Grand Isle is a fine example of a barrier island. Such islands are the coast's first defense against hurricane wind and waves, but sometimes they "take it on the chin." Pat Landry, a native of the island, took Sue and me on a tour. One of the stops was at the cemetery of Chenier Caminada, just beyond the western end of the bridge to Grande Isle. I looked at a grave that had the date 'October 1, 1893;' that's when an unnamed "Category 4" hurricane killed almost half of Chenier Caminada's 1,500 residents. The storm's statewide death toll was 2,000. The event was at a time long before radar storm tracking, radio, telephone, TV, and hurricane evacuation routes. Let's not fool ourselves into thinking that can not happen again, for now we have so many more people living on the coast and less and less wetlands to protect them.
Other notable hurricanes that struck the environs of Grand Isle occurred in 1915, 1956 (Flossy), and 1965 (Betsy); the last named storm knocked down the front wall of Fort Livingston on nearby Grand Terre. This thick brick and concrete parapet was built to withstand the ravages of only war. Grand Isle residents live in fear of these monster storms and have been actively supporting efforts to shore up the island in anticipation of such future tempests.
For the past hundred years or so local barrier island active growth has been severely stunted by placement of the water control structure at the junction of the Mississippi River and Bayou Lafourche (to minimize the flooding hazard along the bayou) in Donaldsonville in 1904; subsequent to that event, Mississippi river sand delivery via Bayou Lafourche to the coast at Belle Pass (12 miles southwest of the western tip of Grand Isle) ceased. To the east, back in the 1960's the passes of the mouth of the Mississippi River extended so far out into the Gulf that the bulk of the suspended sediment delivered through them bypassed the adjacent locally narrow, 7-mile wide, continental shelf and has been deposited in the deep Gulf abyss. To compensate for the reduced sediment conveyance to the Grand Isle area, rock wave-breaking jetties have been put in front of the beach, the beach sand has been artificially replenished, and a sand levee has been built. This levee is 12 years old and is now very well vegetated. All of these remedial measures will help reduce the barrier island's potential deterioration rate.
Pat showed us some of the older homes on the island and then took us by his place where he has a bed and breakfast next door. He said the latter dwelling, originally his grandmother's, was the first to have an indoor bathroom on the island. Pat's an avid collector, and in these two houses with lots of nearby storage sheds are tons of junk and artifacts of every description. His pride is a 1962 Ford Thunderbird Roadster that is stored with a few other classic cars and motorcycles.
My favorite story of that day was about the hardships of his youth. We are not talking about walking to school ten miles in the rain, rather, he had to shuck a 50-pound sack of oysters every morning before leaving to attend his classes. To no surprise, his dad had an oyster business. Pat has retired from Conoco and shares this beautifully landscaped patch of high land in the oak forest of central Grand Isle with his wife Jean, who works for the Nature Conservancy of Louisiana. She told us about the organization's annual Grand Isle Bird Festival in April, for which we hope to be back. You will hear more from us about the avian "fall out" phenomenon (migrating birds dropping out of the sky) after the birds cross the Gulf en route to Louisiana in the spring.
Right now we are enjoying the winter birds; I have been particularly excited about a flock of roughly 500 Black Skimmers that shuttle between the east end of the island and the beach in front of Grand Isle State Park. They take off in unison and create an awesome curtain of black and white accented with red legs and black-tipped red beaks - quite a sight, especially when you can scrutinize rapid-fire images of it. I sat quietly with my 600-mm Nikkor lens and waited for their dynamic flight. I also saw the distinct red eye ring of a Black Oystercatcher, the bobbing of a Ruddy Turnstone, the classic "haircut" of Royal Terns, and three species of seagulls that are ever-present with the Brown Pelicans. It's truly a birder paradise down here in mid-winter.