Times Picayune 4 part series on Delacroix Island
Another excellent series by Bob Marshall
Gulf of Mexico oil spill is just the latest blow for Delacroix: Part one of four
Published: Sunday, August 01, 2010, 6:30 AM
Bob Marshall, The Times-Picayune Bob Marshall, The Times-Picayune
On a blustery spring day, Delacroix native Lloyd Serigne stands on the banks of Bayou Terre aux Boeufs, 30 miles south of New Orleans, talking about the village that raised him in the 1950s. Reaching into a deep well of memories, he paints an idyllic picture: A community of several hundred fishers, farmers and trappers whose homes were surrounded by a wetlands paradise of high ridges, marshes and swamps. The outside world — unwanted, unneeded — seemed a thousand miles away.
There was a time when Delacroix was a thriving community of 700 fishers and trappers, surrounded by forests of oak, maple and sycamore trees. Now barely a sliver remains as the marsh continues to succumb to subsidence and hurricanes. This photo was taken June 20.
But the scene surrounding him only mocks that vision.
Naked slabs and raw pilings that once supported homes stand like tombstones in open, soggy ground. Bare tree trunks rise from a salt marsh that used to be a vegetable field. Battered home appliances, ice chests and derelict boats litter the bank while a high tide moves through the remains of a hardwood forest. And a steady stream of heavy equipment heads down the road to fight the invasion of BP’s oil.
None of it matches memories that seem as sharp as yesterday’s news.
“Really, what we had here was a paradise — a natural paradise,” Serigne, 70, says with a smile of fond remembrance. He pauses to shake his head, a gesture half of wonder, half of despair.
“But when I try to tell the young people about this, they just stare at me like I’m crazy. They just can’t imagine what was here such a short time ago.
“And now it’s gone. Just gone.”
Just outside the city, within earshot of the vocal crusade to save New Orleans’ culture after Hurricane Katrina, communities that were the hub of a unique wetlands culture for 200 years have quietly been slipping into history. There have been no jazz funerals or memorials for places like Delacroix, Hopedale, Pointe a la Hache, Grand Bayou and Shell Beach. But in the course of a few short years, place names that dotted the coastal maps for centuries have become mere ghost towns, victims of a wetlands system undercut by man, then pummeled by nature and more recently stained by oil.
For the vast majority of city residents, these places were destinations known mostly for the seafood they shipped to local markets and the entertainment they provided sportsmen on weekends. But for those who understand their history and the reasons for their demise, these communities carry an important warning for the big city.
When Serigne thinks of his childhood here. he remembers a thriving community of more than 700 Spanish-speaking fishers and trappers who seldom felt the need to travel to New Orleans because the ridges and wetlands of their world provided all they needed. He remembers high, dry ground covered with forests of oak, maple and sycamore stretching from the banks of Bayou Terre aux Boeufs. He remembers wild fruit trees, citrus groves, rabbits and deer, ducks and geese, specks and reds and bass. He remembers how children spent half of each year at distant trapping cabins with the whole family, wedging in school between seasons for shrimp, muskrat, mink, crabs and ducks. He remembers thinking the world would always be like this.
But the most amazing memory of all: It was still mostly here just 40 short years ago.
Serigne surveys the ruins surrounding him, and shrugs.
“Everything we had was based on the wetlands,” he said. “When the wetlands started going, we were done for. But we just didn’t realize it was happening until it was too late.”
Those wetlands — the swamps and marshes of the great Mississippi River delta — were the reason Delacroix and its sister communities existed. Not only did they supply the basic sustenance for life, but for 200 years they were as imposing an obstacle to the outward expansion of New Orleans as the Rocky Mountains were to Denver. That physical barrier allowed communities such as Delacroix to remain insulated from change despite being in the shadow of one of the nation’s largest cities. Without hard-surfaced roads, without electronic communications, and without a real need to use the services and goods a city could offer, generations were raised speaking their own language and answering to a different set of social priorities.
