A crane stands amid the sinking dune grass on a Louisiana barrier island. In the past eight decades, Louisiana has lost 1,880 square miles of coastal marshes, or an area about the size of Manhattan every year. Photo: Dan Vergano / USA TODAY

By Dan Vergano
6 August 2013

GRAND ISLE, Louisiana (USA TODAY) – Pelicans and pickups roam the beach, where the waves roll in and return, lapping over the open water of the Gulf of Mexico.

The water covers land that was once beach, and it has devoured land that was once marsh tucked behind this 6-square-mile barrier island, a speed bump for hurricanes headed north from the Gulf.

On this sunny day, the Tarpon Rodeo — billed as "the oldest fishing tournament in the United States!" — is underway, with fishing boats and truck-bed hot tubs competing in nearly equal numbers on the road . But beneath the sunshine here on the edge of this vanishing wetland, human mistakes are adding up.

Indeed, the in-your-face transformation — a product of climate change and the rewiring of the Mississippi — is threatening the spawning grounds for much of the nation's seafood, the pit stop for the Gulf's oil industry and the home of the beloved bayous and fishing "camps" that make life here unlike anywhere else. With every bit of wetlands lost — each day a football field's worth — the people and places of the Gulf Coast become that much more vulnerable to the next hurricane.

"I revel in every moment I'm out on the beaches, the bayous, the ponds," says Al Duvernay, 61, a life-long Louisianan. A retired oil industry worker, Duvernay now volunteers for efforts to rebuild the land sinking under the waves, a retreat he has seen firsthand over the course of a lifetime spent on the Mississippi River Delta. "Another part of me is compelled to come back here, because I know it is all going away."

In the past eight decades, Louisiana has lost 1,880 square miles of coastal marshes, or an area about the size of Manhattan every year. With another hurricane season upon us, it is land that Louisiana and the nation can ill afford to lose. The same threat of lost barrier islands and wetlands stalks more than half of the coastal properties of the continental United States, extending from Maine to Texas. But here in southeastern Louisiana, it's at its worst.

USA TODAY traveled to this place where the Mississippi meets the Gulf of Mexico as the sixth stop in a year-long series to explore places where climate change is changing lives.

"The sea is rising and the land is sinking," says Louisiana state climatologist Barry Keim of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. "The two together mean that wetlands are disappearing here at unprecedented rates worldwide." Add in the threat of more powerful hurricanes spurred by climate change, Keim says, "and you have to worry about the past repeating itself here."

Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana volunteer Al DuVernay, 61, catches a fish along the shore line in Grand Isle, La. He volunteers to help rebuild beaches. Photo: Sean Gardner / USA TODAY

"Louisiana is in many ways, one of the best examples of starting to see some of the near-term implications of climate change," says environmental policy expert Jordan Fischbach, of the Pardee RAND Graduate School in Pittsburgh, part of the team that last year developed tools for the state to decide what coastal restoration projects to pursue. "In some ways, I feel like it is the canary in the coal mine because they are seeing effects that change people's day-to-day lives."

Cemeteries are sinking and washing away in towns like Leeville, La., on their way to becoming isolated spits of land. Onetime orange groves and cotton fields are now covered with water.

Change here is constant but not subtle, so authorities have embarked on ambitious projects to, actually and figuratively, turn the tide. In May, the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) announced 39 projects it hoped to see reverse the damage, part of a 50-year, $50 billion plan. They range from restoring marshes to spilling fresh river water into the delta to rebuilding barrier islands.

Every 3 miles of wetlands restored means 1 foot less of hurricane storm surge, the water wall pushed ahead of storm winds that is often one of the biggest killers in a hurricane, Keim says.

"I worry a 50-year plan isn't enough, that it won't be enough," Keim says. "If we were talking about a 500-year plan, or a 1,000-year plan, that might be enough to bring things back."

The storm surge in Hurricane Katrina reached a record 25 to 28 feet, where it hit hardest in Mississippi. It killed 1,200 people and caused $75 billion in damages, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Once you go through something like Katrina, you are never the same," says Duvernay, who spent the day after the storm in his fishing boat rescuing his neighbors, people trapped in the upper floors of their drowned homes. "You never want to see that again." [more]

Climate change softens up already-vulnerable Louisiana



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