-one-year-old former homemaker and commercial fisher: I hate to see these seagulls. I hate to see them by Wal-Mart … Because you know what’s happening in the marsh. They don’t have nothing to eat. They are coming further [inland]. You see these white egrets all over walking in the yards. They belong in the marsh.”

“Susan (Grand Isle), a 30-year-old graduate student: I think — and this is a dream — I think the people of Louisiana are incredible people and I think that one day they are going to get tired of this and actually start getting together and working to see to their own interests rather than the interests of the oil companies and chemical plants.”

Damage to the environmental treasure that is Louisiana’s coastline began long before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April. For decades, land has been vanishing at an astonishing rate — under dual attack from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the oil and gas industry. Levees built by the indomitable Corps of Engineers to protect towns from flooding, and abet development, put an end to the annual deposit of sediment that replenished a flourishing ecosystem of wetlands. With levees constructed along the entire Mississippi River south of Baton Rouge, land began sinking, the intrusion of salt water from the Gulf drowning islands, killing wetlands and wetland creatures, steadily destroying the buffer zone that weakens hurricanes as they move inland.

Oil and gas companies, welcomed by poor rural people for their promise of prosperity, have cut thousands of miles of canals into marshes and laid nearly 10,000 miles of pipeline across coastal wetlands. This activity accounts for 70 percent of the million-plus acres lost since the 1930s.

Coastal land loss has left inland cities more vulnerable to tropical storms than ever before, writes sociologist David M. Burley in “Losing Ground,” an insightful academic study of the toll that environmental degradation has taken on the communities of southeastern Louisiana. Fifty years ago, when a formidable network of barrier islands and marshes existed, Hurricane Katrina would not have had the devastating impact it had on New Orleans in 2005.

Burley’s book, germinated from a Ph.D. dissertation, is no racy narrative with a local hero battling enemies of the environment, no “Perfect Storm on the Bayou,” but a sober, intelligent report on a region that has been featured nightly on the news since the BP oil gusher began. The fascinating pieces of history and geography that TV news stories leave out are joined together here for anyone who wants to know more about the region or to learn the back story of an environmental disaster that local residents must finally reckon with.

“As the land disappears, identity is thrown into question,” Burley writes of people whose families have lived in their communities for generations. Describing this peculiar symbiosis between the coastal people and their natural environment — or between any people and land they’re attached to — Burley astutely observes that when “we lose that sense of healthiness of place … in some sense we feel ill.”

Though Burley conducted his field research about eight years before the present oil spill catastrophe, “Losing Ground” opens our eyes to a geographically complex landscape that remains hard to reach, and to deep-rooted Cajun societies isolated from mainstream America. Paradoxically, this remote locale has become an economic powerhouse thanks to its rich ecosystem, providing one-third of the nation’s supply of oil and gas and almost half its seafood.

Unlike California’s dramatic, surf-pounded beaches, most of Louisiana’s coastline is a nebulous embroidery of land and water, hidden from easy view by marshes. As a result, Burley points out, it’s not only difficult to discern the shape of the shoreline, it’s hard to see its destruction. Some of the damage, in fact, is subterranean. Oil and gas extraction in the wetlands are thought to decrease underground pressure, activating geological faults that cause the land to further subside. And as more wetlands sink, more salt water washes over the surface, altering the habitats of creatures that nest and swim, perpetuating an invisible process of decline.

For the most part, Burley writes in clear, straightforward prose, though he’s not without his lapses into the clumsy syntax of academia: “Selves and communities are alienated by Louisiana’s coastal restoration because, being commodified the context is stripped from the process.…” Not a pretty sentence, but it makes one of the book’s most interesting points: Instead of embracing coastal restoration projects, local residents tend to regard them with skepticism and even downright hostility.

