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GANNETT NEWS SERVICE SPECIAL REPORT

Losing Ground

Wetland’s demise ripples across nation

Above: Cheryl Fitch, 42, sits on the back porch of her former home at Isle de Jean Charles, La., June 11, 2003, where she and her boys were flooded twice by hurricances. Jim Hudelson/The (Shreveport, La.) Times

Land loss crowding Cajun culture

By DENNIS CAMIRE
Gannett News Service

POINTE-AUX-CHENES, La. — Flooded out of her ramshackle house on Isle de Jean Charles twice in the past decade by hurricanes, each leaving more than 2 feet of muck on her floors, Cheryl Fitch had enough and decided to move.

But not too far.

The 42-year-old divorced mother of two ended up less than 10 miles away from the small island community where her father, other relatives and friends still live.

As south Louisiana’s wetlands vanish at a rate of 24 square miles a year, the island 70 miles southwest of New Orleans is shrinking and sinking. Today, the town’s 270 residents are regularly flooded by storms or even a wind-driven tide.

But Fitch won’t move farther away.

“My whole family has always lived here. I’ve always lived here. This is where I’m comfortable,’’ she said. “It’s home.”

Fitch, who is of American Indian and French heritage, isn’t alone in her unwillingness to leave an area that has developed a rich and lively culture based on family and community and flavored by the region’s unique food, music and French patois.

“Why would I go?” asked Loulan Pitre, who has lived along Bayou Lafourche most of his 83 years. “It’s tantamount to defeat if everybody leaves.”

This is Acadiana, Cajun country. It’s where 3,000 French exiles found a home after the English forced them out of Nova Scotia in 1755. They settled along the sluggish streams cutting through the wetlands, such as Bayous Teche and Lafourche, and the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge.

But their culture is at risk as the Gulf of Mexico, helped by man, gobbles up the swampland and bayous that sustain their way of life.

“If we don’t have the wetlands, we don’t have jobs, we don’t have homes, we don’t have a way of life and the people that are most vulnerable are the poorest,” said Rob Gorman, director of Catholic Social Services for the Houma-Thibodaux diocese. “They live in the most exposed areas and are the least able to cope with the changes that are going to be required.”

The loss of the wetlands and the cordoning off of large swatches of marsh by private landowners trying to prevent further erosion make it harder for residents to make a living from the area’s natural bounty of shrimp, crab, crawfish and oysters.

“It’s sad, because we’re going to lose everything we hunt and fish on now,” said Leonard Jeffery, 24, showing off a 45-pound drum fish he caught from the bayou’s bank above the Pointe-aux-Chenes Marina. “It’s a beautiful sight. I hate to see it go.”

As the protective barrier against storms and tides disappears, homes are flooded more, even from weaker storms. In the past nine months, southeastern Louisiana has been hit by three major storms — Hurricane Lilly, Tropical Storm Isidore and Tropical Storm Bill — causing extensive damage.

In Montegut, Tropical Storm Bill caused a 6-foot storm levee to fail, flooding about a quarter of the town.

Surrounded by water and marsh, New Orleans — home to the famed French Quarter — now averages 5 feet below sea level in some places. It is protected by an extensive network of levees and pumps. But as the miles of marsh disappear, the levees become more vulnerable to hurricanes, exposing 1.3 million residents to greater danger.

About 2,000 square miles of land have disappeared since 1932 and another 700 square miles are expected to become open water by 2050.

The lack of land for development keeps the population from growing as people move north seeking work, said Father Carl Collins, pastor at Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Golden Meadow on Bayou Lafourche.

“I think the loss of our wetlands, the loss of land, affects every aspect of our lives down here,” said Collins, who worked on an oil field supply boat before entering the seminary. “I really believe that we need to do something to stop the erosion, definitely — whatever way we can.”

Russell Cheramie’s family has lived in the area for seven or eight generations and he isn’t happy about the lack of progress to even slow down the land loss.

”I would like to have been born when you come down the bayou here and see what it was like before the people screwed it up,” said Cheramie, a 50-year-old towboat operator in Galliano. “Either they are going to do something right for a change or we have just got to have everybody move out.”