Looking back, former residents now in their 70s realize the differences were stunning. Just 40 years ago, while their contemporaries in the Crescent City were being carried along on the great cultural and economic changes of the post-World War II years — two-car garages, all-electric homes, subdivisions sprawling along interstate highways and mandatory college educations — life in the fishing communities had changed little since the late 1800s. It was a subsistence culture revolving around fishing, trapping, hunting and local gardens, a life divided between high land along bayou ridges and the deep marsh, between village homes and trapping cabins, where merchants from the city hawked goods from floating stores on boats, and where no one ever dreamed of leaving.
“Why would we?” asked Henry Martinez, 67, Serigne’s life-long friend. “We had meat, fish, vegetables. We had school, church, three dance halls. We had a community where every kid had three hundred parents. You could play in the woods, swim in the bayou, hunt and fish.
“We had the best life anyone could think of.”
And it never seemed to change. Serigne’s ancestors arrived from the Canary Islands in the late 1700s, yet until the early 1960s, he and thousands of others spread across these bayou towns lived routines those ancestors would have recognized. But change was already rushing toward them. Centuries of tradition would wash away in 40 years, the result of activities they witnessed — even cheered — but never fully understood.
Levees built along the river in the early 1900s shut off the spring floods that carried sediment to deltas. setting in motion a sinking of their wetlands that should have taken hundreds of years. The dredges for industry that arrived in the 1930s hastened that demise by centuries. Thousands of acres of marsh were removed in the search for oil and gas riches, and many more for shipping and development. As the delta sank and the dredges worked, small ponds grew into lakes and lakes into bays, drawing the Gulf of Mexico ever closer.
In 1965 Hurricane Betsy brought that reality home in crushing terms, basically wiping out the entire community. Within a few years more than 80 percent of the residents had returned, but Betsy told them the end was coming. Between his teenage years in the 1950s and his 30th birthday in 1970, Serigne said, it became obvious that Delacroix and its unique way of life was dying. By his 65th birthday, it was gone: Hurricane Katrina was its final act.
Another of Serigne’s peers, Thomas Gonzales, 72, is one of the few natives still crabbing and living on the island. But to accomplish that he resides in a house trailer resting on pilings 17 feet above the narrow stretch of land remaining on the east bank of Bayou Terre aux Boeufs.
“When I grew up, all you saw from the front steps was woods and the bayou and other homes,” he said. “Now all I can see is water where the trees and marsh used to be.
“This ain’t the Delacroix we boys was raised in. Not even close.”
Today Delacroix and other fishing villages are either ghost towns, reclamation projects for sportsmen, or temporary boom towns for the BP disaster response. Some commercial fishermen still dock along the bayou, but they are commuters, driving in from communities on the protected side of the levees. Families that lived along the bayous for hundreds years have given up, chased away not just by the violence of recent storms, but the certainty of more to come. If there’s new construction, it’s largely by city anglers building recreational retreats.
The newcomers seek their sport in a dying wetlands complex that is a skeleton of the vibrant ecosystem Serigne remembers from his childhood.
The landscape surrounding Serigne on his walks today is as close to his childhood memories as the Sahara is to the Amazon. The forest has been replaced by a salt marsh, the only reminder of the former woodlands a ghostly line of dead trees rising from an encroaching salt marsh that became the graveyard for homes, businesses, farm fields and playgrounds. The community that once was home to a population estimated at 700 now hosts about 15 fulltime residents. The BP clean-up boom has boosted that number, but only temporarily.
“Everything changed so fast,” Serigne said, surveying the empty lots and ruined boats along the bayou. “Of course, looking back with the information we have now, we can see how it all happened.
“It was the canals — the oil company canals, and the MR-GO. Back in the ’50s, we could see difference in the way the tide was coming in and out. Faster. Stronger. By the ’60s, we could see the marsh starting to eat out.
“Then came Betsy in 65. Then Katrina. Now it’s gone. Hard to believe.
“Now when I talk to the younger people about it, they think it’s a story.”
It’s a story worth retelling.
