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Surveying Hurricane Isaac’s Impacts
Story and photos by Jared Serigné.
The Delacroix Island where my grandfather was raised will never exist again. I’m okay with that. I’ve come to terms with it. I love Delacroix for what it is now, and that’s exactly why I went there on Sunday to survey the damage after Hurricane Isaac’s storm surge flooded the area last week.
Delacroix is situated about an hour’s drive outside New Orleans on Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs in St. Bernard Parish (map). My Spanish and French ancestors settled there in the early 1800s, and I feel a deep connection to the place. I go down there often to experience the bounty of nature while hunting and fishing.
The Delacroix marshes in the Mississippi River Delta suffer from the same high rate of land loss as the rest of Louisiana’s dying coastline. This is why I will never know the paradise that I hear the old-timers talk about. Still, it serves as the wilderness home for a wide range of fish and wildlife and is a productive environment even when under stress.
My last trip to Delacroix was on the Monday before Isaac struck. As its tropical storm force winds began to swing their way into the coast, I snuck in a pretty decent fishing trip that yielded an ice chest full of redfish. Everything was very alive on that day. The golden-green marsh grass swayed in the wind, mottled ducks called back and forth to each other, and bait fish and blue crabs scurried in and out of the submerged aquatic vegetation. I took it all in, but in the back of my mind I feared the worst and hoped for the best.
I waited out the storm at a friend’s house in New Orleans. After hearing the news that the town of Braithwaite in Plaquemines Parish was flooded by a surge of up to 12 feet, I knew that Delacroix would have taken a major hit. I decided that as soon as the water went down I would make a trip to survey the damage.
As we drove down on Sunday and crossed outside the federal levee system that surrounds St. Bernard Parish, the impact from the surge of Gulf of Mexico saltwater was immediately apparent. Debris hung from trees and anything that would normally be green this time of year had been turned brown. I’m used to seeing that brown color in the marsh in the dead of winter, but in the heat of an early September morning, it was enough to make my stomach turn.Then I saw the mud. The same rich delta soils that formed the marsh now caked the lawns and driveways of the houses and camps that lined the highway.
I pulled up to my boat slip to find a large tree washed up on the dock. My friend Joe was busy cleaning up the mess that Isaac left behind. “Judging by the water line on the boat shed I’d say we got about 10 feet of water right here,” he said. He seemed relieved that it wasn’t any worse. But that still didn’t relieve my own fears for the marsh, so we set out in a boat to revisit the places I saw on my last fishing trip.
When I turned from the main bayou out into the marsh, the smell of dead fish and stale marsh mud hit me like a freight train. Chunks of land had been picked up and moved to open water. Small trees and brush were toppled over one another and the once green marsh grass all blended together in a wasteland of grey. This is to be expected when a major surge of saltwater passes over a brackish marsh, but it still stings when you see it.
All of the submerged aquatic vegetation that once covered the shallow ponds was washed up and killed by the surge. These plants are important to the ecosystem. They provide shelter for small fish and crabs, and their seeds are food for waterfowl.
I ran back to a spot where I caught most of my fish on the last trip. I could tell that some of the marsh there was washed away because the small islands where we caught fish were now gone. There were still other islands left, so I decided to test the water for any signs of life. I grabbed the single rod and reel that I brought along and sent a gold spoon lure sailing into the murky water. Like clockwork, I felt a familiar tug on the other end of the line as a hungry redfish took the bait. After seeing all the destruction to the marsh it was a sweet relief to land the fish. It was a symbol of the abundance that Louisiana’s coast has to offer and the exact reason why I feel something must be done to restore this great wilderness.
We toured the marsh until the scene had left a lasting impression. The verdict was that the marsh took a big hit with Hurricane Isaac—similar to the effects felt after Hurricane Katrina, but not nearly as bad. Vital marsh land will be lost, and I’m sure satellite imagery from before and after Isaac will reveal approximately how much. What hurts more is that we have once again lost more of our natural protection from storm surge. Most of us were spared as the federal levee system did its job to protect communities, but other areas were not as fortunate as the floodwater inundated areas outside the federal levees. Many citizens must once again consider their plans to rebuild.
Now that Isaac has passed, it is time to get to work putting the pieces back together here in the Mississippi River Delta. As we tackle the challenge before us, I hope the rest of the country takes note of our plight, but there is no need to feel sorry for us. We choose to be here. We know that sustaining our unique culture and way of life is directly tied to how we manage this dynamic landscape.
We now have a comprehensive, scientifically-sound plan to restore our coast, the 2012 Louisiana Coastal Master Plan. With funding we can begin major projects that will build land and protect our communities.