Dave Cvitanovich is a big man. He ambles into the Crawgator Restaurant at the Venice Marina clutching a batch of well worn maps in his swollen hands. Forty-year-old geological surveys and freshly laminated nautical charts that document the Gulf Coast’s astonishing disappearance. Cvitanovich is an oysterman…a very prominent one in these parts.In a good year, and this one is not, he’ll harvest 30,000 one hundred pound bags.And a guide, what his business card terms an “inland navigation specialist.” He helps the oil and gas companies lay pipeline through the bayous and estuaries. But don’t judge him too quickly, or, if you are so inclined, too harshly.Not until you hear him talk, remembering the area as it was only decades ago, not until you see him shed a tear, and talk about the heartbreak this blowout has brought. Like so many of the people we have met, his is a life of simple pleasures and great complexities, all defined by the natural treasures of the place where he was born.
We’ve spoken to lots of locals along the Louisiana coast about the ecosystem and by all accounts, the valuable marshlands here are under siege from all sides. But the invaders are not blobs of BP oil.
A steady stream of ammunition rains down from the north in the form of fertilizers and chemicals. Runoff from commercial Midwestern farms flows down the Mississippi River, fouling up the Gulf of Mexico and creating a massive dead zone where many organisms can’t survive.
It’s estimated that 15 square miles of Louisiana wetlands go MIA every year– the equivalent of one football field every hour. Scientists say natural erosion and a lack of sufficient nutrients for marshland replenishment contribute to this vanishing act. Sea level rise is another factor.
But perhaps the most unsettling of perils facing this region is man’s perceived prerogative to completely redesign the landscape. Miles of channels have been carved out to redirect the flow of the Mississippi at corporate or government whims. Levees, although installed with the best of intentions, can interrupt the ebb and flow of the coasts’ natural order.
Dr. Carl Safina says that if the landscape here had not been shredded up into its present state, the Mississippi would meander through simply and naturally, not in a hectic tangle. The marshlands would extend for many more miles into present-day Gulf waters. These extra miles would offer added protection from hurricanes and plentiful breeding grounds for wildlife and seafood stock to flourish. The marshes here serve as a gigantic incubator to the seafood that supplies about one-third of the nation’s seafood.
Safina says that one of the few bright spots that have come out of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and Hurricane Katrina is that much more attention is now paid to restoring and protecting the wetlands. Before 2005, a few hundred million dollars were bestowed upon the region annually for these purposes; today, it’s up into the billions. And the federal government says fines paid by BP will be used towards coastal restoration even beyond the oil cleanup.
Yesterday was one of my favorite days yet, and I think the rest of my group thought the same.
We managed to get out on a boat with Chris Calloway, manager of the Venice Marina. Calloway took us through the marshes nearby Venice and all the way out to the gulf. It was an amazing ride, especially after he punched the throttle. Getting into the heart of the wetlands really opened my eyes into the vastness and complexity of the area. The marshes are made up of webbed canals, lakes and bayous, both natural and man made.
The on-going relationship between oil and water was seen first hand today, as we passed a refinery built right on the marsh. It’s a great contrast between the water that feeds and the oil that fuels. Calloway has seen the two industries co-exist and believes the relationship can continue. He believes the real harm to him and the marina is the idea that the area is still, “knee high in oil,” which deters visitors to the area and the seafood.
Today is our last day in Louisiana. In a few hours we will pack up and head into New Orleans for one final interview at Tulane and then to the airport for our flight home. Reporting somewhere other than New York has been a great opportunity and a great experience.
As a girl who grew up in a neighborhood filled with firefighters, I have learned that, as a rule, firefighters have enough stories and character to fill several novels. But that is in the big city. So today as we walked up to the local Venice fire department to try and talk to some local firefighters about the town in the wake of both Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil debacle, I knew we were walking into something good.
Then we met Noonie, the ex-fire chief for the Venice fire department. This amazing man had nothing but stories. A bit tentative at first, he quickly opened up about his thirty-plus years as chief and the tumultuous history of the shockingly modern firehouse.
When I say that the firehouse is shockingly modern, I do not mean that the building is a futuristic building that I could never have imagined. Far from it. In fact, the building is a quite nice, and new, structure that is very modern. Lots of windows, pretty floors and a very polished outside. In most cities, a typical building. Here, among the remains of hurricanes, oil spills and evacuations, this building looks almost out of place.
But back to Noonie. After doing a nice sit-down camera interview we left to go and shoot some b-roll (extra shots often used for filler during videos). Then we got to meet the real Noonie. He came downstairs and told us that he had pulled out some old photographs of the fire department through the year and would we be interested in seeing a few of them.
