Mapping Louisiana's Disappearing Coast

Apr 7, 2015

GPS device shows open water as land in Bayou Petit Calliou
Credit Jesse Hardman / WWNO

As we head into the spring and summer seasons, people around the state will hit Louisiana waters looking for crabs, shrimp and fish. And as locals tune up their boats and head out onto bayous and into the Gulf, they’ll realize it might be time for a new map.

Vic and Bebe McElroy are excited that it’s finally April. The couple are both in their 60s and Houma natives. Bebe's 90 percent retired, so she has time to set her special crab traps off the couples’ dock. "We have orange polkadots on ours." Vic wants to be outside as much as he can too, but he's still working full time. He gets the couple's boat, Fish Dancer, ready to launch.

Vic McElroy on the steps of his house in Cocodrie, LA. The home sits on 20-foot-tall stilts to protect against flooding and storms.
Credit Jesse Hardman / WWNO

The couple lives year round in Cocodrie, a tiny town at the Southern tip of Terrebonne Parish. Their house is on 20-foot-high stilts for storm and flood protection, and sits next to Bayou Little Calliou, which leads straight out to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the 21st century, so getting out in the water means switching on the GPS screen to access maps.

Vic steers the boat to a navigation channel made by the Army Corps of Engineers. His GPS clearly shows the boat traveling up a sliver of water, with land on either side. But when you look up from the screen, the old form of navigation, you can see the channel is ten times wider than it used to be. 

Vic points to the right at a landmark that's no longer there. “You see where we're at right now. Look at all the land that used to be right here. That's all gone. All of this. Everything you see right here is gone.” Bebe says she's getting used to this scenario. "Every year when we come out for the beginning of the season like this, we see something like that. It's gone. It's just gone."

GPS and Depth Finder devices on Vic McElroys boat.
Credit Jesse Hardman / WWNO

Vic has a second, more useful, digital screen on his boat. It tells him where the fish are, and how far below sea level that missing island is. “When my depth line is flashing and stops sending me information I know I'm getting in shallow water.”

That shallow water sometimes gets his boat stuck. Vic says for navigators who don’t know Bayou Petit Caillou, it’s easy to run aground on storm debris, and submerged marsh and mud. He says the local sheriff’s water patrol is pretty active on any given weekend.

At a massive convention center near Baton Rouge, the Louisiana Sportsman Show is in full gear. Thousands of locals are checking out kiosks packed with the latest vehicles, hunting knives, fishing poles and charter trips. This is Glenn Schurr’s 29th Sportsman show. His booth features a banner with his company’s name, Standard Mapping.

Glen Schurr of Standard Mapping at the Louisiana Sportsmans show.
Credit Jesse Hardman / WWNO

And a couple of GPS devices displaying coastal maps. And a cooler full of Coors Light. “My title is mapmaker. I'm the map-man,” he says.

Schurr creates digital maps, mainly for fishermen. He uses images gathered from aircraft. He constantly makes new maps, especially after major storm that alter the landscape. “I feel pressure, cause that's my business. In one way I gotta throw a lot of old maps away, on the other hand, it affords me the ability to stay in business.”

Wetlands loss has created some real problems for Schurr, too. Customers want accuracy, especially if they aren’t as familiar with the area they’re fishing in. "I think there's nothing more disconcerting than to be driving down, whether looking at a hard copy map or GPS and show you're on land when you're in the middle of a bayou. Maps are supposed to be able to get you around with accuracy, if it’s showing you're on land, obviously that product’s not accurate.”

Schurr says what he puts on maps can get personal. People are attached to childhood wetland landmarks. "You will look at one of my maps and because your grandpa fished in a certain redfish pond and y'all called it 'Gramp's Pond' doesn't meant that the rest of the world understands that.” But saltwater intrusion and subsidence makes those local names irrelevant. When land disappears, lakes and ponds become bays, and from there it’s all just open water.

Bay St. Elaine, just off of the Gulf of Mexico in Terrebonne Parish.
Credit Jesse Hardman / WWNO

Back in Terrebonne Parish, Vic McElroy steers his boat through increasingly rough waters. Vic’s navigating Bay St. Elaine. That’s what the GPS says. And that Bay has gotten bigger, like a black hole swallowing stars, it overtakes smaller waterways that have lost their wetland perimeters. At the current rate, Bayou St. Elaine won’t be on future GPS maps either. “Other than these two spits of land, these two little islands right here, there's nothing between us and the Gulf.”

Bebe McElroy points to some land on her boat's GPS device that's now under water.
Credit Jesse Hardman / WWNO

It will all just be the Gulf soon, it seems. Vic McElroy says back at his house he has a complete set of printed maps of Terrebonne Parish. He dusts them off as a reminder of all the islands and bays he knew as a younger man. As more and more land washes away, it seems as though maps of this area, of any kind, won’t be needed anymore.

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