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The Big Easy's Drowning Graves
By Julian Drury
Southern Louisiana is slowly vanishing. This process has been in the making for decades. Slowly, yet surely, the boot state is resembling a mangled foot. In fact, between 2010-2016, Louisiana’s coast has lost the equivalent of a football field of land every 100 minutes. A host of factors has caused this disappearance. As these coastal areas disappear, so too is its history. Entire communities have fled southern Louisiana. As these communities flee the rising waters of the Gulf of Mexico, they leave behind the graves of their ancestors.
Cemeteries are among the most intriguing and personal connections people have to their local history. Louisiana has many cemeteries with ages of historic significance with them. In the southern parishes, cemeteries are disappearing along with the communities. They are left to drown, a discarded byproduct of natural and manmade disasters. These historic graves have not been forgotten by their communities, even if they have little power to save them.
Nola.com published a piece in March of 2018 documenting the disappearance of these historic cemeteries in southern Louisiana. The town of Leeville was a center focus of this piece. The tragedy around this is not necessarily the disappearance of the cemeteries themselves. Rather, the circumstances surrounding the disappearance is the real tragedy. The main reason why these communities and their history are slowly vanishing into the Gulf of Mexico are the result of human carelessness.
Levees, designed to prevent the flooding of towns and cities along the Mississippi river, have caused the natural flow of sediments to disrupt. This, in turn, has harmed the natural flood barrier of the wetlands. This has been made worse in recent decades due to the domination of the gulf coast by the oil and gas industry.
Oil and gas have long been a sacred cow in Louisiana politics. It is an untouchable issue. The mantra of “creating jobs” has shielded the fossil fuel industry and its offshore practices from any meaningful criticism from local politicians. It is also important to note that fossil fuel money given to these local politicians has much to do with the lack of action against industry practices. Oil and gas industry money and lobbyists have infected every aspect of Louisiana politics. Louisiana, in effect, is so tied to the industry that it has become almost impossible for anything meaningful to be done against them to safeguard the dwindling gulf coast.
In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in 2010, former president Barack Obama placed a temporary moratorium on offshore drilling. The oil and gas industry had a near apocalyptic response to this. Fear mongering ran amok, with tales of 30,000 job loses and a death of the industry in the state. Former Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu (D) even stated that the moratorium “cost more jobs” than the oil spill itself. It should be unsurprising to learn that one of Landrieu’s largest contributors was the oil and gas industry. After she lost her reelection bid in 2014, she took a cushy job as a lobbyist advocating for oil and gas.
The infestation of oil and gas money in state politics has caused more damage to the coast than any number of jobs they claim to create. In fact, it is almost directly the result of the industry that the southern coast of Louisiana is vanishing. Starting in the 1930s, many series of canals were dug to accommodate the barges and boats needed by oil companies to transport their equipment and haul. Overtime, these canals grew bigger to accommodate the oil companies. Sadly, as Velma Ellender, resident of Bayou Laforuche, put it, “After the well was dried up, or whatever they abandoned it for, they wouldn't close those big, big (canals)…they just leave it."
Those wide canals allowed large amounts of saltwater intrusion into the coastal parishes. This, in turn, exacerbated the erosion of the wetlands and eventually the rise of the gulf waters. This has become symptomatic of industries such as oil and gas. They are more than happy to alter and disrupt the lands around in order to reap the bounties of resources and profit. However, when it comes to repairing the damages caused by industry practices, they are nowhere to be seen. Despite the disingenuous add campaigns by companies like Chevron, claiming to help in gulf coast protection, the truth is far sadder than the fiction. Oil and gas are more than happy to exploit these communities for their resources, and then kick them to the curb when they are no longer useful to their profits. The damage caused to the local ecological system remains, however.
The cemetery is a good analogy in this situation. Cemeteries, carrying the memories and history of once thriving local communities, drown in the rising gulf waters. Towns, like Leeville, are becoming cemeteries themselves. They are becoming markers for lost communities, just as cemeteries are markers for lost loved ones. Southern Louisiana is transforming into one large watery grave.
As a local of New Orleans, I see a bit of myself in those who are lamenting the loss of their communities and history. New Orleans itself is a potential victim of these circumstances. At the rate the sea level is rising, New Orleans could also be underwater in 100 years’ time. It’s nerve wrecking to think that my hometown can become America’s Atlantis in just a century. I can imagine my hypothetical grandchildren telling others that their lineage stems from a city that no longer exists. Imagine yourself in that situation. Despite the overwhelming damage that is being caused by careless human practices, things continue to get worse.
Oil and gas have become a parasite to Louisiana. The promises of jobs and economic security have not been delivered. Louisiana is one of the poorest states in the country. Far more assistance is given to the state in federal funds than is given back in taxes. Job security and wages are low. Meanwhile, Louisiana has granted hundreds of millions in tax breaks to the oil and gas industry. These tax breaks have not translated into better jobs. This is coinciding with the loss of the southern parishes. It’s hard to provide jobs for communities that no longer exist.
Communities continue to disappear. For locals in towns like Leeville, losing a cemetery is merely more salt being rubbed in an already festering wound. This wound will not heal if Louisiana continues fostering an industry that has helped destroy its natural beauty and rich history. It may be too late at this point. What a shame it would be for the descendants of Leeville to never again know their land of origin or visit the graves of their ancestors. Before we know it, their land may no longer exist.
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