The best way to understand Louisiana’s rapidly changing coastal map may be to look from above. That’s how you see the small highways headed South, slim like bony fingers, disappearing into a blue backdrop. What a map can’t express are the histories, hopes and desires of communities along the bayous of the Gulf Coast.
WWNO’s Coastal team visited Terrebonne Parish to see how people adjust to the realities of coastal erosion.
Bertha Pellegrin has a front row seat to coastal erosion as she peeks out from a small window of her sno-ball stand. It’s right off Highway 56 in tiny Chauvin. A heavy downpour spills the bayou over its grassy banks.
Mae-Mae’s sno-ball stand, a nod to Bertha’s nickname, has kept the 3,000-plus residents of Chauvin cool for more than 40 years. "I used to love peach and cream. That was my flavor," says Pellegrin.
The 76 year old says her sweet tooth has faded. But she fires up her vintage ice machine to make some sno-balls for a steady stream of visitors. Her granddaughter Nicky LeFleur helps out.
She says she has no intention of taking over the business; the hours are too long. She’s not sure how long Mae-Mae’s stand will last.
"The water's on both sides, I mean it's just a little bit of land left. There's the levee back there, you can see it from the backyard."
LeFleur points out the obvious problem. First: the bayou is expanding, eating away at land across from the store. Then there’s the hidden one: the Gulf of Mexico is creeping in the backyard, overwhelming what were once cypress forests and marshlands. Mae-Mae’s is getting squeezed out by water.
"I'm sure we won't have the bayou anymore. It'll all be water, there'll be no land. But it'll take until then, for myself, and pretty much all my friends and family to leave the bayou. We're staying."
“We’re staying” should be on a bumper sticker in this part of Louisiana. People seem unafraid of the water down here. But they are starting to get frustrated with its unpredictability.
Farther down the coast, across Lake Boudreaux, in Dulac, Shirell Dardar visits family members.
"My dad's right here in the front. My grandparents are here, my brothers' further into the back. And this is my dad here. My aunt. so yeah, all of my family is here," she says.
This is Provost Cemetery. A few hundred members of Dardar’s Native American tribe are buried here. She’s chief of the Grand Caillou Dulac band of Biloxi Chitamacha Choctaw. Civil War veterans are laid to rest here, too. The graves sit just across the street from Bayou Grand Calliou.
Like Mae Mae’s snowball stand, Provost Cemetery sits precariously between waterways. The bayou is prone to wash across the street during heavy storms, and wetlands on the other side are becoming open water.
Dardar’s aunt happens by in an old pickup truck. "HEY! Aunt Theresa, that's my aunt."
Mary "Theresa" Varette has her parents, husband and a daughter in this cemetery. Her husband’s coffin got uprooted and floated off during Hurricane Gustav in 2008. The local sheriff found the body after two weeks of searching. "I stood in there for hours, I would leave from work and come straight there and say 'You found him yet?'"
Moving the graves would cost millions. Chief Shirell Dardar knows because she’s been trying to find solutions. Another option is to cement down the cemetery, but she doesn’t own the land. "When you put your deceased to rest, they're supposed to rest peacefully. They can't rest like this."
Dardar says while the cemetery is a huge issue, she’s even more preoccupied with the living members of her tribe. According to census data, Dulac lost almost half of its 2,500 residents between 2000 and 2010.
Dardar says the levee system, while getting better, still doesn’t offer enough protection. And she says authorities have mentioned buyouts for some residents, but the difference in home values from Dulac to Houma are significant. So tribal members put their houses on stilts — as high as 19 feet.
"They can't sell it," Dardar says, "and if they were to sell it, they can't get enough to buy something else. They're stuck."
Dardar keeps her eye on another nearby tribe, the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians. Some of those tribal members are seeing their barrier island homes completely washed out. With that line of natural defense gone, she’s worried the next big storms are going to hit her community even harder.
"We had barrier islands that protected us once upon a time. We are the barrier islands now."
Read Part Deaux of this two-part series.
Support for WWNO's Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Kabacoff Family Foundation and WWNO Members.