Imagine yourself as a passenger on the beautiful, yet sinking, Titanic. Frantically you and the other passengers are working on an immediate plan to save yourselves within the next few hours that you all have to live. Meanwhile, the owner of the Titanic is in his New York City office, sitting at a table with his top financial advisors. They expect to work for the next several days on the “best plan” to save the doomed ship. That, of course, won’t do for you and the other passengers; you all need action to save yourselves now. This analogy is used by the general manager of the Lafourche Levee Board, Windell Curole. He knows that communities on the Louisiana coast are precious “sinking ships,” and he works daily trying to protect these areas. ACTION is the answer! Not more studies and plans. Our entire nation needs to realize what is being lost each day.
Seven generations of Windell’s French speaking family have thrived in the estuaries of southeastern Louisiana created by the fresh water of Bayou Lafourche, Lake Salvador, and the Mississippi River mixing with the Gulf’s salty water. He is a loud and strong voice for Louisiana’s wetland preservation, and visiting with him as we traveled up Bayou Lafourche made us more aware than ever that communities and cultures are also what we losing along with our vanishing marshes.
Leaving the quiet salt marshes near Leeville, we headed north up the waterway called Bayou Lafourche. We were amongst a crowd of shrimp boats, tugs, barges, oyster luggers, cars, and trucks, the latter of which were on the two highways alongside this historic bayou. Lafourche is French for “the fork.” Bayou Lafourche was once a fork of the Mississippi River. In fact, it was the main channel of the Mississippi between 400 and 3,500 years ago.
Today upper Bayou Lafourche, with water purification plants at Napoleonville, Thibodaux, and Lockport, provides the drinking water for over 344,000 people. Since none of these plants can purify bayou water that has too much salt, it is the southernmost one at Lockport, which is closest to the Gulf, that most often has a problem with salt water intrusion. Because salt water from the Gulf is heavier than the fresh water that flows down Bayou Lafourche, the salt water can creep up the bayou along its bottom and create a wedge of salt water. The wedge can become quite thick if the wind is strong and from the south and the tide level of the Gulf is high, especially in autumn, when there is little or no rainfall, and the water level of the bayou drops. These events make it easier for the salt water wedge to creep farther north toward Lockport. When this happens it becomes necessary for the flood gates to close to keep the wedge away from the water plant at Lockport.
Louisiana Highway 1 on the west bank of Bayou Lafourche between Donaldsonville and Golden Meadow has been called the “longest street” in America. Stretching the truth just a little bit, you can throw a ball from one front porch to another the whole distance between those two towns.
Thus, it is difficult to tell where a town ends and the next one begins. Since the high, well drained soil of the bayou’s natural levee is a narrow strip of land next to the bayou, the towns and communities along it are also narrow and form what are know as strip settlements. Having so many houses so close to each other along a major highway made it easy in the old days for the ice man, fresh vegetable seller, and the postman to stop at lots of homes in a short time. This was noticed by the US Post Office Department, which made the Thibodaux area the second rural mail delivery route in America back in 1887!
It is not hard to recognize the pride and love that the residents have for their homes. From Leeville to Golden Meadow to Galliano to Cutoff to Larose was our route. People gave directions along the bayou by saying something is, “Up the bayou, down the bayou, or across the bayou!” Unique businesses, homes, shops, and churches caught our eye. Windell Curole knows and loves each of these communities, and he has worked to protect them since the early seventies. He has seen much of his past heritage disappear as the land his grandfathers trapped on is gone. He fears that he is losing his future as well as his past.
Look at a US map and compare the lengths of the simple coastlines of Texas, Louisiana, and Florida. The shortest coastline, only 400 miles long is that of Louisiana. Yet our state nurtures more seafood and produces more oil and gas than any other region of our country except Alaska because its detailed shoreline is 7,700 miles long!
A coastline is a line that connects only the major outermost points of land; a shoreline, on the other hand, goes around all of the little bays, nooks, and crannies, and is extremely long in lower Terrebonne, Lafourche, Jefferson, and Plaquemines parishes, as the map shows. Thus, seafood, such as crabs and shrimp, that require in their life cycle both fresh and salt water at one time or another, has a much easier time (especially in southeast Louisiana) finding numerous sites to cross the shoreline from one environment to the other than in Texas or Florida, with very long stretches of solid coast.
The influence of the third largest river system in the world also helps to make this seafood productivity happen. Windell calls the platform of land the Mississippi River has created in south Louisiana a gift from other states. The rich sediment carried and deposited here by the river is what Windell calls the “re-USA.” The productivity and value of this area has been utilized by the “cosmopolitan communities” that over generations have established the many industries for which our state is known. Creation of these industries, of course, has required people.
The population of south Louisiana includes many ethnic groups. If America is a melting pot of simple stew ingredients, then that of south Louisiana is of spicy gumbo! The cultures of the French (the most numerous), Spanish, German, Slavic, Irish, Chinese, African, and Native Americans inhabiting south Louisiana have blended together. These folks are known for their simple lifestyles, replete with spicy food, great music, charming accents, storytelling, dancing, and living off nature’s bounty. A cultural region with this invaluable diversity is worth saving.