Delacroix was insulated from history by wetlands: Part two of four
Published: Monday, August 02, 2010, 6:30 AM
Updated: Monday, August 02, 2010, 8:05 AM
Bob Marshall, The Times-Picayune Bob Marshall, The Times-Picayune
As children Henry Martinez, Lloyd Serigne and Thomas Gonzales never questioned why their home village of Delacroix was located deep in a wetlands wilderness 30 miles south of New Orleans. It wasn’t just a great place for children — with woods and bayous, marshes and swamps, fishing, hunting and hundreds of friends and neighbors — it also seemed like a logical place for a growing, bustling community.
delacroix_muskrat_trappers_pirogues.JPGView full sizeMarion Post Wolcott, Farm Security AdministrationSpanish muskrat trappers were photographed between 1939 and 1941 returning to their camp on Delacroix Island in their pirogues.
“We didn’t feel isolated or anything,” Serigne said. “To us, living there seemed the way life was supposed to be. It just seemed like someone made a smart decision.”
History has another story, one that involves national ambitions in the age of global imperialism, royal decrees, civil wars and traumatic social upheavals.
It turns out the wetlands community of Delacroix, which thrived on the banks of Bayou terre aux Boeufs for 200 years, was never meant to be.
“The people who left the Canary Islands never intended to live in the area around what would become Delacroix,” said William de Marigny Highland, St. Bernard Parish historian, and president of Los Islenos Heritage and Cultural Society. “This is a complicated story.”
It begins in the late 1777, a period when the Canary Islands were not the vacation mecca they are today. The archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa was a strategically important staging area for Spain’s colonial ambitions in the New World, but it was a hard life for residents. They struggled to scratch out a living on a dry, rocky landscape, with disease and famine constant companions.
So when King Phillip III offered houses, a stipend and — most important — free holdings on fertile land in the far-off colony of Louisiana, it was no surprise the response was overwhelming. The government had sought 700 volunteers; more than 2,000 would eventually make the trip.
King Phillip had a specific demographic in mind, according to historian Gilbert Din. “The recruits were required to be from 17 to 36 years old, healthy, without vices, and at least 5′ 1/2″ tall. Butchers, gypsies, mulattoes, and executioners were not permitted to sign up.”
The offer of new homes and land to this group was not an act of charity by the king, but a move to protect his ambitions.
“Spain had acquired New Orleans from France and knew that holding that city was the key to checking England’s ideas for expanding its dominion west of the Mississippi River,” Hyland explained. “Whoever controlled New Orleans, controlled the Mississippi River valley from the Gulf to Canada.
“Only about 4,000 people — Europeans and slaves — lived in New Orleans at the time. Spain knew it needed more residents and settlements to protect its claim.”
New Orleans was vulnerable to attack via the high ground next to the river, Hyland said, so Spain wanted to develop communities to address that vulnerability.
The first Canary Islanders stepped off the Santisimo Sacramento in New Orleans on Nov. 1, 1778, and by July of the next year almost 1,600 had made the crossing. The newcomers would start four new settlements. Two would be north of the city: Valenzuela, at the point where Bayou Lafourche left the Mississippi River, near present-day Donaldsonville; and Galveztown, on the Amite River off Lake Maurepas. Two would be south of the city; one on the west bank of the river at Barataria, and the other on the east bank south of the city at Saint Bernard — San Barnardo to the Spanish newcomers.
“St. Bernard would become an area of plantations growing everything from indigo and sugar cane to rice and vegetables, and raising livestock,” Hyland said. “Most of the Canary Islanders would settle in that area and work on those plantations, as well as producing some of their own crops and goods on their own properties.”
The plantations occupied prime property along Bayou Terre aux Boeufs, which at that time flowed directly from the Mississippi River. Centuries of annual floods had spread rich alluvial soils and created high ground. The plantation names are carried by many current communities: Poydras, Toca, St. Bernard, Creedmore, Kenilworth and Contreras.
Buyers were photographed grading muskrat furs at an auction between 1939 and 1941 at a dance hall in Delacroix.
