As we watch the growing oil spill off of the Gulf Coast, I wonder about the vulnerable communities I visited in the area at the end of March. While visiting with MCC service worker Pam Nath, we drove to the Gulf in order to see the affects of continual wetland and coastal erosion in Louisiana. Dangerous eroding since 1920 has depleted this natural barrier for hurricanes and adversely affected historic communities based on the water.
In 1920 the U.S. began dredging the floor of the Gulf for industrial canals, enabling larger ships to come inland and dock on the Mississippi River and inland estuaries like Lake Pontchartrain. Permanent adjustments to the natural environment were deemed necessary to keep up with industrial progress.
Dredging for canals interrupted the annual springtime flooding of the Mississippi, which maintained the coastline by leaving behind silt when the waters receded. Later, the dredging was expanded in order to build levees meant to protect communities from hurricanes and flooding which became increasingly dangerous without this natural barrier. Between 1990 and 2000 wetland loss on the Louisiana coast happened at 24 square miles each year, losing approximately one football field of wetlands every 38 minutes.
Two million Louisiana residents—around 47% of the state’s population—live in coastal parishes, including the Homa Native American community. Culturally, the Homa are a coastal people who rely on the waters for sustaining their fishing and shrimping lifestyle. Living in the midst of the wetlands south of Houma, LA (an area still east of the spill) they experience firsthand the effects of coastal erosion.
As the land around their homes has disappeared underwater, there is only one small two-lane road leading to what is now their island. This road, literally crumbling into the water on each side, is the only connection for their community and culture on the water with essential services on the mainland. Once the road is impassable, they will be forced to move inland and leave behind their water-based culture. As a tribe that is not federally recognized they are already ineligible for resources available to people in need or to federally recognized tribes. Leaving their coastal land behind will create a break with their history as they have known it.
The Homa and other vulnerable communities again are compromised by the oil spill. Coastal restoration projects attempting to counter the unintended consequences of dredging now face unprecedented consequences of offshore drilling. Oil soaking into the wetlands and coating the shores will compound erosion by creating new hurdles for coastal restoration projects which cannot be fully anticipated while the coast becomes less and less habitable for all living communities dependent on the wetlands and open water.
Greater than the financial cost of the cleanup is the possible final loss of culture for an entire Native community, the loss of unique and needed marine and land wildlife, and the water-dependent industries supporting nearly half of the population of New Orleans.
Any policy responses to the disaster must respect:
- prioritizing the needs of local communities instead of those of the oil industry
- expertise of local maritime workers and communites, whose wisdom of the area far surpasses that of distanced industries
- labor rights of volunteer workers, especially as it relates to contracts and to the right to organize
- protection of workers vulnerable to exploitation
- environmental expertise respecting all types of local communities
Attention to the environment we are dependent upon is also attention to our own needs. Long-term responses to the oil spill must include future plans for a sustainable coast in a manner that does not compromise the health and vitality of the environment we are indebted to for our sustenance.