WWNO skyline header graphic
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Local Newscast
Hear the latest from the WWNO/WRKF Newsroom.

Rebuilding Louisiana's Barrier Islands Brings Jobs

Tegan Wendland
Jimmy Hill, an engineer with Great Lakes Dredge and Dock, and Barry Richard, with the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, hold a map of Shell Island.

With oil prices down, Louisiana has lost about 12,000 jobs in oil and gas since last year. Some of those oil and gas workers are finding new jobs in coastal restoration. That includes helping rebuild a chain of barrier islands to protect the coast. One of those state-funded projects is in Plaquemines Parish.

Way down south of New Orleans, along the Mississippi River near the town of Empire, Alicia Kanous unloads a shipping container. These are all supplies for offshore workers. They’re not drilling for oil, though many of them have done that kind of work. They’re rebuilding a barrier island called Shell Island.

Kanous has toilet paper and kitchen supplies, paper towels and Keurig coffee pods, and something to help the workers with a problem: rat traps. Kanous says, laughing, “I have no idea how it got there….the chief is freaking out.”

Rat traps and kitchen supplies alike will be loaded onto a boat and taken out to workers who are living on platforms out in the marsh and open water.

It’s Kanous’s job to make sure they have what they need. She’s down here from New York because her company, Great Lakes Dredge and Dock, has the contract to re-build Shell Island.

Workers pump sandy silt from the bottom of the Mississippi, about 19 miles, through the marshes and over the levees way out into the bay. It takes about half an hour to get to the island.

Willy Strong is driving today. He used to work on deepwater rigs but was laid off a few years ago. He says, “I ran big crew boats and you’re basically married to the job and you never get off the boat for a month at a time.” But now, “I’m able to live on the land and work a twelve hour shift.” He’s able to return home to Mississippi on the weekend and visit with his daughter.

Engineer, Jimmy Hill, is from Rhode Island. On the job he’s usually in a wet suit, checking the depth of the sand and muck as it spews out of the pipe and builds the island. It may not be everyone’s idea of fun, but Hill says excitedly, “It’s a huge project, the work we’re doing is good, the equipment we’re using is neat.”

Credit Tegan Wendland / WWNO
Great Lakes Dredge and Dock engineer, Jimmy Hill, holds up a map of Shell Island.

It’s a $100 million, 600-acre project, funded largely by money from the BP oil spill. Hill works two weeks on the island, one week off.

The island is beautiful. Waves lap against the sand beach and dolphins swim just offshore. Grasses and mangrove have already started to grow in some areas. Hill says, “I mean, you’re on a beach all day, it doesn’t get any better than that!”

All of this work is in hopes of protecting Louisiana’s shoreline from storm surge. Barrier islands used to provide natural protection from hurricanes, but many have washed away. Companies like Illinois-based Great Lakes are landing huge government contracts to rebuild them.

Back on land, Courtney Morris sits at a desk in a tiny little trailer. She oversees dredging projects up and down the Mississippi.

Trucks and boats come and go all day, as Morris fields calls from contractors and employees. She says, “I love my job! I love the fact that I’m local and that I can see that we’re doing something productive.”

Morris is one of about a hundred people who are working on the Shell Island project. She’s from Plaquemines Parish, and spent every summer there as a kid. She has seen the marshes slowly disappear and the bays become wide open water.

Credit Tegan Wendland / WWNO
Many plants and animals have shown up on Shell Island already, volunteers of a sort.

 She says these islands protect the community, and add to it in other ways. One of them is called Scofield Island, which Morris and her family visit every July 4th. She says, “It was cool…we actually built a beach. We took the whole family, there were probably about 30 of us.” She says they camped out overnight and took the boats out in the morning.

On this day, Morris is the only local on the job. According to a report by GNO Inc., contractors like Great Lakes often have to look out of state to find the skilled workers they need. 

Support for WWNO's Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Coypu Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. 

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

👋 Looks like you could use more news. Sign up for our newsletters.

* indicates required
New Orleans Public Radio News
New Orleans Public Radio Info