A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World is a monthly column about the future of climate change.
WE ARE FLYING INTO THE LAND OF BLUE ROOFS. In this place of renewed wreckage, the view from above is vivid and startling. Down below, the roofs, half of them cracked open and covered with bright blue tarps, look like a board game of disaster.
My wife, Nina, and I have not come to New Orleans to do a postmortem on Hurricane Ida, but to attend the wedding of a former student. We planned the trip months ago and had no idea we would be flying into the aftermath of an assault.
And an assault it was. Ida was an echo of the past—a Category 5 taking aim at Louisiana on the exact day that the state’s most famous storm hit sixteen years before, the word Katrina on everyone’s lips. But what came roaring up out of the Gulf with 150-mile-an-hour winds was as much harbinger as reminder.
Thanks to the vivid images of Katrina, it isn’t hard to imagine New Orleans in 2063, when my daughter Hadley will be sixty. It is particularly easy from the air. My first visit to southern Louisiana, during the 2010 summer of the BP oil spill, I flew by helicopter to the site of the spewing oil rig. The rig itself and boats around it looked like Tonka toys, fitting for the work of little boys, and almost everything was lit by the green nimbus of the sunny and flowering BP logo. On the way back north, we followed the Mississippi, flying over the patched grasses that make up over 13 percent of our nation’s marshlands, green jigsaw pieces in an ever-rising body of water.
In the years since, those marshes have been disappearing at an ever-accelerating rate.
After my student’s wedding, I spoke to David Muth, director of Gulf restoration for the National Wildlife Federation. He said, “The seas are rising here while the land is sinking. We are subsiding. It is 30,000 feet down to the bedrock. As far down to the bedrock as Mount Everest. Instead of bedrock you have clay and silt and sand, and so the land sinks. At this point, no matter what we do, we are going to lose significant parts of the coast. You can’t hold onto it. The resources are not there to hang on to the remaining 4,000 square miles of wetlands in Louisiana. We are going to lose large sections of the existing delta and coasts. That’s a fact. In the face of climate change, we are going to lose major parts of the delta.”
According to the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, “Without immediate and decisive action, Louisiana stands to lose an additional 1,000 square miles of land, an area the size of Rhode Island, by the year 2050.”
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THE GROOM AT THE WEDDING IS NINA’S and my former student, Adam Gnuse, whose thesis became a fine published novel called Girl in the Walls. The next day at the reception, we feel like proud parents.
It’s funny how you don’t have to go out of your way to encounter disaster these days. The plan was for us to fly back the following day, but after the hurricane hit, I tacked on three more days so I could continue my explorations of the end times. I drop Nina at the airport and change hats, becoming, once again, Disaster Man.
And if I am after the apocalypse, I have come to the right place. Parts of the trip to Grand Isle would not be out of place in The Road. It’s a landscape in tatters. At Destrehan, I cross the Mississippi and head south, essentially following the hurricane’s path in reverse into Lafourche Parish, which took the storm’s most direct hit. Only weeks ago, I was in Paradise, California, and I don’t need any reminders about what the future might look like. But if I did, here they are. Enormous live oaks, now dead, have been uprooted from the ground and thrown across the land like pickup sticks. Their muscular branches have cracked open roofs and taken out fences. Like dead warriors, they sprawl across front lawns. Interspersed with natural debris is the ugly confetti of garbage strewn everywhere, residents too tired and overwhelmed to begin to clean. Blue tarps, the new regional flag, cover not just roofs but also a fire engine parked in front of the station, a car wash, and a hotel. Boats have been tossed up on the side of the road, including the Kirsten Grace, a tugboat that now rests on a hill beside the highway. Over in the bayou, I see roseate spoonbills and egrets and the roof of a red Honda is the only part of the car not submerged. Signs of debris. The great garbage of the world.