When he said a few photographs, he meant around six full photo albums of memories stretching back to the 1970′s containing photos, newspaper clippings, post cards and other keepsakes that had survived with the town. It was more than we could have imagined. Noonie explained that before he and his wife evacuated the town for Hurricane Katrina they went to the firehouse and grabbed the albums so they could be saved.
For the next half hour he charismatically guided us through the ups and downs of the fire house. He had enough memories and stories to make a made for television mini-series.
One of the things that struck me the most was the personality that he had behind each story. When city firefighters tell a story about something to do with their job, it is always a good story. But for Noonie, it was somehow something more. It was a life. Not only did he remember stories, but he remembered details. In a town as small as Venice, Louisiana, you know everyone. He remembers fires not by how large the damage was or the property ruined, he remembers them by the people in them. His neighbors, friends and family.
Our trip to the Venice fire house was a truly humbling experience.
If it’s one thing I have not missed while down at “the end of the world,” it has to be the food at home. Sure, New York has great pizza, amazing Chinese food, and other worldly goods, but nothing beats the cajun cuisine right here in Venice.
Right outside of our hotel rooms at the Lighthouse Lodge is a tiny eatery based out of a trailer called Gigi’s Restaurant. While the menu seems small, the prices and food are amazing. I got a platter of 4 huge pieces of fried chicken, cajun french fries, and a can of Coke for only $8.00. This chicken beat anything I’ve had from local eateries at home and the chains like KFC and Popeye’s. A little spicy and fresh, I ate well the night we got dinner from here.
Further up on Highway 23 is another small eatery called Maw’s. Classic po-boy sandwiches, fried seafood baskets, and even sno-cones are the featured at this side of the road pit stop. My only regret was not being able to eat my hamburger on the side of the the highway because it was so cold!
Deep inside of Venice is Cajun Unlimited, a catering service that looks like it added a breakfast and lunch restaurant recently. Prices were reasonable and the food portions were humongous. My chicken strips basket is still sitting half finished in my refrigerator, begging to be reheated and completed.
In Boothville, a town just north of Venice, is a great local bar and grill called Black Velvet. This menu rolls pretty deep with everything the swamps have to offer – shrimp, burgers, fish, crabs, chicken, salads, and even frog’s legs. It can get pretty crowded here fairly early, so visitors should be inclined to arrive early for dinner and come with an empty stomach. We’ll have more about Black Velvet soon enough.
My best advice for anyone heading to this area, or anywhere in Louisiana for that matter, is to bring a full wallet and an empty stomach – your taste buds won’t regret it.
There is this idea that traveling across America is like riding down Stony Brook’s own Route 347 or for those foreign and lucky enough not to live on Long Island—a stretch of road surrounded by big box stores, franchise restaurants and the occasional mom and pop shop.
Louisiana is no different; at least from the travels we’ve embarked. But staying in Grand Isle, getting to see parts of Montegut and traveling down the small two-lane bumpy sliver of road to Venice, it’s clear that these areas are no suburbs just a few hours drive from the nearest biggest city, which in this case would be New Orleans.
Grand Isle was as small-knit of a community as could be with just one stretch of road that connected everyone and everything. It wasn’t much, but it didn’t have to be. For one, most of the homes were vacant, primarily because Grand Isle attracts a large summer crowd and is very slow in the winter. But from the conversations and interviews conducted, life in Grand Isle either revolved around the fish or the oil and that was about it—no giant business park or multi-story office building. It was largely fish and oil, though there were a few local eateries, bars, and even one Subway.
The town of Montegut seemed to share the same theme with the folk of Grand Isle, where oil and fish would rank supreme. But what differed were the vastly rich wetlands on the way to Montegut and the amount of open space that separated each house. Sure, there were plenty of houses, some on wooden stilts and some on the ground, but evidence that there was more to life than just the trees, marshes and the occasional pelican. But it was far from being an overly saturated suburb or a small town with a big Wal-Mart.
Venice, and the surrounding areas, is desolate. The only thing that seems to be present is industry, between a few refineries and the large ships that go up and down the bayou alongside the main highway. But that’s about it. This area, as it seems, is an attraction during the summer for sports fishing and quail hunting, but in the winter, it’s dead. Though it wouldn’t qualify for a ghost town, ironically there is a Subway near by; it still bears a characteristic that is foreign from other parts of the country. It’s calm.
The only problem is you have to drive through a road like Rt. 347 to get to these places.
