The Louisiana Delta: A Region at Risk
By Janel Curry

Hurricanes will continue to threaten the Louisiana delta region, the southern third of the state where the Mississippi River nears the Gulf of Mexico. It is necessary, however, to consider why the characteristics of the region’s economy, culture and environment render the area more susceptible to a hurricane’s wrath, and why such an event results in significant cultural and economic losses to the nation.

The Gulf Coast region is one of our nation’s most important oil- and natural gas-producing areas. This area accounts for 21 percent of the nation’s natural gas and 30 percent of domestic crude oil production (7 percent of total U.S. oil supplies). One of Hurricane Katrina’s most widely reported effects was on oil and gas production: Refining capacity — heavily concentrated between New Orleans and Baton Rouge — was diminished by 20 percent, and it is expected to take a year to inspect and restore the maze of pipelines that moves oil and gas onshore, as well as the platforms where oil is unloaded.

map of oil production in the hurricane-affected areaPart of the story of oil and gas in the Louisiana delta region is this industry’s impact on the local environment. The oil and gas industry’s drilling and canal building have contributed to the erosion of southern Louisiana’s coastal marsh, making the area more vulnerable to hurricanes. A 1993 Louisiana State University study calculated that oil and gas facilities in key locations on the delta were far more vulnerable to storm surge in 1990 than they would have been in 1940.

Many aspects of the oil industry fuel the region’s economy, from the construction of platforms to drilling to the laying of pipelines.

Hurricane Katrina’s effect on employment reaches far outside the immediate area. People who work on platforms typically do a “seven days on/seven days off” schedule, allowing them to drive several hundred miles to get to work.

Less-publicized effects of Hurricane Katrina include other aspects of the local economy as well as the unique culture of the Louisiana delta region. For centuries, people have lived in the delta along the bayous (or rivers) on the natural levees. The region is near sea level, but the natural levees are several feet higher than the surrounding areas. From these natural levees, the land slopes toward backwater swamps until it reaches the next levee and bayou.

The natural forces that created the delta also left a very rich environment. This area is one of the major producers of shrimp, oysters and crabs. Fisheries have been an essential part of the economy, an outgrowth of the rich coastal delta environment.

While those with large boats can shrimp in the Gulf, those with smaller boats have depended on inland delta waters. These smaller fishing enterprises have been essential for helping people make a living during times when oil-industry employment has dropped.

The Gulf shrimping industry has taken multiple hits in the past 25 years, the biggest of which has been falling prices due to imports from Southeast Asia, where mangrove swamps are being removed to create shrimp farms. The price per pound for shrimp has dropped from $4.57 in 1979 to about $2.50 today.

The multiple impacts of low prices for shrimp and hurricane property destruction make this industry’s revival difficult. The irony is that the low prices are the result of comparable environmental destruction in Vietnam that makes this country similarly vulnerable to typhoons.

The hurricane’s effect on settlement in the delta, shrimp fishing, and oil and gas production cannot be separated from the larger problem of delta erosion. Canal construction for the oil and gas industry has increased this erosion. Oil industry canal building, channelizing of the rivers and bayous, and not allowing the rivers and bayous to flood their banks and deposit their sediment have all increased vulnerability to erosion by hurricanes.

But for many years, people in this region have felt this coastal erosion (which Hurricane Katrina accelerated). The forces at work that have increased the delta’s erosion have led to migration northward. In the settlement of Dulac, now at the end of the paved road, locals speak of growing up 15 miles farther south, where little land remains. Isle de Jean Charles was in the press last year as it undergoes the process of abandonment.

The threats to the Louisiana delta are not just threats to the environment and economy. Coastal erosion and subsequent increased vulnerability to hurricanes threaten a unique culture. This culture includes the mix of Bayou Cajun culture (white, French-speaking people who descended from Acadians from Canada, à la “Evangeline”); French-African influence through migrations from the Caribbean as early as 1805; and American Indian culture. As the delta has eroded, the potential loss of the delta region culture has increased.

Is there a future for the Louisiana delta region? Do we have the political will to undo a human-enhanced natural hazard? The problems that the delta region face relate to questions of how we should live in relation to the natural setting around us, whether that is the Louisiana delta or West Michigan. Hurricane Katrina also reminds us that all places are intertwined:

• The same wealth that drives up demand for oil and gas has played a role in the deterioration of the delta that provides protection for the region from hurricanes.

• Our increased consumption of oil and gas has increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, contributing to global climate change. The science of climate change is leaning in the direction of attributing the increased number and intensity of hurricanes to these human actions. A rise in global temperatures will contribute to rising sea levels as well, further threatening the Louisiana delta.

• Our dependence on the Mississippi River for trade has led to its being channeled and dammed rather than allowed to drop its sediment on the delta.

In the end, there is no such thing as a purely “natural” disaster. There are natural events that, in conjunction with human activities, create disasters. This particular one involved natural, but human-enhanced, coastal change — whose effect was particularly felt by some of the most vulnerable of our citizens.

Janel CurryCalvin geography professor Janel Curry is presently serving as dean for research and scholarship. She has an expertise in rural geography and is co-author of Community on Land: Community, Ecology, and the Public Interest (Rowman and Littlefield, 2002), and has also published numerous articles in disciplinary journals. She was a volunteer with the Mennonite Central Committee in the delta region of Louisiana in 1977-1978. While there she served the Houma tribe, an American Indian community spread across the bayous of southern Louisiana, by compiling a history and ethnography of the Houma people.