The road thins and I cross miles of bridges that arc above watery slivers of land before descending into a low, wet world. I get as close as I can to Port Fourchon, the southernmost port in Louisiana, where the storm actually made landfall. Port Fourchon has a strong link to the area’s last famous disaster, the BP spill, more than ten years ago and five years after Katrina. If you are looking for a connection between our fossil fuel use and storms and oil spills, this is the place. Less a town than a resource colony, Port Fourchon serves as the handmaiden to oil exploration, servicing more than 90 percent of the Gulf’s deepwater oil production with 600 platforms within a forty-mile radius. Which means this futuristic place that looks more like a factory than a city is the capital of a province that provides close to 20 percent of all oil production in the United States. They won’t let me in, but it isn’t hard to imagine the mess that the hurricane made of the place, and the uneasy mix of oil and water that flooded this marshy land.
“ESSENTIAL PERSONNEL ONLY” reads the blinking sign at the entrance to Grand Isle, the beach town on stilts that Ida all but wiped out. I decide I am essential and drive right onto Grand Isle, waving to the parked cop as I pass. If Port Fourchon is a resource colony, this place is, or was, a sight more familiar to those who know the coasts of the American South. Grand Isle, a barrier island with about 1,500 residents, is technically in Jefferson Parish, which begins in New Orleans before hopscotching through the islands of Barataria Bay to land here. The homes on this island have been repeatedly flattened and rebuilt throughout its history, with some of the highlights being Hurricanes Flossy, Betsy, Lili, Isidore, and, of course, Katrina. As bad and as often as it has been hit, it has never been hit harder than this. The last time I was here, a sign after the bridge said jesus christ reigns over grand isle. This time around, neither Jesus nor his sign are anywhere to be seen.
These are not mildly injured houses where mold remediation is the pressing issue. We are beyond tarps here. These are shattered and splintered remains. Houses have been ripped apart, decapitated, flattened. Some slump on the sand, devoid of hope of recovery, while others reveal their innards: a fridge, bed, couch—while others still remain proudly on their stilts but wobbling unevenly, like boxers about to fall.
The million-dollar question is: How soon until the rebuilding will begin? To rebuild here is absolutely insane. It should be turned into a park, obviously, a beach buffer. Anyone can see that—but money is at stake. People like living where they can stare at the water, even if that water is full of oil platforms, even the kind of water that periodically rises up and flows through your home.
SPILL. It’s such an innocuous word. As in, “Oops, I spilled.”
TODAY I AM HEADING TOWARD SOME OF the most famous fishing grounds in the United States, Plaquemines Parish, which has an underlying factory toughness. Wading birds blend pink and white against a stormy sky as I pass Alliance Energy, with its giant vats and refinery fires licking the underside of the clouds. A mile farther you can see how Ida has thrown the marshes of Barataria Bay over the road. Work crews with orange vests clear clumped stalks and grasses.
Not far beyond Alliance, I come upon Ironton, a Black community devastated by Ida. For the most part Plaquemines Parish got off easier than Lafourche, but Ironton was one of the exceptions. I pull off the main road and drive down the causeway toward the little town—more a settlement than a town, really. The entire place is made up of four streets and a hundred people, and almost everyone has lost their home.
I drive in on the causeway, but a sheriff gets out of his car and blocks the road.
“You can’t come in here,” he says.
No gawkers allowed.
“It was bad?” I ask.
Ten minutes later I pull over and call Faye Matthews. Fayenisha Matthews is senior counsel at the National Wildlife Federation, where she works on legal and policy coastal land protection and restoration. From Faye, I learn just how bad bad is. No electricity, most of the homes completely destroyed in a place where few have the means, or insurance, to rebuild. The residents feel abandoned.
I have some sense of this already thanks to an interview I watched with Pearl Sylve, an Ironton resident, who told WDSU, a New Orleans station: “I have heard all the places—Houma, Lafitte, Thibodaux. I have heard about all the places except for Ironton. We’re a small Black community. Everyone back here been here for years. No one thinks about us.”
Sylve evacuated before the storm and came back to find her home no longer where she had left it. It had crossed the street and was now in her neighbor’s front yard.
“My house floated from the Johnson side of the street to Glenda Green’s house. That’s Glenda’s house,” Sylve said, pointing.
