How Much Can the Gulf Coast Take? Part I: Loss of Land


by Vicki Wolf

“There’s a tremendous range of human induced and natural induced disruptive events that impact this coast, and yet, it somehow survives,” says Craig Colten, professor in the Department of Geography and Anthropology at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. People living on the Gulf Coast know they will encounter natural disasters. Their ancestors have told stories of storms of past generations, and they were awakened to the reality that big storms can happen any time with Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But dramatic loss of land is something they didn’t expect.

Pastor Jesse Morris leads a congregation in the Buras-Triumph area in Plaquemines Parish. He says, on a continual basis, the loss of land is the most devastating of all the disasters and loss they have endured. He tells how people who have lived in the area all their lives react when they go out on a boat and see how the shoreline is receding and subsiding. “They just shake their head  and say ‘It’s gone.  It’s gone.’  In ten years, I don’t know if my grandkids are going to be able to come out here and enjoy this,” he says.  “That is what they see.  It’s just gone.”

Re-engineering of flood plains and wetlands by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to accommodate development and industry has caused tremendous disruption of the coastal ecology, according to Colten, author of Perilous Place, Powerful Storms. “They call it the flood plain because it’s created by flooding water, which deposits sediment, which made this such a rich agricultural area,” Colten says. Building levees to prevent flooding sends the water filled with tons of sediment down the Mississippi River and dumps it into the Gulf of Mexico.

This engineered change has interfered with the natural rejuvenation of the land from sediment deposited by the river. “Because it’s no longer rejuvenated on a regular basis, the delta is sinking under it’s own weight. And because it’s no longer getting fresh sediment to rebuild itself, it’s sinking faster than it’s growing,” Colten says. It has been discovered in recent years that drilling for fossil fuel in these low-lying areas also contributes to subsidence.

The ancestors of Thomas Dardar, chief of the United Houma Indian Nation, have lived in the area of Houma, Louisiana for 300 years. To illustrate how rapidly the land is eroding and subsiding, Chief Dardar shows aerial photographs of the progressive loss of land. Each picture in the series of photos he displays from his computer shows less land, more water, fewer homes.

He says when he was a kid the places he hunted rabbit and deer are now all water. “We lose a football field every 30 minutes,” he says. “Now, we’re catching red fish, speckled trout, drums, flounders. So, the big travesty is that the land that we once hunted on, now we fish on.”

Pastor Jesse considers the sediment the Mississippi River carries as it flows toward the Gulf of Mexico a gift from God. He says he understands the need to dredge the river for navigation, but he doesn’t understand why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t put the sediment back to help rebuild the delta rather than dumping it into the sea. “The Corps of Engineer ships and the companies that they hire, they capture all the silt and put it off the coast and dump it in thousands of feet of water, when we can just access it by dredging and pump it and keep our Gulf Coast,” he says.  “We can keep it pristine. We can keep it fresh, and I’ve been saying this for as long as I can remember.”

Colten says there are efforts to try and restore the Gulf Coast, but there are competing interests for what to do with the sediment. He says the Corps of Engineers want the sediment to continue to go out into the gulf. “They want the river to flow and scour itself as best it can so they don’t have to spend as much money on dredging,” he says. “I think gradually the coast is going to continue to retreat, and I think with sea levels rising, it forces that.”

Chief Dardar says he wonders what will be left for future generations. “I’m 56 years old, and when you look at my lifetime, as much land that we have lost, and you start putting that into perspective, I have grandchildren: What is going to be left in the next 50 year for those guys to look at and treasure and remember, you know.”

Another long-term disruption in coastal ecology occurred in the 1970‘s to make it easier for oil companies to bring in equipment for on-shore drilling. The Corps built canals through the wetlands to allow big barges to carry the equipment. “So, you have this vast network of canals that have been constructed that allows saltwater intrusions, which kills the vegetation. It disrupts the habitat of the shrimp, and the other fish that use the estuaries as a nursery.  It affects the salinity of the oysters absolutely as well,” Colten says. In Part II of “How Much Can the Gulf Coast Take?” we’ll explore how this disruption along with powerful storms and the BP Deep Horizon drilling disaster are affecting the fishers and costal communities who depend on this ecosystem for their livelihood and sustenance.

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Grassroots efforts working – big campaign coming with

All over the world people are taking on powerful institutions and saying no you can’t do this to our land, to our lives, to our planet. One of the biggest movements has risen against the tar sands pipelines and for good reason — In addition to what building the Keystone XL piipeline is doing to homes and farms, James Hansen says burning all the tarsands oil means game over for life as we know it on this planet. Now a bigger campaign is taking shape — is planning to peacefully and directly target the oil industry with an anti-apartheid scale movement starting the day after the US presidential elections. Take a look at Flickr page 40,000 photos from all over the world to see what already has happened. Please share this and find a way to get involved.

