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Louisiana's Wetlands @ National Geographic Magazine
Photograph by Tyrone Turner    
By Joel K. Bourne, Jr.
Photographs by
Robert Caputo and Tyrone Turner




The Louisiana bayou, hardest working marsh in America, is in big trouble—with dire consequences for residents, the nearby city of New Orleans, and seafood lovers everywhere.



 It was a broiling August afternoon in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Big Easy, the City That Care Forgot. Those who ventured outside moved as if they were swimming in tupelo honey. Those inside paid silent homage to the man who invented air-conditioning as they watched TV "storm teams" warn of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Nothing surprising there: Hurricanes in August are as much a part of life in this town as hangovers on Ash Wednesday.
 
But the next day the storm gathered steam and drew a bead on the city. As the whirling maelstrom approached the coast, more than a million people evacuated to higher ground. Some 200,000 remained, however—the car-less, the homeless, the aged and infirm, and those die-hard New Orleanians who look for any excuse to throw a party.
 
The storm hit Breton Sound with the fury of a nuclear warhead, pushing a deadly storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain. The water crept to the top of the massive berm that holds back the lake and then spilled over. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level—more than eight feet below in places—so the water poured in. A liquid brown wall washed over the brick ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over the white-columned porches of the Garden District, until it raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet (eight meters) over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it.
 
Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.
 
When did this calamity happen? It hasn't—yet. But the doomsday scenario is not far-fetched. The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the most dire threats to the nation, up there with a large earthquake in California or a terrorist attack on New York City. Even the Red Cross no longer opens hurricane shelters in the city, claiming the risk to its workers is too great.
 
"The killer for Louisiana is a Category Three storm at 72 hours before landfall that becomes a Category Four at 48 hours and a Category Five at 24 hours—coming from the worst direction," says Joe Suhayda, a retired coastal engineer at Louisiana State University who has spent 30 years studying the coast. Suhayda is sitting in a lakefront restaurant on an actual August afternoon sipping lemonade and talking about the chinks in the city's hurricane armor. "I don't think people realize how precarious we are,"
Suhayda says, watching sailboats glide by. "Our technology is great when it works. But when it fails, it's going to make things much worse." 
 
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Flashback
Flashback to 1938 when an ivorybill woodpecker jumped from its nest in a Louisiana swamp, climbed up guide J. J. Kuhn's arm, and perched on his cap.



More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Loiusiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries estimates that currently over 63,000 acres (25,000 hectares) of coastal wetlands have been demolished, or chomped, by the now ubiquitous nutria. The large, marsh-loving rodent, somewhere between a muskrat and a beaver, was brought to Louisiana from South America in the 1930s for the fur industry and has since claimed Louisiana's coastal wetlands as home. The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is hoping to control nutria populations by encouraging Louisianans to trap them. And eat them.
 
Nutria meat, also called ragondin, is likened to rabbit or dark turkey meat. It is higher in protein and lower in both fat and cholesterol than beef, chicken, and even turkey. Though nutria is difficult to find on menus, the department hopes it will one day become a popular dish and has even posted recipes on its website: www.nutria.com. So remember, "Nutria: Good for You. Good for Louisiana."

—Mary Jennings
Did You Know?

Related Links
LAcoast
www.lacoast.gov
Maintained by the National Wetlands Research Center, this is an excellent site for articles, newsletters, and general background information on Louisiana's disappearing coastline and the restoration efforts to save it.
 
Save Louisiana Wetlands
www.savelawetlands.org
Find out more information about this program run by Louisiana's Department of Natural Resources.
 
Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration Plan
www.lca.gov
A comprehensive site that includes history and statistics on the coastal area, land change maps, and a link to the LCA draft plan.
 
National Wetlands Research Center
www.nwrc.usgs.gov
Read factsheets, news releases, and hot topics on Louisiana's coastline and wetlands in general, from this research center of the U.S. Geological Survey.

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Bibliography
Barry, John. Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America. Simon and Schuster, 1998.
 
Hallowell, Christopher. Holding Back the Sea: The Struggle for America's Natural Legacy on the Gulf Coast. HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.
 
Streever, Bill. Saving Louisiana? The Battle for Coastal Wetlands. University Press of Mississippi, 2001.
 
Tidwell, Mike. Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast. Vintage Books, 2004.

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NGS Resources
Swain, Christopher. "Then & There." National Geographic Adventure (September 2002), 42-3.
 
Tourtellot, Jonathan B. "The Wealth of Marshes." National Geographic Traveler (July/August 1996), 24, 26-7.
 
Rinard, Judith E. "Down by the Riverside Supersize." National Geographic World (October 1993), 15-22.

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