Other than cruising along a major piece of highway, there are few places that you can drive in America where you can go 50+ miles and not hit a traffic light. Such is the stretch of highway along Louisiana Highway 23, running straight through the center of Plaquemines Parish. Located just south of New Orleans, Plaquemines is literally a peninsula with the mighty Mississippi River going right through the center of it.
Where most of America has trains, large trucks and airplanes darting in and out of its boundaries, Plaquemines has large cargo ships, super tankers and even cruise ships sailing right down the center of it. It is not at all unusual to be cruising along in your car going 65 and look over and see one of these monstrosities sailing along or stopping alongside the levee walls to wait before they head up or out of the Mississippi.
Plaquemines is also a very rural community. With Mississippi River-rich soil, orange and other citrus groves, and grazing cattle dot the landscape. Further adding to the Parish’s landscape are small harbors of fishing boats that venture out into the Gulf for the day’s catch. Despite all of this Mark Twain-like tranquility, it is safe to say that Plaquemines has been through the ringer for the past five years.
When Katrina struck, surges of water in excess of 50 feet crossed over the levees, parking shrimp boats in the center of the Highway 23 and farmer’s fields while cattle and other farm animals were left dangling in the surrounding trees. It also wiped away hundreds of homes and businesses and put the lives of several thousand of the Parish’s residents in scenarios few of us could imagine. It was in many ways an almost Salvador Dali painting of oddball images to comprehend, but they were very real to the region.
For as stark as it was for a number of Plaquemines residents to live in tents with their families for just over six months (until FEMA trailers were put in place and power and water lines were installed), like the area they call home, they were rustic and stuck it out knowing that things could and would get better.
While the communities of tents may be gone, they have been replaced with larger mobile homes, larger travel trailers as well as reinforced steel structures. The few single family homes that you do see are raised up twelve to fifteen feet so as to give them a sense of protection from the water, should it ever arrive again in such an unwanted fashion.
For as bad as Katrina may have “knocked them on their ass,” as one long time resident described to me, “it is BP that has driven the knife into their hearts” and may have given them what several residents believe to be a truly fatal blow.
Not far from the rustic harbors that are home to shrimpers, oystermen and other fisherman are the shorelines and marshes that were stained by the BP oil spill. Tar balls and oil-soaked marshes and beaches became part of the Plaquemines world this year. As a result, part of the professional and personal livelihoods of many in this community – fishing – ceased to exist. To only make matters worse for many of them, the Obama Administration’s moratorium against new oil drilling projects in the Gulf put even more professional livelihoods and their personal economic recovery on hold.
It’s an open debate by many Plaquemines residents as to what is worse: the impact of Katrina, the BP oil spill or the drilling moratorium. One thing they can all agree on is their concern about their future.
Despite its physical limits in land (some areas of the Parish are only a mile wide), Plaquemines is a gold mine when it comes to fishing, hunting and as every Louisiana license plate reminds you, “Sportsman’s Paradise.” It is also home to one of the country’s and world’s largest estuaries, where crab, oysters, ducks, migratory birds, shrimp and more make their homes. The water and land are truly intermingled into the way of life here, and many residents fear the oil-soaked marshes and recently cleaned beaches contain an environmental time bomb just below the surface that will go off in the coming years. Fears are genuine that the ecosystem will be radically altered in such a way that it will destroy not just the nature they dearly love but the way of life that has been with them for generations.
Compounding the fear is the belief, already echoed by new Mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu that BP is “poised to cut and run.” The constant BP media advertisements about “being here to make things right” rings hollow for the vast majority of the people I have met with this week. They’ve heard all the promises before. With Ken Fienberg taking over the BP-funded $20B compensation and clean-up fund and offering the region’s affected residents and businesses six months to take a settlement or go to court, a number of the Parish’s business owners and residents feel like they’ve another potential disaster on their hands.
If they take the settlement money, they give up their rights to sue BP for future damages. The funds they take from BP may or may not help them out, especially if years from now problems with the environment negatively impact the fishing, business operations and way of life they cherish.
To date, over 28,000 tests have been done by government and independent researchers on the Gulf’s seafood, and the tests declare it safe to eat. The White House, along with the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board, are doing everything they can to assure the American public (and world) of the safety of the Gulf’s natural bounty. Despite those assurances, the perception problem for Gulf seafood harvests is enormous. Those fears will only be compounded if the seafood-loving public turns its back on purchasing Gulf shrimp, oysters, redfish and more. That will be just another blow to people who have had more than their fair share of pounding over the past five years.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, but then again, life in Plaquemines has never been simple or easy.
Check out the other pieces in this series.