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Resilience Intergenerational Councils Emergence from Bioneers 2012

I learn so much when I come to this conference and always want to share it. I get busy when I return to my days at home and so I decided to blog while I’m here. I really want to share the wisdom and inspriation that comes from the energy, presence and sharing here. As Carlos Nakai put it this morning “we are bectoming aware of the responsibility we have for this place we call home. Here I always get a sense not that the things that need to happen can happen but that they are happening. Stay tuned and join in the conversation and please share anything that inspires you.

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Survive & Thrive Wisdom from 2011 Bioneers Conference

The past weekend I attend the Bioneers Conference in San Rafael, California. This is my fourth time to come to the conference. I come here for new hope and inspiration and I always get it.

This year the wisdom from young and old, at the lectern and in intimate conversations inspired me to do more.

Here are a few things I can share now before I travel back to Texas:

At a Buckminister Fuller Challenge presentation I learned that he called for a design revolution to “make the world work for 100 percent of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage to anyone. He is known for his concept of the trim-tab the small tab at the tail end a rudder of boat or plane that when moved just right at just the right time can turn the vessel around. He used this metaphor to demonstrate how relatively small amoumts of leverage, energy and resources when strategically applied at the right time and place can produce maximum advantageous change.

I also learned that we must do a better job of learning from nature rather than always taking from nature. It’s clear we are depleting the resources we have come to depend upon. Nature shows us the value and genius of diversity, redunancy and variety.

“Nature had done everything we want to do without mining the past or mortgaging the future,” says Janine Benyus, Biomimicry scientist. Dayna Baumeister, a biomimicry expert presented “Life’s Operating Manual” the conference. She noted that in the 4.5 billion year history of the Earth, we humans are a very young species and we can learn from our elders, the fishes, insects, birds, reptiles and plants how to adapt, interconnect, stand strong and go with the flow as we listen, learn and collaborate with all our relations on this planet.

More details coming later. And I promise to get down to basics of survival soon. In the meantime, start your garden, set up your rainwater harvesting system, visit the farmer nearest your home, get to know your local practitioners and spend more time with the ones you love.

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Hurricane Season: Houston and the Gulf Coast are Vulnerable

People living along the Gulf Coast stay on edge this time of year: It’s hurricane season – a time of watching to see if tropical waves will become destructive storms as they move toward the warm waters of the Gulf Coast. This area has been ravaged by hurricanes – Hurricanes Andrew, Katrina and Ike have been the three most costly disasters in U.S. history. Ike cost $30 billion and brought devastation to Galveston and the Bolivar Peninsula in 2008. The hurricane resulted in the largest evacuation in the history for Texas.

It could have been much worse if Hurricane Ike had made landfall just 40 miles down the coast as predicted, according to Jim Blackburn, faculty associate at Rice University with the SSPEED Center studying lessons learned from Hurricane Ike. “All of us have been sobered by the potential of damage,” Blackburn says. “It could be much worse than we have seen to date with the storms experts say we can reasonably foresee.”

From his work with the ongoing study of coastal vulnerability with the Severe Storm Prediction Education, and Evacuation from Disaster (SSPEED) Center, Blackburn points out that:

Potential for damage in the Galveston Bay system is extremely high. Hurricane Ike was only a category 2 storm. “If it had been 30 percent stronger , the surge would have been incredible on Galveston Bay.”
Potential for loss of life and property damage for the three counties that surround the bay is huge. About a million people live in this area. The population is expected to grow to more than1.5 million. Blackburn says, “They can’t evacuate 1.5 million people.”
The Houston Ship Channel is the center for refineries and petrochemical plants in the United States producing dangerous chemicals and storing crude oil. A 25-foot surge in the Houston Ship Channel would cause significant environmental problems for all of Houston and the region as well as economic loss that would affect the whole country.

To improve resilience of the Texas Gulf Coast, SSPEED is looking at a combination of structural and non-structural rfor protection of the Gulf Coast from storm surges and flooding.

Structural solutions include a levee at the bridge on Highway 146 that crosses the Houston Ship Channel where the channel empties into the bay. The elevation of land at the point is 25 feet. A 25 ft levee system with flood gates could be built at this location to prevent a storm surge from coming up the channel.

Non-structural solutions would involve protecting wetlands from development and preserving them to provide flood control as well as recreation areas for birdwatching and kayaking. The low-lying areas of Galveston Bay, Bolivar Peninsula and the upper Texas coast could become part of the national park system.

Blackburn says as the SSPEED study continues, the faculty is identifying problems and working backwards to find solutions that make sense. Various entities will be encouraged to share resources in this time of tighter budgets and limited money.

