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A Refrain As Louisiana's Coast Washes Away: We're 'Water People. We Can't Leave'

Locals put the crisis into a perspective that’s easy to understand.

Louisiana loses a football field of land every hour of the day.

“Even my customers are starting to recognize it now,” says charter boat captain Ripp Blank. “And it don’t come back once it leaves.”

Blank has been fishing the waters around Bayou Barataria — 30 miles or so north of the Gulf of Mexico — his entire life. If you’re a newcomer, it can be hard to discern where the water ends and the land begins.

“It washes through little cuts and then before you know it a boat might go through it, two boats might go through it and then it just keeps getting bigger and bigger, deeper and deeper,” Blank says of the vanishing land. “And before you know it, it’s gone.”

The Mississippi River Delta is one of the largest of its kind in the world. The river carries tons of sediment hundreds of miles to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. Natural flooding over thousands of years has built up the land. But modern flood control has stopped the natural cycle, and now the land is sinking.

The delta is also rich with wildlife. The shrimpers at Joe’s Landing, where Blank launches his boat into the bayou, are part of a $350 million commercial fishing industry that is under threat in Louisiana.

It’s been throttled in recent years by powerful hurricanes and the 2010 oil spill that killed fish, and the region’s reputation for fresh seafood. But coastal erosion is a slower-moving crisis, changing the environment that Blank and others have relied on for years.

Water levels around Barataria will rise nearly 3 feet in the next 50 years if nothing is done to restore the marshland, according to the state’s 2017 Coastal Master Plan, which is set for approval in the legislature this week.

“We water people. We can’t leave,” says Blank, when considering predictions that routine flooding will make daily life next to impossible in the next half century. “This is all we know. You get water. Water goes away you come back. Start all over again.”

The stakes are higher for Timothy Kerner, the longtime mayor of the neighboring town of Jean Lafitte.

Since taking office 25 years ago, Kerner says he’s witnessed 13 tropical storms and hurricanes. “And they expect it to maybe get worse,” he says.

Kerner has asked the state for help. He wanted a levee system that would protect Jean Lafitte from a 100-year storm. But state officials say they can’t afford it. Too few people live in the town to make it worth the investment.

It’s this type of triage and compromise that are happening across coastal Louisiana. So Jean Lafitte is building a cheaper, shorter wall along the banks of the bayou to hold back tidal surge. It won’t help much if the town takes a direct hit from a hurricane.

“When I was a young boy my dad was the mayor and the judge, so I know every single person,” Kerner says. “But I will tell you that it’s a curse, because everybody I see flooding and losing everything they got is not my voters — it’s people you feel are more like your aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters because you know them so doggone well.”

Of course, the issue of rising water is political. President Trump won Jefferson Parish by 15 points in November. And Kerner — a Democrat — says Trump’s promise to loosen regulations and protect against foreign imports resonated among fishermen far more than the threat of climate change.

And it really is hard to understand just how much change is happening unless you can see it firsthand, and hear it from locals who have watched it happen slowly with their own eyes.

Kevin Rutley, 65, calls himself an “old bayou boy,” who could run the shallow channels and canals around Jean Lafitte in the dark.

“My family has been here since the year after the Civil War started and we have 1,000 acres of land,” he says as he pilots a boat down the Barataria Waterway. The wide canal was built decades ago to accommodate industry.

To Rutley, it is channels like this one that cause problems — not climate change. When a storm rolls in, he says the canal acts like a runway that allows salt water from the gulf to surge inland. The skeletal trees along the canal bank have died because of the salty invasion.

Rutley slows down and steers the boat through an opening in the channel. A large expanse of water opens up — at least two miles wide. Rutley says the water he’s floating on didn’t used to be there. The Pen, as the lake is now known, used to be a farm.

“It was a big field,” he says. “When I was a kid, we would water ski here. I actually had tractors out here sticking up” from the water.

“This is absolutely a symbol,” he adds. “It breaks my heart. There is so much that has disappeared in my lifetime.”

His own land is disappearing, too. It takes another 20 minutes of navigating the boat over an even bigger lake until Rutley is finally back on dry ground. It’s a forested spit of dirt that’s sheltered from the wind.

A snake slithers by in search of a meal. Birds roost in the trees. There are signs that wild hogs have been rooting in the mud. This is where the Rutley family started hunting and trapping at the onset of the Civil War, and every winter Rutley brings his own family back to continue the tradition. But inch by inch, his ties to the land are washing away.

“I built this camp with my dad and grandfather when I was 15,” he says. “I’m just afraid that if we don’t stop this erosion, the lake will be here someday.”

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Charter Boat captain Ripp Blank at Joe's Landing Marina in Barataria, La. (Virginia Hanusik for Here & Now)
Charter Boat captain Ripp Blank at Joe's Landing Marina in Barataria, La. (Virginia Hanusik for Here & Now)
Jean Lafitte Mayor Timothy Kerner, in his office. (Virginia Hanusik for Here & Now)
Jean Lafitte Mayor Timothy Kerner, in his office. (Virginia Hanusik for Here & Now)
Kevin Rutley, whose family has lived near the Barataria Waterway since the Civil War. (Virginia Hanusik for Here & Now)
Kevin Rutley, whose family has lived near the Barataria Waterway since the Civil War. (Virginia Hanusik for Here & Now)
Kevin Rutley. (Virginia Hanusik for Here & Now)
Kevin Rutley. (Virginia Hanusik for Here & Now)