“This became a very prosperous area.” Hyland said. “One of the first railroads in the country would be built down there to carry goods to New Orleans markets. Many of the residents would speak Spanish at home, but learned French so they could do business in the city.”
And Bayou Terre aux Boeufs was the main thoroughfare. The waterway flowed south and east all the way to Chandeleur Sound, twisting through the wild wetlands on the edges of the great delta. Trappers, fishermen and hunters had outposts there, but otherwise the area was the domain of runaway slaves and a few Native Americans.
The Civil War would change all that.
“The war destroyed the plantation culture,” said Hyland. “Many of the Canary Islanders no longer had jobs. They also didn’t have property.
“So when they began looking for a place to settle — to squat — they already knew about this area down Terre aux Boeufs that was owned by a Frenchman who had never come to Louisiana.”
The property was called La Isla du de la Croix — the island belonging to Francois du Suau de la Croix. It was a large section of high ridges, swamps and marsh along both sides of Bayou Terre aux Boeufs, about 10 miles from the plantations.
It was known simply as La Isla — The Island — because bayous, small lakes and swamps surrounded a large tract of high ground. Sugar had been planted in the area, but little else. It was still wild land, yet nature had plenty to offer.
Los Islenos — The Islanders, as the new settlers would become known — could fish for shrimp, crabs, trout and turtles. They could trap fur-bearing animals like mink and muskrat and otter, hunt ducks and geese and deer and pick moss for furniture. They had plenty of high, dry land to grow vegetables and crops, raise livestock, and build their homes from the cypress and oak they also harvested.
They could consume everything they took from the land and they could also sell it to markets in the city.
“They developed a subsistence lifestyle, but they weren’t poor,” Hyland said. “They flourished.”
The success of Delacroix led to other settlements, and by the 1930s a string of communities were growing on the high bayou ridges on the St. Bernard delta, including Reggio, Ycloskey, Shell Beach and Hopedale.
Even as world wars and economic upheaval ignited profound changes in the nation and in New Orleans, life on the bayous, insulated from history by the wetlands, changed little. Residents, spoke Spanish, married, started new families and built new houses.
“My parents and my grandparents only spoke Spanish because they didn’t know English, and they didn’t know English because they didn’t need it,” Gonzales, 72, explained. “And none of us kids spoke English until we went to school — if we went.
“I didn’t know that made us any different from people on the outside, ’cause we hardly ever went outside!”
Few residents ever left because, as Henry Martinez explained, there was no reason to leave. They had everything they wanted in the world of Delacroix.
Delacroix settlers found themselves in an opulent natural bazaar: Part three of four
Published: Tuesday, August 03, 2010, 6:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday, August 03, 2010, 4:31 PM
Bob Marshall, The Times-Picayune
Lloyd Serigne was 10 when his mother took the family on a trip to New Orleans to shop for items the natural bounty of their bayou home couldn’t provide.
The city was just 30 miles away, but among the forested ridges and thick marshes of eastern St. Bernard Parish, their life was so complete, if isolated, that they only needed the city every year or two.
At the Woolworth’s on Canal Street in the late 1950s, young Lloyd turned the faucet to wash his hands, and yanked them back, baffled.
He turned the faucet on and off several times to see if it would happen again. It did, and he left the bathroom thoroughly confused. Only a few houses on Delacroix Island had indoor plumbing at the time, and even they had to heat water over a fire.
He asked his mother: How does the hot water get in there?
She stared at him for a few seconds before dismissing him, in Spanish — “Oh, don’t bother me with things like that!”
She didn’t know how the water got hot, either. The water heater, invented some 60 years earlier by Edwin Ruud, had yet to infiltrate life on the Island.
“It was a different world on the Island back then,” Serigne said, recalling the story . “We did things the old ways.”
Old timers, new times
Now 70, Serigne and his lifelong buddy Henry Martinez, 67, page through memories from a Delacroix childhood in the 1940s and ’50s with smiles of amazement. Such “in-my-day” stories are the stuff of cliche in most places, but they are hardly hyperbole in the case of the bayou communities surrounding New Orleans. Their worlds didn’t merely change in a generation: They disappeared.
