From Fr. Roch’s porch, one sees acres of dead trees lying limply, killed by salt water intrusion from the storm surge. Eerie forests like this one dot the bayou county of south Louisiana’s coast.
Fr. Roch is an Isle de Jean Charles native, a retired Roman Catholic priest and coastal restoration advocate. Leadership runs in Fr. Roch’s family, his great-great-grandfather Jean Charles founded the island settlement, and he helped found the Bayou Interfaith S Community Organization (BISCO), laying the groundwork for the organization in the late 1980’s.
As Fr. Roch surveyed the shrinking archipelago, he explained how the island began to disappear:
“What hastened the erosion process was, first of all, when they leveed the Mississippi River. Then, to make it worse, they blocked Bayou Laforche, in Donaldsonville, that connects with the Mississippi River and brings a lot of fresh water to this area, all the way to the Gulf. We used to have real good soil, farming land, and grow all kinds of good vegetables. But then they started exploring for oil in this general area. So marsh buggies would cut through the marshes and make tracks. I mean, they leave like a highway, almost. So they went criss-crossing the marshes and all. There’s also a whole mess of pipelines this way, at each end of the island. So they hastened the erosion because they dug those canals. It was like building a new highway. It allowed more traffic to come in and faster. They were not blocked from the current -once the currents get in there, I mean it just started eroding, eating it away.”
Fr. Roch also noted painfully, that the manmade canals provide enables a storm surge to travel further into the marsh. In this area, storms do not have to be as strong to destroy. A Category 5 storm would carry everything to higher land and someday, these homes will be gone. Water will cover the land and off-shore oil drilling will begin on what was once the Isle de Jean Charles.
According to a U.S. Geological Survey report, each year between 1985 and 2010, sixteen and a half square miles of Louisiana disappeared into the Gulf of Mexico. This erosion includes much of the Isle de Jean Charles, a small island once populated by 100 Houma Native American families. Now, only 25 households remain.
BISCO leaders point to the island as an example of what’s in store for the state if coastal erosion and storm surge remains unchecked. The situation is a bit like the story of the people of Carteret Islands, located near Australia, who must resettle before rising tides finish the job of destroying their homes. Their story is the subject of a documentary film, Sun Come Up, widely promoted by the Catholic Climate Covenant. American audiences have expressed deep concern over the plight of the Carteret Islanders.
Have environmental leaders noticed that the same type of eviction-by-climate-change is happening here in the United States? Not so much…but BISCO has.
Scientists have developed some encouraging schemes to slow down the erosion, but one of the most promising ideas has emerged locally. BISCO is now using its clout to draw attention to local retired engineer and tinkerer Webster Pierce. His “Wave Robber” apparatus not only stops erosion – it reverses it!
The Wave Robber is deceptively simple. It’s an eight foot wide, five foot tall plastic structure with ascending stairs punctured by semicircle holes like cartoon mouse holes. It is designed to be placed right at the shoreline, where the waves break. When waves hit the box, they lose kinetic energy and never reach the shore. It’s the same principle behind dropping giant rocks in the Gulf: if the waves hit something other than the shoreline, they don’t erode it. But what’s different about the Wave Robber is that when water, containing tiny amounts of sediment, enters the “mouse-holes” the sediment collects, adding land, in the same way a dripping faucet adds up to gallons of water. “I’m mining for sediment,” Webster explained “Like you mine for gold. I’m mining for sediment.”
BISCO’s promotion of the Wave Robber attracted the attention of the University of Louisiana and with BISCO’s help; this pilot project may be replicated throughout the Gulf Coast. The hope is that land will be returned – several grains of sediment at a time. It may be too late for residents of the Isle de Jean Charles, but perhaps just in time for other Houmas living in the bayou country of coastal Louisiana.