Louisiana’s disappearing coast is a crisis measured in decades, and it’s been a tangible process for those of us who were born and raised here. From childhood to age 60 is not a long time in geological terms, but the land loss in Louisiana is something we can see.
A new project is recording the dramatic changes as seen in the lives of today’s residents.
Jed Joseph Pitre was born in Thibodaux in 1961 and remembers when the beach at Grand Isle seemed wider, with thriving coastal marshes used for family fishing. That beach is now narrower, and the coastal marshes are gone, replaced by open water.
A science teacher at Thibodaux High School, Pitre was one of 19 south Louisiana residents interviewed by students about the cultural changes they’ve experienced and the coastal erosion they and their families have witnessed.
For many of us, Pitre’s observations about childhood memories surely resonate, painful but true. The teacher’s remembrances are part of an oral history project, aimed at both preserving memories of the coast and teaching students about history and methods that historians use.
“What we want is to get the kids to be more aware about how quickly we’re losing land,” said Darcy Wilkins, research associate and project manager with the oral histories project.
Louisiana has lost almost 1,900 square miles of land since the 1930s through a combination of levees along the Mississippi River hemming in sediment that used to feed the wetlands, canal dredging, natural sinking and sea level rise.
There are estimates the state could lose another 1,750 square miles in the coming decades if nothing is done to help slow or stop land loss.
“I feel like a lot of people don’t understand, even people in Louisiana don’t understand what’s happening,” Wilkins said.
She is absolutely right, despite efforts by Louisianians and environmental advocates around the nation.
We commend the students who took part in the oral history project, working with teachers at South Cameron High School, West St. Mary School, Thibodaux High School and Holy Cross High School in New Orleans.
The students were trained using the interviewing methods of the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History at LSU.
Each school got four or five sets of audio recording equipment, and students were asked to talk to community members about their experiences with land loss, coastal restoration, sea level rise and the impact it may have had on their lives.
“I was pleasantly surprised they (the students) were all so into it,” Wilkins said. “Louisiana is a really special place, and people get excited about sharing how special it is.”
That’s great to hear, even if the news for the coast is not nearly as positive. Coastal Louisiana needs help, badly and soon.