The Delacroix of today resembles those childhood memories in name only. The dense, rich wetlands that provided sustenance and livelihoods have become a crumbling salt marsh with yawning open bays leading right to the Gulf. The thriving village is gone, replaced by a thin line of mostly sport fishing camps and the temporary chaos of the BP oil cleanup army.
But the original name of this barren landscape provides a clue to the natural bounty that once thrived here: Terre aux Boeufs, or “land of the buffalo.”
“The name was given by Bienville,” said William de Marigny Hyland, president of Los Isleños Heritage and Cultural Society and St. Bernard Parish historian. “The wild cattle were buffalo — bison — that he saw in some numbers all over this area.”
It was high land, some of the most fertile on earth, with thick bottomland hardwood forests extending from the bayou ridges, followed by cypress swamps, then freshwater marshes. The salty Gulf was still many miles away.
Serigne’s ancestors pioneered the landscape after the Civil War. Their forebears were Spanish immigrants from the Canary Islands who arrived in New Orleans between 1778 and 1779 and worked on plantations along the northern end of Bayou Terre aux Boeufs, which flowed from the Mississippi River. When the war destroyed the plantation culture, they migrated down the bayou, where they found unsettled property owned by the absentee French landlord Francois du Suau de la Croix. The untamed land had plenty to offer.
The Islanders, as the new residents were called, had settled in one of North America’s greatest natural shopping malls. The vast delta of the Mississippi was still growing into the Gulf of Mexico, a vibrant ecosystem building plenty of high ground for farms and settlements, and also producing enormous volumes of seafood, ducks and geese, upland game such as deer and elk, cypress and oak for boats and houses, and fur bearers such as otter, mink and muskrat. What Los Islenos didn’t need for home consumption, they exported to the city for manufactured goods and cash.
By the 1950s that lifestyle, like the wetlands, had changed little. Life — commercial as well as social — followed nature’s calendar, moving from shrimp to trapping to fishing and back to shrimping again — with crabbing throughout.
The wetlands had been healthy not just for survival, but for growth. The Delacroix of Serigne’s childhood featured houses three and four deep, shaded and sheltered by oak, hackberry, maple and sycamore trees. As many homes and businesses were constructed on the west side of Bayou Terre aux Boeufs as the east side, which is the only settled bank today. The community bustled, and grew.
“We had three dance halls, churches, small groceries — everything we needed,” Martinez said. “It was a great place for kids. We had woods to play in, the bayou to swim in. We could go fishin’, and huntin’, and trappin’.
“And it was a very, very tight-knit place. Everyone knew everybody else. For kids, it was like you had 700 parents,” so closely knit was the community of the 1950s. “If you misbehaved on one end of the bayou, your parents knew about it before you got home.”
A world apart
Children and teens in nearby New Orleans, like other American kids, may have been worrying about the latest TV show, which fashions to wear to the Saturday hop or how to convince their parents to let them drive, but Delacroix kids were still connected to the land. School came only between seasons. Classes started in September, but when trapping season started in December most of the kids moved with their parents to distant cabins in the marsh, where they helped harvest muskrat, mink, otter and nutria. They seldom left before April. Serigne, his eight siblings and parents lived in a one-room cabin about 12 feet wide and 24 feet long — about the size of a FEMA trailer.
“The boys old enough would help my daddy run the traps and fish crabs, and the younger boys, the girls and my mother, we would skin the rats, and put the skins on (frames) for drying,” Serigne said.
They’d pack the meat in barrels to use for crabbing, which started when they got back to Delacroix in March.
“Our camp was on a bayou with several other families,” Serigne said. “And the marsh back then was solid enough to walk on, so you didn’t have to spend all your time in a pirogue.”
And they had other visitors. Fur buyers made the rounds to purchase pelts, and grocers steered their floating markets to the outposts so families could restock their staples.
Formal education suffered, of course, but with marsh life so successful, a lack of book knowledge wasn’t considered a handicap.