Until Katrina hit, coastal restoration wasn’t on any politician’s agenda. But in the aftermath of the devastating storm, the Bush administration gave the go-ahead to fund a couple of major coastal recovery projects through oil and gas royalties to the state. These plans have proceeded at a snail’s pace, according to Burley, because coastal land is mostly privately owned and development is allowed to continue unabated. In his view, popular resistance to the federal government’s restoration policies is the anxious, defensive reaction of a people made deeply insecure by the loss of their environment. Beloved stretches of shoreline, ridges of trees and islands once picnicked on, are disappearing before people’s eyes. Moreover, conservative, self-reliant, insular communities such as these oppose massive, technologically based federal government initiatives as autocratic or inept, and even worse, negligent of them.

While the corps’ current river diversion projects might rebuild some wetlands — by making breaches in the same levees it once erected, thus allowing sediment back into targeted areas of marsh — Burley argues that the success of wetlands recovery depends on government agencies’ integrating local people into smaller, low-tech projects like revegetation. In an ideal world, yes, people would be called upon to employ their intimate knowledge of a dying place to heal it and themselves, undoing a century’s worth of rapacious destruction.

David Burley (at left) recently spoke to me from his home in Hammond, Louisiana, where he is an assistant professor of sociology at Southeastern Louisiana University.

Parul Kapur Hinzen: What’s been the effect of the recent oil rig explosion on the coastal communities?

David Burley: It’s pretty major. I think a lot of the anger and frustration that we hear [in news reports] isn’t ‘just’ because of the oil spill. I think it’s also in part a reflection and an expression of this daily disaster that they have to deal with — they had Katrina, then they had a couple of storms last year. And now this. The continual sort of Band-aid or low-level action toward repairing the coast. It’s just a feeling of fragility, vulnerability, helplessness and not being able to repair something that they identify with.

Hinzen: Has the people’s support of the oil industry changed since the Deepwater Horizon disaster?

Burley: It’s such an interesting relationship that people down there have — and the state of Louisiana has — with the oil industry. At the same time that they know it isn’t good for them — they realize that the activities of the oil and gas industry are one of the big reasons coastal land loss is occurring — there’s an immediate fear, “What else are we going to do?” The fisheries are already gone. They can’t fish. So if this is taken away, then they’re really scared about what they might be able to do to survive and continue to live on the coast.

South Louisiana provides a sort of microcosm for the rest of the country … for the need to diversify our economy and maybe start to move away from this sort of [oil] production or at least not rely on it so heavily. Louisiana’s politicians are real close to the oil industry, so I don’t see that happening. Certainly South Louisiana has a long, long history of agriculture before the oil companies came in. With the rise of sustainable food, you can envision something like that providing a means of economic development as well as re-establishing a sense of place.

Hinzen: Is it really viable to have human communities in a fragile wetlands area without levees and modern engineering? Does the very existence of these communities of people who love the land threaten that land?

Burley: Exactly. The levees spurred more development. You had limited growth in these areas [in the past] because you had frequent flooding. But once that river was levied off, you could build almost anywhere. On the other hand, plenty of coastal geology studies have come out lately that are saying the coast is going to look much different over the next 50 years regardless of what we do. If tomorrow the federal government decided “We’re going to dedicate all the money in the world to fixing the coast,” even if they did that, so much land has been lost that the coast is going to look much different over the next 50 years. A reduced population. It’s not like there’s not going to be any towns, but it’s going to be different population-wise, economically.

Hinzen: Does the oil spill exacerbate the situation?

Burley: The oil spill throws a spotlight on the slow deterioration of the land and an ecosystem that people are intimately tied to. It’s going to kill off a lot of wetlands. Some of it’s going to recover, but a lot of these wetlands are going to die. That’s going to uproot soil and exacerbate issues of land loss. And it’s going to kill off fisheries that multiply and live and thrive in those areas.

Hinzen: What is your prognosis for the restoration of Louisiana’s coastline?

Burley: I hope to see communities get really, really involved in the restoration of their coast. It’s also a way to diversify the economy — it’s another component to the economy down there, to building an economy of place. Along with the fisheries and fishermen, you can have people who are involved in coastal restoration issues, working on it every day as far as doing theory modeling, doing the studying, water sampling. In fact, so many people down there know the land and know the place so well. Their own form of expert knowledge can be really useful in making the coast sustainable.

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