A new sadness on the delta

MDS project Boothville, LA
The little blue house in Boothville, LA where we worked.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Living in rural northeast Ohio, it would be easy to ignore the on-going disastrous situation in the Gulf of Mexico 1,100 miles away. But I can’t. For me, it’s personal.

I had spent a week in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana with a group from Holmes County volunteering to restore a home 18 months after the devastating duo, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, had wreaked their havoc. We worked through Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS).

In the course of our stay and work on Mississippi River Delta, we got to know the native people and their rich, historic interconnection with the delicate environment of the impressive delta. They had lived and worked there for generations.

We visited with them in their homes, some of them outside the infamous levies in the watery bayous. Their stories were heartening for us to hear, healing for them to tell.

wrecked boats outside levy
Wrecked boats still sat in inlets and bayous outside the levies that protected the Louisiana delta.

The little blue house on stilts where we worked in Boothville was just up the road from Venice, where much of the coverage of the oil disaster has been dispatched. I had found it an eerie place back then. It has to be more so now.

Large fishing boats still sat where the winds and waters of the storms had deposited them. Nearby, oil facilities, both inside and outside the levies, continued their hum. Helicopters regularly ferried workers and supplies to and from the offshore rigs.

The terra firma there wasn’t exactly so firm. Centuries of silt deposits from the big river squished beneath your feet in places. Outside the earthen levies you risked getting your feet wet with a simple change of the wind, tide or waves.

Wrecked boats near Venice, LA.
Wrecked and unclaimed boats still sat where Katrina and Rita had deposited them near the mouth of the Mississippi River at Venice, LA.

The natives know how critical the preservation of these irreplaceable reeds, rushes, live oaks, reefs, barriers, coves, channels, islands and inlets are to both wildlife and their collective life. The marshes and the people are intimately related.

Now those precious wetlands are choked with oil or could be. Wildlife, floral, fauna and livelihoods are all in jeopardy. And we can’t forget those who died or were injured in the original explosion.

Most people work in the region’s two main industries, oil or fishing. The fishing industry, which supplies a third of the world’s seafood, had revived following the storms.

Shrimp boat unloading.
Workers unloaded shrimp on Dec. 1, 2006.

Now this unnatural mess seriously threatens all of that. And once again, private and governmental preparations and responses have seemed much too shortsighted and inadequate, if not inept.

It was hard enough for these colorful folks with their wonderful Creole accents and marvelous human stories to endure and reestablish themselves after the storms. How would they ever recover from this massive, man-made catastrophe?

When I was in the sixth grade, which was clearly a long time ago, a United States map hung at the back of the room. As a distraction from my studies, I used to stare at that map and wonder about the various shapes and configurations I saw represented.

I was particularly fascinated with this strange, green feature dangling down from the rest of the continent into the blue Gulf of Mexico. My teacher said it was a delta formed by the unending accumulation of sedimentary river deposits. As long as the Mississippi carried silt, the delta would always grow.

I know I have aged a lot since then and my memory isn’t what it used to be. However, I don’t remember seeing a giant, black stain on the map where the river met the Gulf. But there is a real one there today, and it makes me sadder than sad.

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