“Most of us didn’t speak English until we went to the first grade, and that was something we needed to learn if we traveled to the outside,” said Martinez, who still crabs commercially. “But most kids became fishermen and trappers like their daddies, got married to local girls and raised their own families there — just like it was always done.”
Trapping season was followed by a spring shrimp season that was profitable, but dangerous.
Fisherman stayed out weeks at a time back then, because shrimp dealers would meet them out in the bays, buying their catch straight from the boat.
“Well, to stay out, you needed to carry plenty of extra gas,” Serigne recalled. “We’d have it in barrels tied to the boat, and it was always leaking, and of course guys were smoking or engines were sparking.”
One or two boats would explode every year, he said.
“You’d hear this big boom and see a red glow, and you knew someone was in trouble,” Serigne said.
‘Chivos’ coming down
Summer was crabbing time, but also the season for the “chivo” migration.
“We called the sports fishermen from the city ‘chivos,’ which is Spanish for goat,” Serigne recalled with a laugh. “They would come down on the weekends and hire our fathers to take them out fishing.
“Visitors from the city always seemed to like to stand on top of the boat cabin or on boxes, probably to see across the marsh. So they were always wobbling like goats and often fell over.
“Look at that silly chivo,” one of the locals would say, or “I got some chivos coming down.”
Serigne and Martinez remember the security they felt on the bayou, the confidence that life would always be that way.
But change was coming, and at a pace that would stun them. They can pinpoint now what set the demise in motion: the arrival of hard surface roads and canal dredging.
Delacroix residents ‘never imagined how bad it would get’: Part four of four
Published: Wednesday, August 04, 2010, 9:12 AM
Updated: Wednesday, August 04, 2010, 2:25 PM
Bob Marshall, The Times-Picayune
In the early 1960s, Delacroix Island native Henry Martinez began noticing changes in the lush marshlands he trapped and fished.
A lone pickup speeds down the single road to Delacroix Island along the bayou where large oaks used to stand.
The water was getting deeper. All his life, it had been wrist-deep when he set his traps, and the same when he picked them up. Now, the water reached his elbow.
The tides were getting stronger, too, moving with more speed and rising higher on the upswing.
And the land — as they called the marsh — was shrinking, falling apart; islands were getting smaller, bayous wider.
He and others in the isolated but prosperous bayou enclave figured the canal dredging for oil and gas might be causing the changes.
“But we never imagined how bad it would get, how it would all end,” recalled Martinez, now 67.
The end of their world did not come in the form of a cataclysm. Rather, it was like an undiagnosed disease that showed only vague and scattered symptoms until it grew terminal. For more than 200 years, the wetlands along Bayou Terre aux Boeufs and the St. Bernard delta had supported a unique culture, provided livelihoods and buffered a community from the rapid societal changes sweeping the nation beyond their cypress trees. They lived lifestyles little changed from the subsistence culture established by their ancestors in the mid-1700s: fishing, trapping, hunting, speaking Spanish — and hardly traveling outside.
What they didn’t know then was that their wetlands had been under attack for more than 50 years. By the early 1960s, they were being tamed by hard-surfaced roads, drowned by flood-protection levees and strangled by industries that brought canal dredging to the fragile ecosystem.
There was a time when Delacroix was a thriving community of 700 fishers and trappers , surrounded by forests of oak, maple and sycamore trees. Now, in this aerial, ,taken June 20, barely a sliver remains as the marsh continues to succumb to subsidence, hurricanes and land loss.
Asphalt and concrete highways were an obvious sign, and they quickly began changing the social order. While shell and mud roads had reached Delacroix by the 1920s, getting in and out remained a difficult and time-consuming challenge, taken on mainly for commerce. The all-weather surfaces that came in the 1950s allowed more residents to get jobs at the refineries and manufacturing concerns closer to the city. As people on “The Island” got exposed to a different, more comfortable life, a slow migration began.
