Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Mighty Mississp

This text was produced by the Curatorial Practice Program of the California College of the Arts 2007 (including me)
For the "Nowhere" Class with Matthew Coolidge of CLUI

Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans, holds the last hundred miles of this, the nation’s greatest river. Water from as far away as New York, New Mexico, and Alberta flows between the levees that run through the parish.

In this water, dissolved and suspended, are particles from two thirds of the Lower 48’s landmass, moving through on this big muddy conveyor at a rate of a million tons a day, dispersed into the void of the Gulf, at the rivers end.

The developed land of Plaquemines consists mostly of two narrow strips on either bank of the river. Within this land are a half dozen industrial sites, and around 20 named communities, with several schools, jails, and graveyards. Front, back, and side levees protect them from inundation, from the river on one side and the marsh on the other, most of the time.

Hurricane Katrina made landfall on US soil first at the town of Buras, in the middle of Plaquemines, and the 125 mile per hour winds followed by a 25 foot storm surge destroyed and flooded most of the inhabited parish. The land within the levees became a temporary lake, full of wreckage.

This latest round of destruction punctuates and accelerates the continuous disintegration of the land beyond the levees, the majority of the area of the Parish.

Most of Plaquemines is - and was – marshland, a tenuous balance of land and water. Sliced up by oil company canals, and cut off from sediment recharge by the leveed river, the marsh is melting away.

But still, within this broken, battered place, people hold on, sometimes for dear life, to the tattered fragments of a marginal existence.

To journey down this last part of the river, beyond New Orleans, a part that is often forgotten, through the outer reaches of this place of disappearance, is to travel, finally, to the end of one America.

In Southern Plaquemines, nearly everything was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina. When a community is merely a sketch of what it once was and disaster is ever-present in the minds of all, it is hard to imagine a sense of home. More than half of the residents of Plaquemines Parish have not returned to the area, yet a strong population is determined to stay, to rebuild, to survive this storm after the storm. It is here that their history lives and it is here that die-hard Plaquemines residents are using new building methods to resist future disasters. To construct a sense of peace and security in hurricane country is a heroic task.

Recurrent scenes throughout the Post-Katrina landscape are concrete slabs upon which wood framed houses once stood. Concrete steps that lead nowhere is another reminder of the multitudinous loss. What becomes evident is the ability of concrete to withstand the forces of nature that residents of this area have been battling time and time again.

The TECO Bulk Terminal, south of Phoenix, is one of several industrial sites along the river in Plaquemines Parish.

It is one of two dry bulk material handling facilities that use large shoreline yards to hold piles of material that is in transit through the region. Like the other one, the Kinder Morgan facility across the river, Teco handles mostly coal. The company mines the coal in Kentucky, then brings it down river to this site by barge. It is offloaded using conveyors and stored on a large concrete pad. Ocean going ships pick up the coal from this point, and move it down rie and along the coast, to St. Petersburg, Florida, where it is offloaded and burned in a power plant. This coal is the primary source of power for the Tampa, Florida region.

The Teco terminal in Plaquemines is one of the largest dry bulk storage terminals in the nation. For four days following Katrina, the coal and all the equipment was under 15 feet of water. The water drained away when, finally, the levees failed. Workers came back to clean up, and found the area swarming with snakes, and loaded with fish stranded in the ditches. They used an industrial vacuum called a “super sucker” to move the fish back into the river. Katrina caused 30 million dollars worth of damage to the terminal.

Down river, on the western shore, the Freeport Sulphur plant was another industrial site that was completely submerged. Though the plant ceased operating more than ten years ago, it was undergoing major clean up and remediation before the storm. The American sulphur industry was born in Louisiana in the last decade of the 19th century, and the industry boomed in 1932 when Freeport Sulphur Company acquired the rights for a major mine at Lake Grande Ecaille in Plaquemines Parish.

The mine site was connected to this riverside production site at Port Sulphur by a ten mile long canal. The company grew to become Freeport McMoran, one of the largest mining companies in the world, and the only Fortune 500 company based in New Orleans.

On the western shore of the river, near the last ferry crossing on the river at West Point La Hache, and situated on 50 acres, sits the historic Woodland Plantation. It was built in the 1830s by one of America's first chief river pilots, Captain William Johnson, and has graced the label of Southern Comfort whiskey since 1934.

The Plantation is tied to a history of slave trade through a connection with the famous pirate Jean Lafitte. Spirits Hall, formerly St. Patrick's Catholic Church, circa 1883, was moved from Homeplace, Louisiana to Woodland and now sits on the acreage that had seen much pain and suffering. The Creppels - Claire, Jacques and son Foster – bought the by then delapitated Woodland at a public auction and re-opened in 1999 as a beautifully restored nine-room country inn.

Its current owner and operator, Foster Creppel, is well known throughout the Parish as a generous friend and a charismatic business owner. For his Woodland guests, he organizes bird and fishing tours and often treats them to freshly caught oysters before dinner in Sprits Hall. He is a respected, active community member who is vocal and visible in his efforts to save the marshlands. He is also a member of the Plaquemines Association of Business and Industry.

