Mississippi flood renews Gulf coast anxieties
Crossposted from Al Jazeera. Fresh flooding brings up difficult questions for Gulf coast residents, as fisherman pay the price to keep cities dry. Byron Encalade grew up in the swamps of southeast Louisiana, a place where day-to-day life hasn't changed much in generations.
"I grew up tying my Pirogue [a small boat] to the front porch when the tide would come up," he says. "For a lot of us born and raised fishing and trapping and hunting, it's a way of life."
That way of life is now in danger.
First there was Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, two storms in 2005 that famously devastated the Gulf Coast, and literally changed the map of southern Louisiana, quickening already-rapid coastal erosion while destroying homes and communities.
Image: Many residents have been forced from their homes as a spillway is opened to protect major cities from the flood [GALLO/GETTY].
Just as coastal residents had begun to recover from those storms, BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling disaster last year had a catastrophic effect on the economy and health of the region and its people. Now, the waters of the Mississippi River have reached historic heights, and Encalade is worried.
"For the small fishers, it's a very thin line between losing money and making a profit," he explains.
The Mississippi is central to economic life here on the Gulf, and its rising waters have wide-ranging effects, from disrupting shipping and causing rising prices for gas, food, and other necessities, to a loss of tourism dollars and the destruction of an estimated 100,000 acres of crops, as well as oyster fisheries, in the now-flooded Atchafalaya Basin.
A third generation oyster fisherman, Encalade serves as president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association, which represents minority fishers, including African-American, Vietnamese and Cambodian and Native Americans.
"This flooding is going to have a enormous economic effect in the fisheries," he says.
The US Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency charged with maintaining the levees and overseeing the flood controls, has acted to preserve the safety of Baton Rouge and New Orleans; two cities perched along the Mississippi.
Sacrificing rural communities for cities
To reduce the stress on the levees around the urban areas, the Corps has let water flow through the Morganza Spillway, flooding farmland and rural communities upriver from Baton Rouge, including thousands of houses, farms and oyster fisheries. The Morganza, a flood control structure designed and built in the aftermath of a devastating 1927 flood of the Mississippi, has only been opened once before, in 1973.
While no one can say for sure the lasting effects of this flooding, optimism is rare.
"The oyster people, they're screwed again," says George Barisich, president of the United Commercial Fisherman's Association. "The oysters that survived the BP spill, they're going to die now."
Barisich, a fisherman who lives and works in southern Louisiana, said that across the Gulf Coast fishing industry, people have been hit hard, both economically and personally.
"A lot of people, this is wearing down on them," he says. "For the people with the small boats, it's going to wipe them out. People have heart attacks over this."
The high waters in the Mississippi has brought into focus problems that have existed for a generation. Land loss caused by oil company drilling has already displaced many who lived by the coast, and the pollution from treatment plants has poisoned communities across the state - especially in "cancer alley", the corridor of industrial facilities along the Mississippi River south of Baton Rouge.
Matt Rota, science and water policy director for the Gulf Restoration Network, says that pollution carried by the Mississippi will create a massive "dead zone", a lifeless stretch of water that he says will further harm the Gulf ecosystem and impact fishers.
According to Rota, the combination of oil company exploration with the construction of levees that have cut off the natural delta-building processes of the river has resulted in a massive loss of coastal land. The state loses a football field-sized area of its coast every 45 minutes, he says.
Since 1930, Louisiana has lost over a million acres of land, an area the size of a small state. While plans have been drafted to stop the erosion and replace the coast, the federal government has never found the money to actually follow through.
"I'm seeing this as a squandered opportunity," he explains. "We need to build our wetlands and build our coast instead of losing it."
Jordan Flaherty is a journalist and staffer with the Louisiana Justice Institute. His award-winning reporting from the Gulf Coast has been featured in a range of outlets including the New York Times, Mother Jones, and Argentina's Clarin newspaper. He has produced news segments for Al-Jazeera, TeleSur, and Democracy Now, and appeared as a guest on CNN Morning, Anderson Cooper 360, and Keep Hope Alive with the Reverend Jesse Jackson. His new book is FLOODLINES: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and more information about Floodlines can be found at floodlines.org. For speaking engagements, see communityandresistance.wordpress.com.