A ten- to fifteen-foot storm surge had breached the levee. And ten to fifteen feet of water then flowed through the homes of Ironton.
“Go and come back,” Sylve said “That’s what we always do. Usually, you have something to come back to. This time we really have nothing to come back to.”
MY NEXT STOP IS THE SMALL TOWN of Buras and the lodge of Ryan Lambert, who was my main source when I was reporting on the oil spill and who became the main character in my book about the disaster. Ryan and I are at the opposite ends of the political spectrum; during the spill he would tease me and refer to Obama as “your president.” Back then, Ryan’s vast lodge was almost empty because he refused to rent out rooms to the men who had come from out of town to man BP’s so-called Vessels of Opportunity. By the next time I visited, in 2015, the place was jammed with hunters and their dogs, and you could practically smell the testosterone. It has been six years since we have seen each other and I can’t say I am unhappy we skipped the Trump years entirely. But though we don’t agree on much, our common ground has always been the ground. Or, as the ground is now known locally, the water.
When I saw the first projections for Ida, my mind raced to Ryan and the lodge. His lodge had been the absolute bull’s-eye for Katrina and the watermarks from that storm were up to the rafters. Which means that during the hurricane, his lodge was under twenty feet of water.
Weeks later, when Ryan and his neighbors returned to Buras, they found rubble.
“People would come back with trucks and trailers to look for their stuff,” Ryan told me. “And they would leave with a baggie.”
TODAY THE LODGE IS EMPTY EXCEPT FOR RYAN. The two of us sit at one of the dining room tables in the cavernous building. The lights are off, the late-day sun slanting in through the windows. Ryan looks tired. He hunches over the table.
This morning, as a kind of therapy, he headed out for a day fishing alone on Barataria Bay. This was unusual for a man who guides others for a living. It was also unusual that in four hours, he—considered a top fisherman in one of the world’s most famous fishing grounds—caught only five redfish. If he was trying to get away from the aftereffects of disaster, he had gone to the wrong place.
“There’s nothing left out there,” he says. “The whole estuary’s caving in. It used to be eighty/ninety feet deep. Now it’s ten feet deep. Because the marsh, as it dies, sinks to the deepest spot and fills it in. All the material sinking to the bottom as it decays takes up all the oxygen. The deep holes are gone. What used to be the best wintertime fishing grounds in North America is now a dead zone.”
Understandably, it was human losses that made headlines after Ida. But the story that did not make it into the news was the death of Barataria Bay.
He shakes his head.
“We’ve already lost 2,400 square miles. That’s bigger than Delaware.”
DESPITE OUR POLITICAL DIFFERENCES, I ADMIRE admire Ryan Lambert. His is a buoyant nature. If resilience is a watchword in all these communities leveled by disaster, Ryan is resilience personified. I have grown wary of the word hope, but he embodies a kind of toughness and practical know-how that is better than mere hope, and that, along with some good luck along with his bad, has allowed him to survive so far.
Within ten minutes, he has moved beyond despair. What’s the point? Rolling up your sleeves works better. He pulls out his laptop and goes into teacher mode. He takes some glee in the fact that, though I am the professor, he is the one usually doing the professing when we’re together. Today my teacher has an important lesson for me. He wants me to understand that, despite the oil, despite Katrina and Ida and all the other fucking storms, despite the subsidence, despite everything, all is not lost.
“The patient’s right there,” he says, pointing west toward Barataria Bay.
Then he jerks his thumb behind him, toward the Mississippi River: “And the doctor’s right there.”
What Ryan wants to do is simple. Connect the doctor with the patient. How will he and others do this? By creating redistribution channels that funnel parts of the river, and, more important, its sediment, into the bay. This will in turn build up land in places where it is disappearing.
In fact, back at mile 61, the part of the highway where the marsh washed over, a mile north of Ironton, one of those sprigs of hope can be found.
