The post mortem on Hurricane Isaac was that it was the second most devastating hurricane to hit the New Orleans area in 47 years, topped only by Katrina. Although there were only two deaths, the numbers are sobering — levees overtopped, 7,000 structures flooded in LaPlace, 1,500 in St. Tammany and 700 in Braithwaite. The storm did far more damage than a category one storm usually does, suggesting instead that the way of measuring hurricane strength should be changed. Here’s the fact few authorities want to address: storms don’t have to be more powerful than they used to be to wipe out inhabited areas of South Louisiana today because the coastline is inexorably moving inward, leaving less marshland to cushion the storm surge.
We have a really important local voice on this issue in Tab Benoit, a Houma native who’s watched this process eat up precious landscape over the course of his life.
“Since I was a teenager the coastline has moved 20 miles closer to my home,” he says matter-of-factly. “Isaac kind of spared Houma this time because the eye of the storm passed directly over us. That’s the luck of the draw. But other places got hit very hard.”
Benoit’s core argument is that the wetlands are disappearing because the Mississippi is prevented from building up the delta by dredging. The incursion of salt water is the main reason the wetlands are vanishing.
“Whenever you stop the flow of fresh water you’re going to lose the land,” says Benoit, who points out that the levee failures illustrated the problem. “Levees themselves stop the fresh water. On the other side of the levee the land is disappearing.”
Benoit has Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars, recorded a prophetic album warning against inundation before Katrina and toured the country delivering his message alongside some of the most exciting music Louisiana has to offer.
Benoit’s signature event is the free Voice of the Wetlands music festival, held each year in Houma. It’s three days of great music and consciousness raining on this important issue. At a time when the country is so politically polarized, it’s inspiring to see people from opposite ends of the spectrum — faced with the destruction of the very land their houses sit on — uniting behind this simple idea. Political rhetoric gets checked at the door as the VOW festival brings environmentalists, progressive political activists and hard right-wingers to the same table for a common purpose.
And if you’re one of those people who say we can do this all without government, you’ll be laughed right off the grounds, because the federal government is the only power that can save this precious land.
“The federal government makes the call on this,” says Benoit. “It’s up to the Army Corps of Engineers to set the policy on dredging for shipping lanes and the maintenance of the coastline. A decision was made in the last century to deepen the channel for shipping and we’re seeing the long-term effects now. The President is the commander-in-chief of the Corps of Engineers. He can make that decision. They have to figure out another approach to how the river is made safe for shipping. If we lose all the land the issue won’t matter because we’ll lose the ports themselves, we’ll lose the oil refineries, we’ll lose the cities that people live in.”
The other major culprit in the wetlands’ destruction is the oil industry. Oil companies cut channels through the marshes for access to the rigs and these channels allow salt water to flow into the wetlands, killing all vegetation with which it comes into contact. BP and Shell in particular have spent fortunes on public relations efforts trying to convince the public they’re on the right side of environmental issues. If they put that money toward a real solution to the problem, it might actually make a difference. Though he’s skeptical about the possibility of that happening, Benoit thinks it’s a logical approach.
“Why wouldn’t they do that?” he posits. “This land we’re talking about is owned by the oil companies. It’s their land. It would make sense to think they might want to save it.”
Whenever the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars play, people come up to ask what they can do. That’s part of the reason the VOW festival exists.
“What you can do is get off your ass and get active,” says Benoit. “Write your congressman. Come to the festival and see for yourself what’s happening. Vote. Keep the pressure on the politicians until they do something about it.”