When her ancestral homeland becomes endangered, an alumna grapples with the meaning of it all.
On a humid evening last June, a crowd of nearly 100 gathered inside a chapel of the Holy Angels Convent in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans, equidistant from the bustling restaurant and music scene of the French Quarter and the Industrial Canal levee breach that devastated the Lower Ninth during Hurricane Katrina. People took their seats quietly, and the bereft tone of the congregation made one wonder if a coffin rather than a digital projector should have been placed at the foot of the altar.
Kerry St. Pé, a local marine biologist who has headed Louisiana’s oil spill response team for 23 years, stooped over a laptop and attempted to break down how the largest offshore oil disaster might alter the place he has devoted his whole life to trying to protect.
Gray haired and slender, St. Pé is accustomed to dealing with disaster. In 2005, his hometown of Port Sulphur in Plaquemines Parish was nearly wiped off the map by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. After surveying Katrina’s damage, he called his brother. “The good news first: remember how we used to have a house on our lot? Now we have three. The bad news is none of them are ours.” Floodwaters had carried his home a quarter mile down the road. As director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, St. Pé now spearheads efforts to restore the imperiled wetlands system directly south of New Orleans, which is experiencing one of the fastest rates of land loss in the world. His genteel Southern demeanor downplays the gravity of his work, but his slow, measured voice hints at his underlying weariness.
As soon as St. Pé finished showing his last slide, the audience at Holy Angels started peppering him with questions about the massive quantities of chemical dispersants that BP was heaping into the Gulf of Mexico. “Why should we entrust our waters to them?” a mother with two kids sitting in the pew beside her asked rhetorically. “Sure the EPA says it’s safe, but what if BP’s dispersants are still wrecking our fisheries 10, 20 years from now?”
Heads nodded in agreement. From activists in paint-stained clothes spending their post-college years rebuilding the city’s housing stock to professionals in their 50s and 60s dressed in crisp work attire, the group challenged and prodded St. Pé in a genial but earnest manner. The urban dwellers, who had come to the grassroots-organized session to learn about the spill without corporate spin, found cathartic solidarity. Despite daily full-page ads in every major newspaper asserting the company’s promise to “make it right” and TV spots featuring former BP CEO Tony Hayward pledging to “stay until the job is done,” community members could not vanquish their dread.
From where we sat, reaching the Deepwater Horizon rig blowout would have involved a two-hour drive by car and 50-mile boat ride across the choppy Gulf. Yet for local residents, it was as if the heavy ribbons of sweet crude were snaking down the city’s tree-lined avenues and blackened pelicans were washing up in neighborhood alleyways. It was not just the fact that staples of the local diet—oysters, shrimp, crabs, trout, and redfish—were in short supply or unavailable that unnerved so many. It was the fresh reminder that the people who call this terraqueous landscape home live on a narrow edge between beauty and tragedy, recovery and ruin. A toxic cocktail of corporate greed, lax government oversight, and fossil-fuel addiction had sent this delicate balance careening to a new disequilibrium.
Framed by a state of permanent catastrophe—between ongoing systemic land loss, destruction from storms such as Katrina, and the recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill—some suggest that Louisiana is the place where the hardest lessons are being manifested on the stewardship of natural resources and the resilience of local communities to fight for their survival. For the past five years, I watched my hometown of New Orleans stitch itself back together after Hurricane Katrina, in the darkest times of which it was not entirely clear whether the city could mend the wounds on its physical landscape and human geography. The deeper I dug into the city’s recovery efforts—from gutting flooded homes with fellow Middlebury students and attending vigorous community rebuilding meetings in Katrina’s wake to spending a year after graduation to help restore homes in the most storm-ravaged neighborhoods—the more it became apparent that the city’s fate would be determined not just by local residents and volunteers from across the country, but by a delta rapidly succumbing to the sea.