HURRICANE ISAAC, ONE YEAR LATER - LOUISIANA
A year ago today, Hurricane Isaac hit New Orleans. The city was largely spared. Power outages darkened the streets, but when day broke, it revealed little flooding, and no damage from the storm surge. At the far reaches of the metropolitan area, in decaying exurbs and working-poor agricultural communities, the storm was far less merciful.
On the east side of Plaquemines Parish, which sits wide open before the Gulf of Mexico, the surge came down like a chop saw. A wall of water tore apart the town of Braithwaite. It ripped tombs from the cemetery and spread them miles around. They were flipped and tumbled into all sorts of odd arrangements. Some sat in piles. Others were leaning vertically against trees with their caskets exposed. People walked amongst the ruined graveyards, scrawling their names and phone numbers on the tombs of their deceased kin. Houses were lifted up and deposited on the crest of the twenty five foot levee that ran along the Mississippi River. Every little thing in sight was waterlogged and broken. The air was heavy and stank of rot, insinuating the number of dead animals deep in the surrounding woods.
From Braithwaite, the storm continued west. LaPlace is a community on the opposite side of Lake Pontchartrain. It’s a vast horizon of parking lots and low-rent strip malls. Subdivisions blossom out across the hollowed bottomlands like nebulous dust. Following the initial surge that took out Braithwaite, Isaac entered Lake Pontchartrain and gathered a second surge, building strength and racing towards Laplace.
Though the survivors have moved on and memories have faded, there exists a rather dramatic precedent for Isaac’s path.
In 1915, a hurricane came out of the West Indies. It hit the coast with force, spared New Orleans, and cut a line across Lake Pontchartrain, building a surge as it bore toward the west side of the lake. It exploded onto the cypress shores with indescribable fury, annihilating the small German settlements of Frenier and LaBranche. All the homes were blasted and strewn across the lake. Many of the villagers died. A few were able to survive by taking refuge in a stalled boxcar even as the train trestle it rested on began to disintegrate.
Today, Frenier is a sparsely settled fishing outpost and LaBranche is a cypress swamp that hasn’t seen any residential development since that tragic storm. But things could have been different. In the 1970s, during a rapid stage of St. Charles Parish’s industrial growth, land speculators were pushing hard to turn LaBranche into the diffuse exurban landscape that the nearby town of LaPlace is today. Speculators were buying up huge tracts of land all across the swamp. These investors believed that the Army Corps of Engineers would build a hurricane protection levee along the shore of the lake, thus making their properties eligible for federally subsidized flood insurance. Wetland preservation policies forced the Army Corps to reroute the levee, which now runs roughly parallel with Airline Highway and less than a quarter of a mile to its north, making development of the LaBranche Wetlands financially infeasible.
The day following Hurricane Isaac, Breonne and I visited the Wetland Watcher’s Park, near the site where the extinct town of LaBranche once stood. The park benches, anchored in cement, were ripped up from the ground and strewn about. Boardwalks that previously traversed the cypress swamps had completely collapsed into the water. Mud and sediment carried by the storm surge clung to every surface. The storm’s strength and intensity were evident, but since the area has remained mostly undeveloped since 1915, we witnessed little destruction. I imagined if LaBranche was the enormous lakefront suburb that many had hoped it would become; if rather than upturned benches and felled cypress trees, there existed the dream homes of Lakeland Gardens, or the office complexes of the LaBranche Industrial Park. The concrete slabs of these developments would have rested on the literal bones of the extinct village of LaBranche. Would it have met the same fate? Would Isaac have overwhelmed the neighborhood’s flood protection levee like Katrina did to the Lower Ninth Ward? Would the pumping system have failed, as has happened countless times in communities across south Louisiana?
From LaBranche, we continued on to LaPlace, where those notional scenes of suburban devastation became reality. Standing water covered the streets. Home-interior detritus lined every curb, some of it stacked eight feet high. We were unable to see the most extensive devastation because the streets were too flooded to continue. Red Cross emergency relief shelters along Airline Highway were packed. Hundreds of households were destroyed. Millions of dollars in damage had been wrought.
Nearly a century divides the West Indian Hurricane of 1915 from the storm that devastated Braithwaite and LaPlace on August 29th of 2012. The parallels between these two storms are a large component of our research into the cycles of creation and destruction that occur socially, economically, and environmentally in south Louisiana. Highways, storm drains, oil pipelines, floods, flames, and the decline of the late American suburb are all netting in the tangled web that marries these two storms. Our research continues forward, but we wanted to use this anniversary as an opportunity to share where we’re at so far.
Words & Map - Darin Acosta; Images - Breonne Dedecker
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Louisiana Guide Darin Acosta has spent his entire life exploring and documenting the wetlands, oil infrastructure and forgotten blight of South Louisiana and studied urban and environmental planning at the University of New Orleans. Louisiana Guide Breonne DeDecker was born near the headwaters of the Mississippi River and now resides at the end of it. She has degrees in photography and sustainable development.
Their current work, The Airline is a Very Long Road, is an experimental biography of Louisiana, which you can find at airlinehighway.tumblr.com.