MONTEGUT, La. -- After a century of oil exploration, the wetlands of Southern Louisiana have been cut to ribbons. Companies dug deep channels to lay pipe and ferry black gold out of the bayous, but never stitched them up; the open sores now funnel sand out to sea and allow saltwater to corrode vegetation that held the land in place. Largely as a result, the coastal buffer zone is 25 percent smaller than it used to be back in 1932, and still losing about a football field's worth of land every hour — leaving towns inland ever more vulnerable to the next giant storm.
Right now, there's a huge fight underway in Baton Rouge that will determine whether industry pays to protect what's left. If it doesn't, it's not clear who will.
Here's the quick version: Last summer, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East sued 97 oil companies for decades of negligence. The proceeds could provide a good chunk of the state's $50 billion coastal restoration plan, which is still mostly unfunded. The state's oil industry-backed Republicans, however, are scrambling to derail the suit — and just might be able to, with a bill that would essentially deprive the flood authorities of any power to litigate large environmental cases, now or in the future. If that happens, environmental groups are maneuvering to join the suit, or file another one that would accomplish the same thing.
And the consequences are not just abstract. The 711,000 residents of Louisiana's five most coastal counties live in an ever more precarious reality — and few more so than the denizens of Isle de Jean Charles, a filigree of sandbars an hour southeast of New Orleans. Many of its residents can't or won't move away, either because it’s all they've ever known, or because the very industry flushing the land from beneath their feet is still the biggest source of vitality the region has. A walk through town shows us just how deep those conflicts run.
Members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indian tribe, whose ancestors moved to what was a swamp even back in the 1800s, remember missing chunks of the neighborhood like friends who've passed away.
"All that's gone," says tribal councilman Tommy Dardar, motioning towards one flank of the narrow strip that his people have clung to since the 1800s. "Before, it was solid land. Looking right here, and far as you can see that way, was land. Now, as far as you can see, it's water."
The little community’s patched and ramshackle stilted homes are perched on a narrow ridge of sand; fishing boats in various states of disrepair sit tethered to weathered docks with missing slats. They've long drawn sustenance from the shallow waters, but options are dwindling.
"We used to hunt ducks over here. You could just put your pirogue in the water, and didn't need a blind, you could use the grass," remembered deputy chief Ernest Dardar (most of the tribe is still descended from a few original families). "It's just an open lake now."
For years, Chief Albert Naquin has pleaded for the state to offer some shelter from the surging seas. But the coastal master plan leaves Isle de Jean Charles outside its defenses; a new levee would be too costly, with little chance of success. And even with all the media attention to the tribe's fate in recent years, idle sympathy won't stop the water.
"Words get spread all over the country, all over the world, and nothing comes out of it. We're spilling our beans, but they need to send some money so we can do something about it," Naquin says, rocking back and forth on a porch glider, exasperation showing through his quick Creole patter. "People want to know what they could do to save the island. Well, put some land around it. Right now, we're the barrier island. So when the water passes over, it's coming."
So instead, Naquin has been trying to move his people out of the ocean's path. Twice, he almost had relocation packages worked out with the Army Corps of Engineers, with enough houses on nearby plots of land to consolidate the tribe in one place. Both times the deals fell through, in large part because a faction of old-timers doesn't want to move.
"My lady wants to leave, but I just love the bayou," says another of the Naquin clan, Lester, a tall, wizened tugboat captain home for a few days to cut the grass and fix things around the house. His children have already gone, and he sees the old habits dying around him. But on a sun-soaked spring evening, there seems to be little reason to leave.
Gradually, though, the storms have been doing the chief's work for him. In 2002, the tribe numbered 78 homes on the island, with more than 300 people living in them. After Hurricane Lily, in 2003, it was down to 68. The count dropped to 52 homes after Katrina and Rita, as people gave up on rebuilding. Gustav and Ike took out half of those, essentially leaving the tribe with a small, aging community just waiting for the next big one to wipe them out for good.
"It's not about whether they want to or not," Naquin says. "It's a matter of time when they're going to have to."
Terrebonne Parish wasn’t a bad place for Deborah Neil to grow up. She had seven siblings and even more extended family, and knew everybody along her stretch of Highway 665. Her father built their squat brick house, and there was plenty of room to play in the broad lawns around it.
Then her father died of a diabetic stroke in 2005. Her mother died of lung cancer last summer. Each of her siblings scattered to live with their own families, leaving Neil alone with her 15-year-old daughter Selina Pinell, who has Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. They're living off food stamps, Selina’s disability checks and child support from a father who left before Selina was born.
But it was losing the house that really did Neil in.
"When we have hurricanes come through here, the levee's directly behind my house, and the levees don't hold,” Neil explains, munching from a bag of Kit Kats while preparing a supper of pork barbecue and white bread. “And when the levee breaks, water comes up from the back, and it comes up fast, and before you know it, our house is flooded. Usually we never get water, but the last two storms, we had water inside the house. The last storm we had before my dad passed away, and my mommy said if we ever got another storm, if we ever got water in the house again, we were gone, because we can't afford to keep repairing our home. And we just ended up staying."
