Police travel down Louisiana Highway 1 on the way to Port Fourchon during Hurricane Isaac on August 30, 2012. Photo courtesy of Tim Osborn.
If you locate South Lafourche Parish, Louisiana, on a map or a satellite image, you’ll see two distinct ribbons that weave their way toward the Gulf of Mexico. One is the lazy, green bayou: an artifact distributary of the once fractal and wild Mississippi River before it was tamed and diverted into the single artery that now runs through New Orleans.
Running parallel to Bayou Lafourche is a two-lane road, Louisiana Highway 1. The LA-1 runs all the way to where the land ends, and then the road rises on great pillars over open water. At the end of the elevated road, Port Fourchon—one of the country’s major ports serving the deepwater oil and gas industry—sits sentry next to Grand Isle, a tiny resort island where kids play on the beaches, barricading their sandcastles against the crush of the tide.
The LA-1 runs through South Lafourche Parish along Bayou Lafourche, past the levee walls and floodgates at Golden Meadow, and all the way to Port Fourchon at the edge of the coast. NASA Aqua satellite image from April 25, 2010, from the EOSDIS Rapid Response Project.
Seven miles of LA-1, from Leeville to Port Fourchon, are elevated to withstand flooding. The remaining eight miles, from Golden Meadow to Leeville, are level with the Bayou, and remain vulnerable to frequent flooding. Image by NOAA climate.gov team based on NASA Landsat data from November 11, 2011, courtesy the USGS GLOVIS website.
As director of the South Lafourche levee district, Windell Curole’s job is not unlike the children playing in the sand; he is constantly bracing against the inevitable. The next big storm is always on the horizon; it’s not a matter of if, as they say, but when. In the grown-up world, plastic shovels and pails are swapped for giant cranes and bulldozers to build levees—giant flood defense walls formed from dirt and concrete.
Beyond the levee walls, Port Fourchon is also fortifying its structures.
The port’s resiliency was put to the test this past summer when the eye of Hurricane Isaac set its sights upon it. Though the port fared well and suffered minor damage, one major weakness in the infrastructure surrounding the port has the potential to impact every American at the gas pump.
For Curole and others—energy companies, port managers, and key decision-makers in the community—the availability of accurate data is critical. In a vulnerable landscape, it could mean the difference between flooding and thriving on a sinking landscape. A drive down LA-1, he tells me, will show me all I need to know about why the land is worth fighting for.Thriving on a Sinking Landscape,