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Eight Things You Can Do to Be Prepared if Disaster Strikes

Preparedness is about more than food and water. Here’s a list of areas in life that need attention for preparedness. More details on each of these areas to come in future blogs. Please let me know what you are doing in these areas of your life.
1. Maximize good health and fitness – To survive a disaster it helps to have a strong immune system and good physical strength. Start good health practices – eat healthy food, take care of health problems; get plenty of rest.  Increase endurance, fitness and strength – start an exercise program today that includes aerobic exercise and strength building.
2. Develop mental and emotional strength – Take an inventory of stress and time wasters in your life. Clear up stressful situations in your life that you have control over. Start a stress management practice. Take time each day to slow down, tune into your body, clear mind and deeply relax. Find ways to have more joy in your life. Practice breathing through the physiological response to a stressful or frightening situation and then notice how the mind clears. If you can wait for this clearing, a better decisions can be made.
3. Develop an inner source for solace and guidance – For most people this source comes from a religion or spiritual path. Slow down and pay attention to the breath. To stay focused, count to eight while you inhale and then count to eight while you exhale. Practice until it is easy and you are able to stay focused for 10 breaths. Learn to quiet the mind with a short affirmation, word, or sacred mantra and repeat it softly or silently inside your mind. Listen for guidance from within, the source of your devotion or inspiration. Practice making contact with this part of yourself every day. When times are difficult, you will be able to tune in and receive the guidance you need.
4. Create a network of friends and/or family – Create a community you can rely on when you need help. Make an effort to be with them at least once a week. Make sure to have some fun with this group. Talk about your life and the future you want to see. Make a plan for helping each other if a time should come when you need to shelter in place or evacuate.
5. Develop a local food supply – get to know your local farmers and farmers’ markets; plant a vegetable garden; get involved in a community garden. Store extra dried food and preserved food, enough for at least two weeks. Learn food preservation such as canning and dehydrating foods from your garden and local farms.
6. Create a system for having a source of clean water – install a system for rain-water harvesting; get a water purification filter and/or iodine tablets and learn to use them. Grapefruit seed extract also is a good purifier.
7. Start wildcrafting – learn how to recognize medicinal herbs and edible plants that grow in your neighborhood. Get a local herbalist to do a plant walk. Start collecting these plants and try them out.
8. Develop your own local health/healing network – Make a list of acupuncturists, energy healers, herbalists and other natural medicine practitioners preferably in walking distance from your home. Get to know them. Even better, get them together and make an emergency plan for providing healthcare for neighbors to be prepared if local clinics and hospitals were not available.

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Water: essential for survival and disaster-proofing

In Texas and other parts of the world where drought has become a frequent visitor, the importance of having enough water has come into full focus. Patricia Michael, teaching fellow of the International Permaculture Academy and landscape designer, says rainwater harvesting is an important part of disaster-proofing your home.

“One of the biggest disasters we could have down here is fire,” she says. Patricia lives with  her husband, Bill Meacham, in Austin, Texas at the back end of a subdivision that
is not easily accessible for quick response from emergency vehicles. She notes that a fire hydrant used for any length of time lowers water pressure in the neighborhood. “Everyone needs a way to get water on their roof to put out sparks,” she says.

A gravity-fill water supply is the best solution. Last year Patricia and Bill bought a 5,000 gallon water tank. They use it to water their landscape. Patricia says the tank was three-fourths full before the recent drought. “It’s about one-third full now,” she says. “We are not  going to use any more of it until it comes back up.”

Having a water collection system also is important for providing drinking water in an emergency. “I live on a creek. If there is a flood we could have a number hours without potable water,” Patricia says. “I use to buy jugs of water. Now I have a tank.”

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There is room for you at our table . . .

This is my first blog for the Survive & Thrive Guide. So I want to tell you why I’ve decided to start this blog.

In 2002, when I turned my focus as a writer from health and medical science to the environment, I was hopeful that we could make the changes needed to prevent catastrophic, irreversible climate change and other looming environmental crises. Now nine years later, I have become acutely aware that we are in the midst of an environmental crisis. We also have dwindling resources and a widening gap between rich and poor that set us up for some challenging times ahead.

As I began to look at disaster-proofing and preparing for crises, I realized that local resources and community are the most reliable, accessible sources we have for all the things we need when we are cut off from conventional goods and services. It occurred to me that becoming aware of local resources for food, water and other basic necessities also is a way of becoming more connected to the land, plants and other living things around my neighborhood. I found out that the soil on my land is very good. I expanded my vegetable garden and I’m starting to think about berries and an orchard. We have a spring and ponds in the neighborhood. Some of my neighbors are health practitioners: I have an accupuncturist, a nurse, a massage therapist, and a Reiki practitioner within a half-mile of my house.

Of course, it’s good to stock up on non-perishable food items, and have a source for clean water. I plan to offer lots of resources for these kind of things with this blog. But the main focus will be on how to build resilience for the long-term. The exciting thing about all of this is that learning about food and water sources in my own backyard, and my community is enriching my life now as I prepare for any crisis that may lie ahead.

More than anything, I want to see a better world evolve as we move through this time of chaos. I have been inspired by Starhawk’s “Fifth Sacred Thing” that portrays a community of people who honor each other and nature as they face an enemy that wants to take away the beautiful world they’ve created. Their response is, “There is room for you at our table if you will join us.” I believe together we can find a way to be able to say this and make the world a place where everyone has enough. I hope you’ll join me with your ideas.

Vicki Wolf

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