With the dwelling now uninhabitable and full of mold, the two of them live in a trailer a few feet away, entering only to do laundry (which might have something to do with Neil being diagnosed with asthma earlier in the week). The state offers grants for home repair and elevation, but requires owners to chip in some of the cash; Neil says she doesn’t have the $15,000 it would take. She used to work as a nursing assistant but quit to take care of Selina; she couldn’t leave if she wanted to.
“That's the main problem down this way,” Neil says. “A lot of people want to move, but they don't have the means.”
Neil does have some lifelines. She got a Pell Grant to take college courses online, and is training to become a special ed teacher. She’s working on getting her driver’s license, which could allow her to drive the car her mom left her to a job in Houma. And then there’s Brock Theriot, a swamp fisherman and landscaper. They met in a bowling tournament, and despite seven divorces already between them, decided to give it another go.
"God gave me what I want,” Theriot explains. “And he told me, look son, ‘You need to do what's best for this kid.' " He tosses a pork nugget to Harley, the chestnut-colored Dachshund mix running around underfoot.
Even with more leeway in her financial picture, though, Neil isn’t sure she'd leave before the next big storm could take her camper, too. The rest of the world is just too uncertain.
“I thought about moving, you know, just to get away from here. But this is my home town, I can't leave everything that I know,” Neil says. It’s just like the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians down the road, whose battles are well-known to locals.
“They've been there all their lives, they don't want to leave, even though pretty soon, they're not going to have an island,” Neil says. “They've been there for umpteen years, you know, and all of a sudden people are trying to pull you out of your home town, you know, I mean, you don't blame them for not wanting to leave.”
Jeff Jones doesn't remember a time when the view from the end of the pier at Isle de Jean Charles included more marshland than open water. He's a newcomer, having moved a couple years ago from Merion, Ind. — where he was making $14 an hour working at a distribution warehouse for Dollar General — to take a shipyard job that pays $25. For him, the coast means two things.
"Without all these channels and boats, Louisiana ain't nothing but one big fishing hole," Jones said, casting a line into the choppy, shallow bayou. He's already got a two-foot-long redfish in the cooler, and the whole afternoon stretches ahead, interrupted only by shrieking pelicans. News of the lawsuit strikes Jones as strange, as he uses a piling to crack open a beer.
"The government's making money off the oil companies. Because every container that comes in full of oil that goes all the way inland, the government has money in that," he says. "Okay, look at it like this. BP, Shell, Chevron, they have to have permission from the government to even drill, right? Well, that's the government's problem. So they can't say, well, you can drill and do all this for oil, but they're the ones that gave them permission. So how can they turn around and say well, you're at fault for doing this and that, see what I mean?"
He’s right on one point: The oil industry contributes billions of dollars a year to the state coffers, both through royalties and taxes. But it’s not so clear that it’s held up its end of the bargain on cleaning up the messes it’s made. The lawsuit alleges that the 97 companies failed to close the deep channels they cut through marshes and wetlands, as they were obligated to do by both state and federal law, which put a degree of natural erosion into hyperdrive.
Jones’ brother-in-law and fishing buddy Stephen Kennedy only arrived in Louisiana a couple weeks ago — they both left families back in Indiana — and already has a more realpolitik understanding of how business and government interact. Especially in oil-soaked Louisiana.
"If you've got big money, there's ways around everything. You can break any law you want as long as you can pay the fine,” he says, leaning back in his deck chair. “I'm a conservationist to the core, and I don't like the whole erosion thing, but it depends on the terms of the agreement."
In this case, the companies aren't just arguing they shouldn't have to pay. They're also threatening that the suit might push them to disinvest in Louisiana, which would cripple it economically — according to one consultant’s calculation, the industry supplies 20 percent of the state’s labor income, both through direct employment and jobs created as a result. Jobs like Kennedy's and Jones’s, in the shipyards.
"Half the ships we build are for companies that go out and work in the oil fields,” Kennedy says. “Can't walk down the street without seeing a machine shop where they build cisterns or pumps or equipment of some sort. All the offshore welders and electricians, you just see it, it's all tied together down here. Even if you're not working for an oil company, you're working for an oil company."
And it’s not even just local oil — it’s also the crude now gushing from the shale deposits in North Dakota and Canada, which comes down on railroads to get loaded onto ships bound for overseas markets. And for people who depend on it, even the vaguest of intimations should be taken seriously.
"If you didn't have these big ships, coming through Fourchon and Grand Isle, the state wouldn't have nothing,” Jones says. “We build these boats, and then they have to come through these canals and bayous to get out to the sea. Shut it down and see what happens."