Woodland was one of the first establishments to be completely repaired after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina and flooding from the broken levees. Even though Plaquemines Parish is known as the “Sportsman’s Paradise,” Woodland Plantation is one the only places in the parish where politicians, businessmen, sport fishermen, visitors and locals alike can enjoy a strong drink and a good meal, topped off with a heavy dose of southern hospitality.

The St. Thomas cemetery, located in Pointe a la Hache, is one of 23 cemeteries in Plaquemines Parish. Many of the cemeteries are small, with just a few family names like Buras, Richarme and Hague. St. Thomas, located behind the small church, is a poignant site for many of the residents in the parish. During the storm, nearly all of the residents of Plaquemines Parish left, and less than half have returned. Similarly, many of their ancestors were uprooted from the land by Katrina, as 1,500 graves were damaged, destroyed or disinterred. Throughout coastal Louisiana, because the land is at or even below sea level, people are buried above the ground.

The exposed crypts and tombs are vulnerable to damaging winds and floods. In some instances, during Katrina, cement sarcophagi were blown hundreds of feet. Remains were flung from many tombs, and wooden coffins escaped and floated away.

After the storm, Mike Mudge, one of 9 Councilmen in Plaquemines Parish, enlisted friends and co-workers to help reclaim the cemeteries. What was thought to be a two-week endeavor took longer than eight months. The largest task was to identify the bodies. This required searching with airboats and GPS to locate debris. Mudge and his local team of investigators worked quickly and discreetly, managing to keep the less sensitive federal teams at bay for three weeks. He hesitated to have the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, otherwise known as DMORT, assist the Parish early on, as their tendency during disaster is to quickly rebury the human remains in mass burial sites. A federal government mortuary system that started in the early 1980s, DMORT started as a committee formed within the National Funeral Directors Association to address disaster situations and specifically, mass fatality incidents. DMORT is now a program of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. There were also cultural considerations that needed to be pointed out to DMORT: the different ways in which people are buried here. Many graves had mausoleums to fit 2 to 4 family members and required rearrangement with each new addition to the mausoleum. Mudge’s background as a police detective revealed itself looking for clues to connect body parts to grave sites during the crucial moments after the storm, and later, as he developed his own tagging and identifying system before DMORT arrived to the parish. This numbering system, using tags placed on the body, the coffin and the vault, is now in place, to aid with identification after the next storm.

New cement vaults are also strapped to the ground, with the same anchors and metal straps used for FEMA trailers. They lie alongside the older vaults that have managed to remain in place during the storm. A total of 300 tombs were moved, 167 bodies went to DMORT for identification and 150 bodies were reburied by the parish. A year later, Mudge is still working on the reinterment. A sign with Mudge’s home phone number is posted at the cemeteries where the dead - at least 35 bodies parish wide- are still missing.

As one moves further south through post-Katrina Plaquemines, buildings become more sparse and the area resembles a war zone. Houses have been replaced by uniform white trailers issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The landscape is dominated by temporary solutions, like FEMA trailers. People who can prove they owned a house that was destroyed (if their paperwork was not completely lost too) are entitle to a FEMA at the house site, if the residents prepare an inspectible sewer, water, and electrical connection. For renters or tenants, one of the dozens of FEMA trailer parks in the parish become home.

The FEMA park at the former community of Diamond, on the western shore, is the largest of the federally built and operated housing encampments in Plaquemines. Around 400 trailers house over 2,000 people. According to these numbers, the average trailer, 30 foot long by 7 feet wide, has 5 people living in it.

The rows of trailers are arranged in a tight grid and contained within a fence guarded by FEMA contractors. Occupants of the community are required to present identification when entering the premises. People have been moved from all over the parish and even from New Orleans to the Diamond Community, where the complexity of integration and close quarters are pressing everyday problems. At Diamond, there is no internal government, no social programming, and no community center. There is little incentive for people to interact with one another. Many spend days on end inside cramped trailers.

FEMA trailers are property of the federal government, and residents pay no rent. They were bought for around $25,000 each, with a final cost of over $60,000 when installed. Electricity, sewer, and water connections were made, and service paid for, by FEMA. Propane, for cooking and heating, is the responsibility of the tenant. The theft of propane tanks has risen to a problematic level.

It is clear to everyone that the flimsy structure of the trailers will not withstand another hurricane, yet 14 months after Katrina, long-range rebuilding efforts are still minimal, and options for other housing in the area is nonexistent. It is unknown to everyone how long these trailer parks will house the region’s residents.

Relief has come to Plaquemines in different forms and yet none are as colorful or as inclusive as the Emergency Community initiative temporarily based in Buras.

Buras suffered the brunt of the storm. It is also the most central town in south Plaquemines. Because of these two factors, the volunteers of Emergency Communities set up there, in the shell of the former YMCA building.

Emergency Communities was started by volunteers who were associated with the Rainbow Family, an international community of people who have organized large gatherings in wilderness areas since 1969. Their experience with rural kitchens, make-shift organization, and general survival skills were well adapted to the disaster zones made by Katrina.