A father’s advice
But a more fundamental change was under way. The wetlands ecosystem was dying, and some of the senior members of the community had noticed. Lloyd “Wimpy” Serigne had always counted on being a fisherman. But as he entered his teens, his father disabused him of that notion.
Lloyd ‘Wimpy’ Serigne’s father ‘encouraged me to move up the road, get a job in one of the towns.’ Serigne was photographed motoring down the bayou along what’s left of Delacroix Island on July 16.
“He encouraged me to move up the road, get a job in one of the towns,” said Serigne, who took his father’s advice and became a Teamster.
The father could see a way of life starting to slip away with the ever-higher tides, even if he didn’t know exactly why at the time. “Of course, back then people didn’t realize why it was happening.”
In fact, for 70 years, residents mostly supported the very forces that would spell doom for their lifestyle — levees and canals dredged for oil, gas and shipping.
They applauded dependable levees on the Mississippi River because they could prevent floods that inundated cropland and even homes. But sealing bayous like Terre aux Boeufs from the river stopped the delivery of the silt and fresh water the delta needed to remain above sea level. Without the silt, it would slowly sink, becoming ever more vulnerable to flooding.
If levees were all that had happened to the delta, the wetlands in place at the turn of the century would have remained largely intact for hundreds of years, coastal scientists have said. But in the 1930s, oil and gas was discovered in the coastal zone, unleashing a frenzy of canal dredging that would compress the wetlands’ demise into 70 years.
“That was the shortest way to drilling sites,” Martinez said. “To be honest, at the time we didn’t mind those canals, because they were shortcuts across the marsh for us, too.”
At first the impacts seemed incremental to residents like Serigne and Martinez. But in truth, the changes were gathering speed; as scientists now know, they are exponential. As a lagoon, canal or lake becomes wider, wind-driven waves become larger and strike fragile shorelines with growing energy, further widening the area of open water, leading to still-larger waves and greater damage.
A total of 27,600 acres of marsh in St. Bernard Parish were converted to open water between 1930 and 2005. Today, according to federal reports, Lake Borgne shoreline “retreat” averages between 2 and 27 feet per year.
All those impacts were greatly exacerbated when the nation — with the support of local worthies — ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, designed as a shortcut for big ships between the Gulf of Mexico and port of New Orleans. When politicians cut the ribbons in 1963, they opened a wound 76 miles long, 500 feet wide and 32 feet deep into the pristine wetlands of eastern St. Bernard Parish.
The MR-GO would go down as one of the worst mistakes in Louisiana history, an economic and environmental disaster. Commercial traffic never came close to predictions, and it was a world-changing event for the local ecosystem and a culture that depended on it. The corps reports erosion rates along the north bank of the MR-GO have run 15 to 65 feet per year.
Removal of the marsh wasn’t the only damage canal dredging was doing. Wetlands scientists say deltas can maintain their elevation against sea level not just by the seasonal addition of new sediments from the river that builds them, but also with sediment delivered when high tides wash over the marshes, and from the detritus from the annual decay of lush plant communities.
But the canal-dredging techniques employed in coastal Louisiana deposited the removed material in a line along the canals, creating so-called “spoil levees.” Those levees, researchers report, form dams blocking the overbank flooding that could help maintain a delta starved of river sediment.
And the canal systems also opened highways for salty Gulf water to invade freshwater marshes in the northern end of the estuaries, removing entire plant communities, converting fresh and brackish marsh to salt, and others to open water. With plant production removed or dramatically curtailed, the wetlands lost another source of sediment.
By the 1970s, local fishers sensed the fate of their world. The MR-GO had nearly doubled in width to a quarter-mile at some points and grew monthly; much of eastern St. Bernard Parish was falling into Lake Borgne, while its southern edges were being consumed by Breton Sound and Black Bay. Land once used for vegetable gardens was now being flooded with salty water. Even small storms carried surges that could flood homes.
Any who remained in denial were shocked to reality on Sept. 9, 1965, when Hurricane Betsy ravaged their community. Not only were most homes destroyed, but the fragile condition of the wetlands was made plain.
