Ida showed that the fossil fuel industry left Louisiana defenseless

The sun was about to set at the Leeville boat launch when a family started packing their car with rockfish they had caught an hour before. Above us was LA-1, a raised highway dubbed the “Gateway to the Gulf” because it is the only link between what can still be considered mainland Louisiana to Grand Isle, the last barrier island. inhabited state. The sound of trucks hauling materials from Port Fourchon, a major offshore oil hub where 90% of the Gulf’s production and oil rigs are serviced, rumbled above us as the boats crossed the mosaic. of eroded marshes.

I began photographing the architecture and landscape of southern Louisiana in 2014, long after the fossil fuel industry’s hold on the region began. Most of my work focuses on the infrastructure of this unique area as a means of conveying how we have altered the land and the uneven protection that this infrastructure provides. When Hurricane Ida made landfall, he did it in this swamp that I was photographing under LA-1. While the storm itself struck within days, its impacts lasted for decades. With peak wind gusts of 172 mph (277 km / h) recorded and 12 feet (4 meters) of storm surge at Port Fourchon, Ida caused catastrophic damage. This includes the community of Grand Isle, where the mayor said 100% of all structures on the island were damaged and 40% destroyed or nearly destroyed.

Louisiana’s relationship with the fossil fuel industry is ubiquitous; no aspect of life is untouched by the years of exploitation and extraction that these companies have pursued. Wetlands have historically served as a natural hurricane protection system. But to build and maintain pipelines, companies dig canals through swamps. Over time, saltwater intrusion erodes this habitat and becomes open water. At the same time, oil and gas burned in remote locations on Louisiana’s endangered coast have caused sea levels to rise, putting pressure on the region.

On average, the Gulf of Mexico swallows up a football field worth the Louisiana coastline every 100 minutes. By the time Ida’s storm surge reached the Leeville boat launch on August 29, the state had already lost nearly 2,000 miles (3,220 kilometers) of land, an area of ​​approximately the size of the state of Delaware. Understanding the massive scale of environmental degradation can be abstract, but for those who have lived here for generations, the changes are tied to specific memories and family history.

The sinking of so much land allowed the storm surge to penetrate further inland, causing more damage to coastal communities. But while Ida was a singular event, the damage caused by the disappearance of the lands altered life in declining coastal Louisiana.

The LA-1 freeway on concrete towers raised above the marshes near Leeville.

LA-1 near Leeville.
Photo: Virginie Hanusik

In South Louisiana, the degradation caused by the fossil fuel industry has already led to the assisted migration of some communities to higher ground. This could strain the bonds of communities and affect their relationship to the place they once called home. This Raise questions whether migration – forced or not – away from the coast is feasible on the scale needed in the coming century as the climate crisis puts more and more communities in the first line. Ida is the latest in a series of storms that have hit the United States and elsewhere to demonstrate the futility of the argument to ‘go’ when there is no place untouched by the climate emergency created. by burning fossil fuels.

The deterioration of the Louisiana coast is also due in part to the lifting of the Mississippi River and the attempt to control its natural course. In response to the Great Flood of 1927 which inundated 27,000 square miles (69,930 square kilometers) in 12 states, Congress essentially nationalized flood control along the river and gave the job of doing so to the Army Corps. of Engineers. Looking at the fractured landscape of the Parish of Plaquemines that straddles the Mississippi River like a ribbon on both sides until it reaches the Gulf of Mexico, the land loss crisis is visibly due in part to engineering. human. Most of my work focuses on the infrastructure of southern Louisiana as a means of conveying how we have altered the land and the uneven distribution of the protection that infrastructure provides.

Hurricane Ida tested the levee system surrounding New Orleans and its suburbs, showing that ambitious infrastructure investments actually work. However, the system weakens with every square kilometer of coast lost in the Gulf of Mexico, pushing the water to the city’s gates higher and higher. Meanwhile, communities like Houma, Cocodrie and Chauvin – all places hard hit by Ida – have been essentially treated as buffer zones as the earth disappears around them. This risks creating the perception that these places are less important or worthy of recovery assistance than places like New Orleans, when the truth is that the future of South Louisiana depends on healthy ecosystems and communities along the Gulf.

Power lines and a tower in the middle of the water near Kenner, Louisiana.

Power lines on Kenner.
Photo: Virginie Hanusik

As you drive between New Orleans and Houma on Highway 90, you’ll see Shell-sponsored billboards touting “The Rhythm of Louisiana” against the backdrop of refineries that line the highly concentrated petrochemical corridor of the Mississippi River. The 85-mile (140-kilometer) stretch of the Baton Rouge River to New Orleans was called the cancer aisle and treated as a sacrifice zone by the fossil fuel industry by exposing residents to the country’s most polluted air, water and soil. These same communities, like LaPlace in St. John the Baptist Parish, have also been hit hard by Ida, compounding the impacts of the climate crisis.

Nearly 190,000 households in Southeast Louisiana are still in the dark and will continue to be for what appears to be the next few weeks to come. But when the lights come on, a new reality will set in, one that will make it difficult to ignore our government’s failures to prioritize the health and safety of the people of southern Louisiana over profits. by Big Oil. Today, donate to organizations helping thousands of people without food, water and electricity because your community could be next. In the coming weeks, continue these efforts as major news organizations shift to covering the next climate emergency; there are no buffer zones in the world we live in now.

Virginia Hanusik is an artist whose projects explore the relationship between landscape, culture and the built environment. His work has been exhibited internationally, featured in The New Yorker, National Geographic, British Journal of Photography, and Oxford American, among others, and supported by the Pulitzer Center, the Graham Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation.

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