The last of Leeville: Chances grow slim for a wide spot in the road in La.
Friday, June 18, 2010
LEEVILLE, LA. -- Their eyes are bloodshot. Their scraggy skin glows reddish-brown. They clutch cans of beer. On the wooden deck of Griffin's Marina and Ice, they recoil when approached, like a nest of vipers.
"We used to be fishermen," one sneers, drunk, seething with wounded pride. "But now we work for BP."
They won't say more than that. From their perch, they glare across the silent street at the gorgeous marshland now closed to fishing. At dusk they screech away in pickup trucks, barely pausing at the town's one blinking traffic light. They surrender Leeville to shadow, to the mosquitoes, to what used to be and now isn't, to a solemn reality captured in two words that embody the collapse of a way of life.
This summer may mark the end of Leeville, a town birthed by a hurricane, then destroyed by one, resurrected by oil and now destroyed by oil. It isn't the only dying town outside the levee systems in south Louisiana. Subsidence, the sinking of delta land, has long been the existential enemy down here. Now wild crude has delivered what may be the final blow, choking off commerce. Some residents foresee an abandoned landscape, something right out of a Wild West movie, with empty slips instead of silent saloons, belly-up redfish instead of skittering tumbleweeds.
* * *
At the blinking traffic light, most drivers turn right and glide over the bayou to Port Fourchon, which services 90 percent of deep-water drilling structures in the Gulf of Mexico. Then it's on to Grand Isle, a paradise for sunbathers and beachfront property owners.
Confused drivers proceed through the light, past the sign that says "NO OUTLET," past two gas stations, four RV parks, a half-dozen bait-and-tackle shops, two motels and one bar, then run smack into a "ROAD CLOSED" sign just before pavement halts at the marsh.
That was Leeville. About a mile long, hugged by bayou, full-time home to a handful of people. No more than 60. Maybe not even 30. No one knows. Right now there should be hundreds of visiting fishermen leasing their own heavenly corner of the town's bayou front, but with waters closed by the Deepwater Horizon leak, there's no reason to come, no reason to stay.
For decades, storm surges have swallowed 14 square miles every year in the basins of Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes. Last year the state redirected Highway 1 around Leeville to elevate the hurricane evacuation route. The town's only thoroughfare became a dead end. Now residents worry that a hurricane will drench the area with oil this summer, killing the root structure that keeps the very earth together.
Leeville will be gone.
"To me, Leeville was gone 20 years ago," says Windell Curole, general manager of the South Lafourche Levee District, who says the town was 90 percent marsh in the '60s and is now 90 percent underwater. "When we did not take the action to protect the marshes around Leeville, that was the beginning of the end. The communities in southern Louisiana remain here despite floodwaters because this place produces tremendous amounts of biomass. A 7-year-old can go fish in back and catch enough food to feed his family."