As State Grapples With Land Loss, Families Move Inland
Louisiana is investing millions of dollars to protect what wetlands are left along the coast. Also building diversions and barrier islands to protect people’s homes and livelihoods. But the truth is, ever since Katrina, many coastal towns have been shrinking faster, on their own.
Ryan Lambert is torn between two worlds. He says he lives in Luling, about 20 miles west of New Orleans, with his wife and near his grandchildren. But his official mailing address is in Buras, a hundred miles down the coast near Venice. He runs a charter fishing business down there.
A few times a week he packs up his truck and leaves his wife, Carmen. His grandkids are over a lot. They run down the stairs to hug him. In the driveway, his wife kisses him goodbye and hands him his workbag.
He’s off on the two-hour drive to Buras. Lambert’s grandmother is from there and he spent a lot of time there as a kid. He loves the coast. And fishing was the family business. “I’ve been down there for 38 years and I guess for those 38 years I’ve been down there more than I’ve been up here. But you know, that’s the sacrifice you make when you want your family in a certain place – and down there’s not where I wanted my family to grow up.”
When he had to decide where to raise his own family, more than 20 years ago, he chose suburban Luling, even though he had once had a dream to raise kids on the coast, and even though his charter fishing business was taking off. He just couldn’t justify the inconvenience, the land washing away, worse storms, and not much to do but fish.
So raising their daughters in the suburbs fell largely to his wife. Carmen would joke that “daddy was visiting” for their birthdays.
“It worked for us. I’m an independent person. So. I’m hoping, as we get older, that I have him more at home! Because we’ve raised our children….Just got to wait and see,” says Carmen. She might be waiting a long time.
It’s busy 100 miles south at Lambert’s Cajun Fishing Adventures. There’s a small hotel, lots of cars and trucks parked in the driveway, and lots of boats. Young fishermen are taking visitors out for redfish and drum.
Lambert has about 30 employees but the hustle of the fishing camp doesn’t extend to the rest of the town. He takes me on a drive, pointing to empty lots - houses and businesses washed away by Katrina and never rebuilt. “Skeletons, everywhere you look, it’s just skeletons and trailers,” says Lambert.
It didn’t used to be like this. When Lambert was a kid he’d run around with other kids and play in the bayous. Now, even running a business is hard here. Banks, post offices and grocery stores never re-opened, there just weren’t any customers. Now the only show in town doubles as both a grocery and hardware store. Happyland.
Lambert shows me why he has to plan ahead and buy all of his supplies in New Orleans. There’s plenty of dry goods, but fresh vegetables and meat are hard to come by. “You have a few little packs of frozen chicken, some turkey necks, you have one box of sausage you could pick through. But lets say your customers want some steak tonight. They’re not there.” The rest of the case is empty, “Because without people to keep your supplies turning over you can’t put a lot of stuff in because it’ll go bad before someone can buy it,” explains Lambert.
Buras is in Plaquemines Parish. The 2010 census shows Plaquemines lost 14 percent of its population. Lambert says that trend has continued. Many of his friends and neighbors have moved north, further inshore. He says this part of the coast has become just a place to go to work. But to be able to live down here long term? “I don’t see it,” he says. “Not without a lot of restoration work.” Even with a lot of restoration work, the state doesn’t expect communities like Buras to grow. Even if Louisiana’s coastal master plan gets fully funded, and projects here started tomorrow, that wouldn’t stop more land from eroding.
But there are and will be plenty of fish. Lambert says fishing is still picking back up after the BP oil spill. He doesn’t plan to stop making the 100-mile commute anytime soon. “The weird thing - it calls you. When I’m in Luling this place beckons me to come back. I just have a draw here to come back here,” he says.
He loves this place so much, he’s spending his own money to try to fight land loss. He’s trying to rebuild a marsh near his fishing camp and is applying for grants to do it. He knows the town’s not coming back, but he can’t help but try to rebuild what’s gone.
Support for WWNO's Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Coypu Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.