Once a month, a resilient community of coastal Louisiana residents gather in recreation centers throughout the five bayou region of lower Terrebonne Parish for a chance to eat and work together. Local officials engage residents on the issues of land loss, disaster relief, and their plan for the future, giving room for questions and suggestions. It is an outlet Bayou Grace, a Chauvin based environmental non-profit, is happy to facilitate through a grant from the Greater New Orleans Foundation.
Parish representatives have also toured the region this past year, holding a series of participatory meetings to update their Terrebonne Master Plan: Vision 2030. This plan serves as a guide for the next 20 years in the parish, addressing everything from transportation, to land use, to solutions for coastal land loss.
Even before BP's oil and Katrina delivered a one-two punch to the area, the hot topic has always been the degradation of the coast. The statistics are staggering: 80 percent of all coastal land loss in the United States occurs in Louisiana. Every 15 minutes coastal Louisiana loses a football field of land to the Gulf of Mexico. In Terrebonne these percentages are tangible in cemeteries underwater, towns emptying out from fear of flooding, and increased devastation from hurricanes.
"People need to recognize marsh creation as a protection factor (from hurricanes), not just levees,” Diane Huhn, Environmental Outreach Coordinator for Bayou Grace explained. This is particularly relevant in the wake of a recent study outlining the consequences of the BP Oil Disaster. The oil nearly doubled the rate of marsh erosion in some areas, the Florida State study says.
But when it comes to land loss, the master plan focuses on non-structural solutions. Think flood insurance, home elevation and stricter development regulation in the wetlands.
Bayou Grace’s community dinners have served as explanatory meetings for residents to come together and discuss these issues over a meal. “I have attended the master plan meetings,” Bonita Boudoin, a frequent Bayou Grace Community dinner attendee said, “The public was engaged to an extent, but some of the language could of been simpler for more people to understand.”
In June, the Smithridge gym in Chauvin played host to the dinner. From New Orleans, it is an 80 mile trip southwest through cypress trees and wetlands to the gym, nestled on the other side of Bayou Petit Caillou from where Highway 56 runs through Chauvin. The bayou anchors the town and the main road runs parallel to what used to be the main throughway, winding with its natural curves. Bridges make way for boats and cars in equal measure. When the highway ends 10 miles south of Chauvin in Cocodrie, the bayou continues through increasingly depleted barrier islands into the Gulf.
Highway 56 is the only road that takes you from Houma, the parish seat and the largest city in the second largest parish in the state, to Chauvin.
Bayou Grace Executive Director Rebecca Templeton and Huhn along with the rest of their small staff have brought service-learning groups from all over the country to Terrebonne Parish. They created a network of advocates, many who learned about coastal land loss for the first time volunteering with Bayou Grace. This dinner featured Duke-Engage students who were in the middle of facilitating a four week summer camp for local children.
As community members and college students mingled over shrimp stew, Bosco surveyed his work. A chef and lifelong resident of Houma, he has spent the past eight months catering the community dinners.
Bosco’s advocacy manifests in his cooking, Cajun staples like jambalaya and blackened chicken are his mainstays. “It has never bothered me,” he commented on the frequent topic of coastal land loss, the din of the kitchen is what keeps his attention. In addition to cooking for the community dinners, Bosco dedicates his time to catering benefits. Last year he catered 46 benefits. This year, he is up to 18.
“I’ll get the food donated,” he explained, “All you have to do is get the hall and the permit.”
When asked how he gets paid, he pointed to his heart and said, “Right there.”
For Boudoin, the community dinners focus on a subject close to her heart. Four years ago she began work as a community organizer for another environmental advocacy non-profit in Terrebonne, BISCO. Land loss in Terrebonne Parish is an issue that has affected her entire life. Generations of her family lived and thrived in Grand Caillou, another town part of the five bayou region.
Her childhood in Grand Caillou was marked by her family’s house right on the bayou. For 35 years her father worked a tugboat and spent his free time fishing on the water. Boudoin and her friends would create “bayou boats,” pieces of wood with some string nailed to it that they would pull along the bayou. But the bayou was not all recreation, the family had to bughead, or barricade, the back of their land to stop the water from creeping up into the backyard.
The house under its current owners is now used as a camp. “When I was a kid we had no reason to drive to Houma,” Boudoin recalled, “But now there is no bank, no grocery store, no clothing stores and factories shut down.”
Even Boudoin has moved her family to Houma. “After twice getting flooded out,” she said, “Rebuilding everything gets old.”
Reflecting on the master plan Boudoin commented, “I really believe we need more drastic measures. In the year 2030 I hope we have more protection against the land loss that has been in place for years. I would like to see more jobs to help people to work to save our environment. I wish for more money for house elevations. That the bayous are renewed and people have sense of community again.”
This could be a reality with the RESTORE Act. In what Senator Mary Landrieu called a “historic moment,” Congress passed the act, allocating 80 percent of BP’s Clean Water Act fines to the Gulf Coast. With the fine money still tied up in legal wrangling and not yet divided between all five Gulf states, Terrebonne Parish residents now just have to wait and see where the money goes and if there will be an influx of resources to restore the coast and reverse decades of land loss.