Last Island

Tuesday, June 29, 2004
CC's Journal 19

A few days ago the Wetland Wanderer was safely docked on the California Canal in the interior of Trinity Island, the largest of four islands that once made up the Isles Dernieres. In my book, The Gulf Coast: Where Land Meets Sea, illustrated are maps of this island as it appeared in 1853 and 1974. The earlier cartographic rendering shows a substantial, 38-mile long barrier island that had deteriorated into a minor string of islets by the later year. For the next couple of decades more of its land had been lost (especially due to hurricanes, including Andrew), but by the end of the 1990s some has been regained through barrier island restoration programs. Shea Penland, a barrier island expert doing research out of University of New Orleans, tells me that the four remaining islands of consequence, East, Trinity, Whiskey, and Raccoon, would have completely disappeared by 2014 if it were not for the federal Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act (aka "CWPPRA") of 1990.

A "top priority" of this legislation was restoration of Isles Dernieres. Those projects, completed in 1999, involved use of 15 million cubic yards of sediment dredged from adjacent waters to refurbish the islands. Once this was done fencing was put in place to trap wind-blown sand in order to help build and maintain sand dunes. Today these dunes are typically about twelve feet tall and vegetated with a variety of plants that not only are adapted to a marine environment but also stabilize the sand surface like a fine-meshed net. A great many vine radial surface runners and marsh grass roots accomplish this; additionally, the relatively tall marsh grass stems trap airborne sand. Flowers were blooming profusely, especially the Salt-Marsh Pinks, with their yellow-centered, flushed flower heads that contrasted esthetically pleasingly with the current blue-sky vault. The dune and the beach shrubs are so well established that it's very difficult to try to walk through them!

Despite the current "beefed-up" condition of the islands, they are still subject to future erosion by the continual daily onslaught of sea breeze wind waves and, worse, hurricane storm surges. Shea tells me the national average for barrier island shoreline erosion is only from one to two feet per year. Trinity Island, however, loses normally from thirty to forty feet per year. Hurricanes, of course, increase that rate of land loss. In 1992, for example, Hurricane Andrew caused 160 feet of erosion here. In 2002, hurricanes Isidore and Lili made the island's shoreline retreat an additional 293 feet. Thus, despite the laudable restoration efforts of the recent past, well into the future we all need to be vigilant stewards of the wetlands and ever ready to make the persuasive case for governmental intervention if and when the need arises!

Meanwhile, next to my moored houseboat was an imposing statue of Madonna atop a tall piling. Shea uses it as a reference point to measure the distance to the beach in order to periodically determine the ongoing shoreline erosion rates. In the local folklore are several versions of why this edifice was created at that site. One such version is that the Catholic Church put this statue in place as a blessed day marker to help bring fishermen safely in from the Gulf of Mexico. Another accounting for its presence was given to me by a passing fisherman who said that she marks the location of one of the hotels that was blown/washed away along with every other structure on the island by the Hurricane of 1856, with 140 deaths attributed to it. Yet another one told me its site was the focal point of a fishing tournament. I personally think that the blessing of it as a day marker for the benefit of fishermen is the most credible.

Without the numerous local CWPPRA projects, these islands would have eventually subsided into the sea in a mere decade or so. In my Gulf Coast book I ended my chapter on coastal islands this way ? "To the coast, an island is a critical piece of the puzzle that makes the deep blue waters of the Gulf work efficiently with the bays and marshes. To enjoy these in photography, fishing, and beachcombing or to know they are out there as our first line of defense against hurricane winds and waves we all need to help solve the problem of Louisiana's coastal land loss."