There, $1.2 billion is being spent to connect the doctor with the patient. Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion will channel water from the Mississippi across to Barataria Bay, and the sediment from the river will regrow marshes, providing habitat for birds, fish, and other animals while providing a buffer to protect human settlements like Ironton.
When I had spoken with David Muth earlier, he had laid out a dire picture of the future coastline. But as he continued, I heard something like optimism sneak into his voice. Given that it has been a decade and a half of historic hurricanes and oil spills, and the fact that a near-Category 5 just blew through town, this surprised me.
“The way to go forward is building sediment,” he said. “If we divert the river, it will build up land. We can turn the energy of the river back into the overall system. Right now, the sediment is going to the wrong places. Connect it to the delta cycle. Build marshes. Change the trajectory based on the best science.”
Erik Johnson, the director of bird conservation for Audubon Louisiana, sounded equally hopeful when I called him.
“Money helps,” he said.
He pointed to another irony of this particular environmental fight. None of it could have happened without BP and the many billions that were part of the oil giant’s settlements. Five billion dollars in the right hands can go a long way toward a healthier Gulf.
“Broadly speaking, since you were last here, the Gulf has moved from response to recovery. People are on board, most people, and we have a once-in-a-lifetime chance. The BP settlement is an opportunity. And right now, it feels like Louisiana gets it. Maybe people get along better when there’s lots of money in place. With BP writing the check, we can reconnect the river to the delta. The river, and its sediment, could bring the bay back to life.”
Hurricane Ida does not render this a secondary concern. It means sediment diversion is needed more than ever.
I REMEMBER THE DAY SIX YEARS AGO WHEN Ryan took me out on his boat and pointed down at the GPS, which claimed, despite the evidence of open water, that we were actually floating on top of six miles of grass. There wasn’t a single blade in sight. This disappearing act continues to accelerate.
But Ryan believes this can be reversed, and he has the proof. He is no theorist, and for him, river redistribution is not theory. In fact, he has already taken matters into his own hands. Though the slow-moving wheels of government might be spending over a billion dollars to create the Mid-Barataria diversion, he has already created a few on his own.
Most recently, he—working with Ducks Unlimited and several government grants—created a small diversion on the east side of the river that feeds a four-thousand-acre area that was water before. Ryan’s newest business is land building and the results have been miraculous. Some of the land building actually happened in a matter of months, with such speed that people didn’t believe him. Not long ago he had brought a member of an environmental organization out in his boat to inspect the new marsh and said, “Jump out here.” She wouldn’t, assuming she would sink to her waist. But when he finally convinced her, she found herself standing on solid ground.
“Nature is so resilient,” Ryan says. “If we just let it work for us.”
Even on this smaller project there had been plenty of obstacles. If the need to build land seems self-evident, what is self-evident, as usual, runs right into self-interest. In this case, it isn’t oil executives but the local oystermen.
“They hate my guts. The feeling is mutual. It cost me $75,000 to buy them out of their oyster leases even though they hadn’t had an oyster there in twenty years. It doesn’t matter to them if there are any fish or land as long as it is good for the oysters.”
Another enemy, one familiar to me from my travels up and down Atlantic beaches, is the Corps of Engineers.
“The river has been running high for nine years,” Ryan says. “The Mississippi is the most engineered body of water in the world. And all the locks and dams on it are now filled with sediment. That’s because there are no doors to release it. So all the sediment that used to come down here is stuck behind those locks and dams.
“The Corps of Engineers has got this country so screwed up. If they don’t have a reason to have the locks and dams for navigation anymore, because there’s no more lumber industry because we’ve used up all the lumber, then get rid of them. If they’re not using them for creating hydroelectricity, get rid of them.”
Meanwhile, the sediment that does get through the dams is mostly dumped at the mouth of the Mississippi, where it falls off the continental shelf.
Ryan shakes his head. What a waste. All that good land-building material gone.
HOW STRANGE THAT IN THIS DOOMED, sometimes dismal place, this resource colony where oil spills into the sea and the land itself sinks as the seas rise, and the storms grow stronger and hit more frequently and harder, there is a possible way forward.