Still, 80 percent of the natives didn’t want to give up their lifestyles and resettled in Delacroix within three years. But social changes accelerated. Residents watched their community start to morph from a tight-knit working village to a weekend playground, with almost as many camps as permanent homes.
Even projects designed to help the decaying marsh took a toll. The Caernarvon freshwater diversion — originally designed to help oyster fishers by preventing the outer bays from becoming too salty for the crustaceans — was also hailed for its ability to strengthen marsh plants with surges of fresh water. But local fishers said that change also pushed inshore shrimping out of business and, they believe, actually destroyed marsh rather than bolstered it.
“You can’t find a brown shrimp inside no more,” said Martinez. “And it’s hurt that marsh. Land we used to be able to walk on is now open water. How did that help?”
A still more devastating blow came on Aug. 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina basically wiped Delacroix from the map — taking as much as 120 square miles of the wetlands with it. Few natives ignored that message.
Today, fewer than 15 families live in the community full time. Most new construction after the storm was for fishing camps. Commercial crabbing is still viable, but most crabbers commute, just like the sportsmen, the “chivos” they once ridiculed as clueless outsiders.
Thomas Gonzales knows the world surrounding his trailer now doesn’t resemble the habitat where he grew up: “People talk about the ‘wet lands.’ The only wet lands left is in my yard when it rains. There’s no land left out there.”
In April, the few surviving remnants of the old Delacroix lifestyle became threatened when BP’s Deepwater Horizon exploded and began sending a river of oil toward the surviving wetlands. Like much of the coast, most of St. Bernard Parish was closed to fishing.
Many locals began picking up paychecks as high as $1,500 a day working cleanup, and villages such as Delacroix have become boomtowns invaded by hundreds of workers. But instead of lifting spirits, the windfall has only deepened the sense of loss and anxiety among natives, the sense of a world ending.
“That money I’m getting now is good, but we all know it ain’t gonna last forever, or even very long,” said Martinez. “I’m worried about what we’re going to have left when they leave in a few months or next year.
“If that oil messes up the crabs from laying their eggs, where are we gonna get crabs next year? And if people in other parts of the country don’t want our crabs, what kind of price we gonna get here?”
“If I can’t crab, what am I going to do? I’m 70 years old. This is the only way I know how to make a living.”
Serigne, retired several years, has been picking up an extra paycheck as a deckhand on response boats. But the financial gain comes with a price: He feels the anxiety sweeping through men and women who still want and need to live off the wetlands.
“People are really, really worried, depressed,” he said. “All they talk about is, ‘What’s going to be left when BP leaves? Never in my life did I think anything like this would happen. Even after all the bad stuff before — the canals, erosion, hurricanes.
“You think about what we had not long ago. You can’t imagine what was there. What we already lost.”
These days, when Serigne and Martinez visit the scene of their childhood adventures, they see a thin, battered strip of open land between an encroaching bayou and an expanding marsh. The hardwood forests are gone. So are the dance halls, groceries, schools and churches. The only Spanish they hear is their own. The touchstones of their early lives have been erased.
“When you look at this — this graveyard,” Serigne said, running his eyes over the empty lots and sunken boats, “it’s hard to tell the young people what was here just a short time ago.”
Photographer Marion Post (later Marion Post Wolcott) (June 7, 1910 – November 24, 1990) was a noted photographer who worked for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression documenting poverty and deprivation. “As an FSA documentary photographer, I was committed to changing the attitudes of people by familiarizing America with the plight of the underprivileged, especially in rural America… FSA photographs shocked and aroused public opinion to increase support for the New Deal policies and projects, and played an important part in the social revolution of the 30s” said Marion Post Wolcott. Beginning in September of 1938, Wolcott spent three and a half years photographing in New England, Kentucky, North Carolina, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi. A photographic pioneer on America’s ragged economic frontier, Wolcottt survived illness, bad weather, rattlesnakes, skepticism about a woman traveling alone and the sometimes hostile reaction of her subjects in order to fulfill her assignments from the Farm Security Administration (FSA).