The Louisiana Elegies

Coastal Louisiana is sinking, and the sea is rising, faster than anywhere on earth.

Water cuts through everything—in gutters, culverts, ditches, swales, bayous, rivers, estuaries, channels, and lakes. Tropical downpours flood the streets, stall traffic, pour over doorsills into homes. Geysers spurt out of manhole covers. Cattle stand in mud on the edge of town, watching commuter jets depart in the rain.

Due to subsidence (both natural and from extraction of oil, gas, and minerals); engineering that prevents Mississippi River silt from maintaining the coastline; and erosion from hurricanes and river floods, Louisiana has lost nearly 2,000 square miles to the waves since the 1930s. (That is a landmass bigger than the state of Rhode Island.) It loses another 17 square miles a year, or a football-field’s worth every hour. Without remediation, the 50-year flooding forecast is grim.

Looks like I picked the wrong century to buy a house.

The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) has developed a Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast—a selectively-chosen 124 “high performing projects” that “could build or maintain 800 square miles of land, and could reduce flood related economic damage by more than $150 billion over the next 50 years.” This will be done through “barrier island restoration, marsh creation, oyster barrier reef restoration, ridge restoration, bank stabilization, shoreline protection, hydrologic restoration, and diversions… earthen levees, T-walls, and floodgates … non-residential floodproofing, residential elevation, and residential voluntary acquisition….”

The last two—raising houses on stilts and government buyout—are what many homeowners are interested in, but few will see. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 90,000 people’s homes will be directly affected by 2045, in all of Louisiana’s coastal Congressional Districts, properties valued at four-and-a-third trillion dollars. This includes the cities of New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Lake Charles.

South Louisiana is admittedly lovely, in the way of places where people were never meant to build, and even though there are giant tree cockroaches in the kitchen drawers, fire ants in the grass, June bugs, mayflies, no-see-ums, termite swarms so thick their discarded wings are like snow in the headlights, mosquitoes, moths the size of paper airplanes, and yard rats scampering in the Confederate Jasmine. Occasionally a gator gets into a bayou or backyard, and excited men come for them.

We get snakes at our house, red-eared slider turtles and the occasional juvenile snapper, geckoes, skinks, anole lizards, herons, egrets, jays, cardinals, doves, and hummingbirds. There’s a hawk in the top of the sea pines across the street that likes to tear the heads off wrens and drop the bodies in our yard.

Every spring, in mating season, huge raccoons drip from the tips of cypress branches onto our deck. Under the deck are their fellow travelers—an armadillo, possums, skunks, squirrels, and neighborhood cats. Late one night a fox sat on its haunches a few feet from the front door, where I could see it by the flash on its chest and the insides of its ears, but only if I did not look directly, as with most wonders.

Our property is not large, but it has bottlebrush trees, water oaks, bay laurels, maples, a massive cypress with knees that poke up yards away, crepe myrtles, stubby little palms, honeysuckle and wild grapes in tangles, sumac, and blackberry brambles. Tiny wild strawberries grow in the St. Augustine sod. Algae grows on all the windows. We have never even had to hang curtains.

We have lived here in a cool green mood, like fish in a tank that needs scouring. One day the sea will clean house.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.