Approximately 5 hours of Sleep
Where: Lighthouse Lodge and Villas located off of Highway 23 in Plaquemines Parish
When: 11:27 a.m.
Reflections from the trip so far:
The story was the oil. The spill. The national media descended on this community and had the story: the biggest unintentional release of oil into a body of water in the history of the world.
But now there’s a different story and no ones reporting it. Months later, the networks are gone. The local papers and television stations cover small stories, but in comparison to the summer, when reporters and cameramen swarmed the area, it’s a starkly different world. Though the national media is physically gone, it continues to leave an impression.
Many, including myself before I came down here, believe the gulf is drowning in oil. But is it? From what I’ve heard people are trying desperately to get back to normal. These people aren’t looking for tons of media attention. It seems what they want is for the world to see that they’re trying to get back on their feet. That they’re not knee deep in oil. Fish are abundant and people eat whatever they catch. Businesses, hotels, charter services and restaurants are open. But those who would usually come for vacations believe the beaches are black and the water is slimy. Will they be back in the spring? That’s the 20 billion dollar question.
It’s hard to have a real consensus on the impact of the oil. I don’t know. Scientists don’t know. We may never truly know the full impact of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. However, one thing is for sure. The situation down here is not as bad as I thought. I haven’t seen any oil. I’ve eaten the seafood and it’s tasted great.
Did the oil put people out of business? Or did the media?
More to come.
Bed Time: Approximately 1 a.m
Estimated Sleep time: 6 hours
After a morning of shortcomings we arrived at the Woodland Plantation in Port Sulfur, a town a bit north of Venice. One of the largest buildings on the estate was an old church that was moved onto the land by truck from Homeplace, LA., 14 miles south of it’s current location. In the inside of the church is where things get a little odd. In place of the altar; a fully stocked bar.
Quite the location for both a wedding and a reception.
The old church, now called Spirits Hall, gets it’s name from the spirits that are said to haunt the plantation from the years of it’s operation dating back to 1834. In recognition of those spirits a bar was placed in the hall.
Today the plantation serves as a spot for weddings, parties, receptions, retreats and fishing and birding tours. Dining and accommodations are also available.
Moving on to tomorrow, or should I say today, the broadcast focused group and I will be working on getting b-roll around the area and hopefully talk to someone on the oil side of this on-going situation here in the gulf.
Grand Isle is a long spit of land literally at the end of the long Route 1 South….through barren marshes lined with Spanish moss, through bayous lined with barges and shrimping boats, miles of low slung bridges that snake though the endless wetlands. Grand Isle in winter, on an overcast and damp day, at first feels deserted.The bars are closed, the fishing camps mostly boarded up. More For Sale and For Rent signs than Open for Business.
But the people are here.And the people…. from the 75 year old owner of the eponymous Sarah’s restaurant, to David Camardelle, the garrulous Mayor, to Dean Blanchard, the feisty shrimp wholesaler. All have been overwhelmingly hospitable and friendly. People here want to talk. People here want to tell their stories. Over more and more coffee, over sweet Mardi Gras cake. Imagine…happy to see the news media. Happy to talk to a bunch of student journalists from New York…..for hours if need be.
The images of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina paint a haunting portrait of destruction; illuminating just how helpless mankind truly is to Mother Nature’s wrath. Once her name is uttered—Katrina—images of the dead lying facedown in murky waters; the crippled Superdome; the stranded locals waiting for help on rooftops quickly come to mind.
What images come to mind when Hurricanes Ike, Rita and Gustav are mentioned? For Chief Albert Naquin, tribe leader of the Biloxi-Chitimacha tribe in Montegut, LA, it’s the skeletal remains of damaged houses, empty lots and the wreckage of his small hometown he refers to as “the island.” It’s this destruction that Naquin says he has been seeing a lot more of because of the rapidly changing landscape.
Traveling on a narrow two-sided road to Naquin’s old residence where there are just a few remaining families of his dwindling tribe, there is a stark contrast between lush vegetation and vast blue waters. It’s the increasing amount of water, Naquin says, and the rescinding wetlands that plays a large role in his home being hit harder by more recent hurricanes.
The more water and less land there is, the bigger and more the direct the impact each hurricane has, says Naquin.
And as a result, the already declining Biloxi-Chitimacha community is starting to separate, as many are moving further away from tribal lands and further north. Naquin says he fears that his tribe may very well be non-existent in the near future and has sought land further north to relocate his tribal community.
With the continual decline of wetlands, it seems from our talk with Naquin and other southern Louisianans, that there may very well be an increase in names those local residents will add to—the same type of names that would fit with Katrina, Ike, and Gustav.