Is It Already Too Late?

Hurricane Isaac was a massive, slow moving storm that did tremendous damage, destroyed entire towns and caused numerous fatalities. It was “only” a category 1 hurricane, yet it created a surge of water similar to the deluge that caused the post-Katrina federal flood. Levees downriver from New Orleans in Plaquemines Parish failed this time, with devastating results.

In the aftermath of Isaac we were heartened to know that the newly installed measures protecting New Orleans did their job, and meterologists speculated about adding factors other than wind speed to the measurement of hurricane categories. But anyone who’s been paying longterm attention to South Louisiana knows what is happening. Deadly surges will most likely result from mere tropical storms in the future, because the wetlands of Southern Louisiana are disappearing before our eyes. As those natural barriers to the water surge created by big storms disappear, populated areas like New Orleans are faced with ever-growing danger. Tab Benoit and the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars have been driving this point home since before Katrina. We’re not just talking about saving coastal wetlands any longer. The destruction of wildlife sanctuaries is a terrible thing but what we’re really looking at is the eventual inundation of all Louisiana south of Lake Pontchartrain. Levees and surge protectors aren’t going to be enough when all the land is gone.

There are measures that can be taken to allow the Mississippi River to rebuild its delta and help resore the wetlands that provide the only real protection against storm surges, but those measures require the cooperation of the federal government and the oil companies who’ve accelerated the wetlands depletion by cutting canals through the marshes that allow seawater inundation that kills the vegetation.

John Swenson. Photo credit: Jerry Moran/Native Orleanian Photography

Last month I went on tour with the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars, reading from my book New Atlantis and talking about the problem. People in the audience understood the problem and shouted encouragement when I quoted Benoit asking, “Are we going to do anything about it?” Later some came up to me and asked what they could do to help. I told them to attend the Voice of the Wetlands festival next month in Houma and show their support. But now, in the wake of Isaac and the realization that it might already be getting too late to reverse all of this, we’re all left wondering what we can do.

I spoke with Rueben Williams, Tab’s manager, as Isaac was still making its way inland.

“Tab and I were talking about how now everyone knows we are in a worst situation regarding coastal protection,” he said, “but does anyone care? I don’t think our people who live here care enough to change the way that they do business with oil companies in order to save lives or our homes. Somehow we believe that big oil has taken care of us for years. But in the end it will kill us and drown you.

“It took a group of musicians to figure this out? They realized that it was important enough to spread the word outside of the state because inside the state we are trapped by pennies on the dollar pensions. This area sold itself out years ago. This morning we compared it to when oil companies go to Africa and they convince the natives that drilling will be good for them. The same has happened here.

“Is it too late to stop?”

–John Swenson

(OffBeat will be writing more about this issue in the weeks to come.)