The Future

How to go on when the world is sinking

The last town on the Mississippi River is perhaps the first to receive federal funding for the psychological toll of climate change.
The Future

How to go on when the world is sinking

The last town on the Mississippi River is perhaps the first to receive federal funding for the psychological toll of climate change.

The Mississippi River meets its end stubbornly. Instead of halting at the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, it built a strange piece of land over its millennia of existence using the tons of sediment it scoops up over its 2,320 mile journey in order to extend itself a few dozen extra miles. The resulting peninsula is Plaquemines Parish, a place with transient boundaries between land and water that tests the limitations of endurance.

At the very bottom of Plaquemines is Venice, the last town on the Mississippi River.

In April, Louisiana announced that it would use a $40-million federal grant to boost flood resilience in six southern parishes, including Plaquemines.

The ten projects the state chose include prototypal resilient housing, a new wetlands education center, and a marsh creation effort. But one of the projects in Plaquemines stood out — a infusion of funding to help the Parish bolster its mental health and substance abuse treatment

The program is an acknowledgment of something rarely incorporated in the coastal protection dialogue: the psychological damage of living in a climate vulnerable community.

"Populations have already started moving upland, disrupting community cohesion and the coast's broader social fabric," reads the project description. "These impacts, compounded with unfavorable future projections, have taken a significant emotional toll."

It is perhaps the first federal program to make an explicit connection between climate change and mental health.

Richard Campanella, a geographer with the Tulane School of Architecture, describes Plaquemines in his book Bienville’s Dilemma:

“Once past greater New Orleans, the river makes one last great meander at English Turn before straightening out and speeding up through Plaquemines Parish to the Gulf of Mexico. A wild, frontier-like ambience in both the physical and human environment prevails in this isolated region; one senses the culmination of a great natural process, and the proximity to the ragged edge of a continent.”

Venice’s brand of beauty is only found in Southern Louisiana. Spanish moss clings to giant oak trees as egrets and the occasional flamingo fly overhead. Horses wander, seemingly without masters, through the tall grasses and briny air.

The people, meanwhile, cook up some of the best seafood you’ll ever eat and are quick to stop for some idle, directionless chatter. Many have a charming distaste for the local sheriff and a well placed cynicism toward government authority in general. Self sufficiency is foundational to the town’s psyche. “I’m out of work right now, so I’m just fishing and hunting boar,” one resident told me.

But Plaquemines has seen dramatic changes over the past century, changes that are most acutely visible in the landscape. Older residents will remember a peninsula encircled by sprawling marshes and rich swamp forests. Coastal erosion has transformed the bulk of that into open water, in which dead cypress trees stand like tombstones.

Flooded homes lie abandoned on 15-foot high stakes. Overturned boats are found in unlikely places, flung far from the shore during storms.

Venice juts out into a hurricane nursery. The demolished marshes once played a vital protective role as a cushion between storm surges and Venice. Now, the towns of lower Plaquemines Parish are exposed to the direct blow of hurricanes, which are increasing in frequency and severity because of climate change.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, The Times-Picayune reported from Venice:

“Homes and businesses that were left standing Tuesday had water up to the rooftops. The area’s orange groves were submerged in water and debris. A steel building turned into a gnarled pile of scrap.
“The storm tossed boats onto land and shredded homes into splinters. Gas or oil spills gave the river a rainbow hue. Much of what was once land is now water.”

One day at the Venice Marina, I met Dashmir Sula, an exterior renovator from Buras, a town just north of Venice. “The worst part of Katrina was the cow’s screams,” he told me.

As the storm approached, Sula took refuge in the safest place in Plaquemines: a boat. Early on in his week of confinement, a cow got stuck between the boat where Sula and a group of others sheltered and the one next to it. They leaned over the boat’s side rails, trying to shoot it out of mercy. But they couldn’t get an angle. The cow survived for another three days, shrieking in pain and terror as the waters rose around it.

Dashmir Sula, an exterior renovator from Buras, LA.

Dashmir Sula, an exterior renovator from Buras, LA.

Less than a month after Katrina, Hurricane Rita, the most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, battered the already injured peninsula. Five years later, on the brink of a return to relative normalcy, BP’s Deepwater Horizon drill opened up the largest oil spill in U.S. waters, once again putting Plaquemines’ fishermen out of business. In 2012, Plaquemines suffered the worst of Hurricane Isaac’s $611 million destruction.

The people of Plaquemines have survived in this turbulent region for centuries, rebounding and rebuilding after every disaster. The population is largely made up of descendants of French Acadians chased out of Canada — known as Cajuns — former slaves, Native Americans, and Vietnamese refugees for whom the shrimping and crawfishing business is familiar.

But a deluge of calamity, together with bleak future projections, call into question how much longer the town will persist.

Louisiana’s coast is rapidly sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. Since 1932, the state has lost 2,300 miles of wetlands — an area the size of Delaware. The state currently loses the equivalent of a football field of land every 100 minutes. Sea-level rise only exasperates the disintegration.

Over the past couple decades, Lower Plaquemines has thinned out as enervated residents move north to relatively dryer ground. Venice and the town just north of it, Boothville, are so small that the census combines their populations. Between 2001 and 2010, the population of these two towns fell by more than half, down to 1,056.

Venice has lost its grocery store and post office since 2005, a presage of a potential dissolution. Still, as you make your way through the town, you’ll find that most of those who remain still approach their town’s future with an archetypal stubborn persistence. Many insist they’ll stay put and persevere through whatever comes their way, just as they always have. When asked why they’re so intent on staying, you’ll often hear the same refrain: “This is God’s country.”

Short on money and with time quickly turning, some predict that the state will have to make tough choices that balance the survival of remote, outlier towns like Venice with the safety of larger cities and hundreds of inland towns.

In the past, that calculation has favored cities like New Orleans. During the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, New Orleans officials, with the blessing of President Herbert Hoover, decided to use 39 tons of dynamite to blow up part of the west bank levy to relieve the bloated Mississippi in the hopes of saving New Orleans.

The resulting spillway poured water into Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes at a rate of 250,000 cubic feet per second. The east bank of Plaquemines was drowned.

Over 90 years later, Louisiana faces a similar, if less dramatic, calculation. Richard Campanella writes:

“Decisions of his Magnitude may spell death for some of the very cultures and landscapes—namely in lower Plaquemines Parish—they are intended to save. Consider Louisiana’s Dilemma: What constitutes a culture worth saving? Worth sacrificing? How do we ask people who have lived sustainably off the land for generations to relocate, so that a city dweller may enjoy greater environmental security?
“Then again, should we threaten the safety of a million people for the sake of a thousand?”

*Update: A previous version of this article stated $6 million would be devoted to care in Plaquemines. Per LA SAFE, this number was a preliminary estimate, Plaquimines Community C.A.R.E Centers does not yet know how much funding it will receive. *

Michael Isaac Stein is a freelance writer and photographer based in New Orleans.