In this December 2012 photo, water washes around the tombs of those buried in a cemetery in Leeville in south Louisiana. What's left of the old Leeville cemetery is only accessible by boat. Photo: Dave Martin / AP

By Rick Jervis
23 February 2013

LEEVILLE, Louisiana (USA Today) – At the 85th Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, an independent Louisiana-shot film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, will be up for four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, for its fictional account of a desolate band of folks living beyond the levees.

Nearly 2,000 miles away, this fishing community deep in the bayous of southern Louisiana is the real-life place beyond the levees, a place where residents eke out a living selling bait fish, brace for destruction each time a large storm looms and watch the Gulf of Mexico's steady march toward their front porches.

In a phenomenon recurring in coastal areas across the United States, wetlands loss and sea level rise are gnawing away at Leeville. Around 70 percent of the town's surrounding wetlands have vanished since 1932, leaving only the skinny community in the middle, according to studies by the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program.

Five major hurricanes in seven years and the 2010 BP PLC oil spill have further battered the community and chased away residents by the trailer-full, said Juanita Bryan, 81, who moved to Leeville 25 years ago to open a charter fishing business and trailer park. The closest protective levee is 13 miles up the road. One more, well-positioned storm could wipe the town off the map for good.

"Leeville is washing away," Bryan said. "We're losing our marsh."

Leeville's plight underscores a national debate over how much to build near water and what to save once the land begins to disappear, said Robert Lempert, a senior scientist at Rand Corp. who studies how coastal communities respond to sea level rise.

Superstorm Sandy last fall rekindled the debate in the Northeast, as communities from Manhattan to the Jersey Shore ponder how to protect themselves from storms and land loss, he said. But, as sea levels rise and more residents seek out oceanfront homes, areas from Alaska to Norfolk, Va., are facing the same dilemma, he said. Today, nearly 4 million Americans live in coastal communities less than 3 feet above sea level and are at risk of serious flooding.

"Leeville is the canary in the coal mine," Lempert said. "There are some places you clearly defend and build seawalls and levees. And there are other places you have to abandon." [more]

'Canary in the coal mine': Living beyond the levees in Louisiana

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