In southern Louisiana, the coast is moving. The sea is overtaking the land...pretty fast, too. Stronger hurricanes and tropical storms predicted for coming decades will wash away more of it. And while you often hear people invoke the rich cultural heritage as a reason to save the region, there’s a lot of rich oil and gas companies that would like protection, too.
Terrebonne Parish is the setting for "Beasts of the Southern Wild," last year’s Oscar-nominated film about a magical little girl and her swamp community, the Bathtub. The fictional Bathtub people live outside levee protection. As sea levels rise they fight to survive -- and they look it. A ragtag crew of revelers.
Businessman Oneil Marlborough’s family goes back generations here. He couldn’t look more opposite, all resilient good cheer in khakis and a button-down. He’s fighting for his community, in real life. “We see in our lifetime that the water is higher today, under normal conditions, than it was 30 years ago,” he says. Tidal gauges prove it, he says.
Marlborough owns an engineering firm that’s designed much of the flood protection for Terrebonne Parish. The system can open and close, a consideration made specifically for the oil industry. The huge boats that service offshore rigs need to get in and out.
“We got to keep them open, for navigation, because navigation is our jobs," Marlborough says.
He drives me down the spine of road along the Houma Navigation Canal. It’s lined with mom-and-pop boat yards and pipefitters, along with big corporate names like Halliburton. At the end is open water, with a miles-long wall, 12-feet tall, and a wide gate in the middle of it. Wide enough to bring in oil drilling machinery for safe harbor, in the event of a hurricane.
“There’s a 200-foot opening, and there’s a barge that’s on a hinge. It’s 200 feet, by 20 feet deep, by 40 feet wide, so it’s a big heavy piece of metal, but floating in the water it’s easy to move,” he says.
This idea for a floating door to the huge flood gate came from the oil industry, he says. For decades, oil and gas drillers have learned to build things out on the water. Local firms like Marlborough’s have specialized to meet their needs, and met government needs in the process.
"We’ve developed expertise in working in the marsh and the soils we have to deal with," Marlborough says.
That’s exactly the kind of expertise Allison Plyer sees as a new economic driver for Louisiana. She heads the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.
“We have the opportunity to become the leaders in coastal restoration. And we know there will be market opportunities for that, because the whole coastline of the U.S. is at risk.”
Louisiana experts are already in New York and New Jersey, helping out in the areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. Plyer says now’s the time to develop those skills into an industry, with higher-education programs.
At Delgado Community College in New Orleans, Bettie Abbate directs the horticulture program. She teaches her students to grow all kinds of things…including native marsh plants.
"This doesn’t look like much, looks like a weed you’d have growing in your back yard," she says. "This is a grass. It’s easy to propogate. I could get eight plants from this one one-gallon plant."
She’s taken students from around the country down to Grand Isle, a barrier island off the coast of Louisiana. They brought little plugs of grass to replace what’s washed away in hurricanes.
"We had a trailer full that we brought down there, and we totally replanted that berm. Those berms on the beach in Grand Isle are the first line of defense."
The students were taken by the beauty of the landscape, she says. And they saw what those little grasses that hold the sand together help defend. The cranes of Port Fourchon, where hundreds of supply boats come and go to serve offshore rigs. Eighteen of the nation’s oil supply relies on this port.
"And then they realize the economic importance to the rest of the country. And they’re like 'we get it,' 'we get why we have to do this.'”
On the way home, she said, water lapped at the one road from the island. The oil industry, and government, don’t seem to be counting much on Grand Isle for protection. They’ve spent hundreds of millions to build a highrise bridge to Port Fourchon, high above the old road, and high above the marsh.