Emergency Communities offers a variety of services at their Buras hub. Laundry, bathing, internet access, a library of books, and alternative medical services are free and available to anyone. Most importantly, they cook and serve around 300 meals a day to anyone who stops in. Volunteers help local residents with rebuilding projects. Other activities include regular basketball games and community events with youth who live in Diamond’s FEMA Community.

Events such as halloween parties, dances, and other seasonal activities are held in the main building, on a cement floor that is covered in painted designs. Though starkly incongruous in this the deepest of the deep south, the Hippie enthusiasm and friendliness provides an upbeat energy to a largely tired, dispirited, and spent constituency.

Emergency Communities is now funded by the United Way. After their support runs out, sometime in 2006, they may move to New Orleans’ ninth ward.

The small town of Empire is located in central Plaquemines Parish, and is the site where the eye of Hurricane Katrina first struck Louisiana soil. Empire is also a hub for the petroleum industry in the region.

The Chevron oil terminal in Empire, on the eastern shore, is a tank farm that receives oil from production platforms throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Daily, the terminal can handle up to 350,000 barrels of oil, roughly 20 percent of the Gulf of Mexico’s oil production. Currently the terminal handles between 230,000 and 275,000 barrels of oil a day, about 80 percent of its capacity.

During hurricane Katrina the roof of one storage tank was torn off, and the foundation of another was damaged, causing a 1.4 million gallon oil spill (an amount equivalent to that consumed by the United Kingdom in one day). As a result, responders used a controlled burn to clean surrounding damaged areas, causing major atmospheric pollution. In total, Katrina caused at least 8 million gallons of oil to leak at a number of different facilities, making it the second largest oil spill in U.S. history, after the Exxon Valdez.

Further down river is one of the nations most important natural gas processing plants. Targa Resources gas plant, located in Venice, is a gathering station for low-pressure gas coming from rigs in the gulf. Here, gas is cleaned, dried, processed, stored, and redistributed. The plant is currently processing around 800 million cubic feet of natural gas a year, but has the capacity to process up to 1.3billion cubic feet of natural gas a year. The company claims that a quarter of all the natural gas used east of the Mississippi comes from this facility.

Like Plaquemines’ oil industry, the sport fishing industry rebounded relatively rapidly after Katrina. The center of this activity is the marina at Venice, at the end of Highway 23, the last town on the Mississippi reachable by road. Approaching the marina, some of the many boats tossed ashore by Hurricane Katrina remain scattered about. But at the marina shiny white boats now inhabit the slips left empty by boats destroyed or marooned on land. The marina is a liminal area, a departure point between land and water, industry and sport, destruction and redevelopment. It is a place where fresh water turns to salt, corporate executives become fish anglers, and tuna becomes dinner. The sport fishing industry in Venice emerged in the late eighties, when many of the major oil and gas companies that developed the marina moved west to Port Fourchon, and the commercial fishing industry dwindled due to inexpensive overseas imports. Businessman David Ballay took a risk on the remote industrial town, purchased the lease on the harbor from the parish, and opened Venice Marina in 1986. Since then, Venice Louisiana has grown to become as fabled a fishing spot as Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, Kona, Hawaii, or Islamorada, Florida. The fishermen - and women - come with dreams of catching redfish, wahoo, dolphin fish, blue marlin, yellowfin tuna among others and they descend upon Venice in swarms in the summer, from all parts of the world. The area surrounding the marina has not reflected the growth of its new industry, and suffered greatly from Katrina damage. There are very few supermarkets and restaurants to serve the visitors and the nearest accommodations are limited to the 32 on-site rental cabins. The Venice Marina fleet sends off at least a dozen charters each day with as many as 50 guided services running on the weekends. During the summer of 2006, the marina hosted over twenty tournaments, awarding the winning sportsmen prizes approaching one million dollars.
Reconstruction moves forward at the marina despite the visible remains of devastation that surround it, that serve as a partially heeded reminder of the likelihood of destructive stroms in the future. The marina, by necessity, is outside the levees, as is everything else in Plaquemines parish, south of this point.

Pilottown is the largest settlement in the birdfoot, and is only accessible by boat. Its buildings are constructed on piers in swampy ground on the east bank of the lower Mississippi River, about 10 miles south of Venice. All the buildings are connected by a raised concrete walkway that runs the length of the community, from the tank farm at the northern end, to the last cabin to the south. Beyond that, and beyond the safety of the walkway, is nearly impenetrable, alligator and snake infested marsh. Pilottown once had over 20 buildings, including houses, a weather station, ballroom, post office, school, and store. Heavily damaged by Katrina, it still serves as a home for Mississippi River pilots.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many pilots and their families lived there, and Pilottown was a weekend social center for the smaller and more remote villages and settlements in the marsh, like Burrwood. The population peaked at around 200 people, before a series of damaging hurricanes began a series of declines, especially Betsy in 1965, and Camille in 1969, after which the school was closed, and remaining students were bused to school in Venice by boat. Katrina in 2005, inflicted heavy damage on every remaining structure. Damage to the headquarters of the Associated Branch Pilots was sever enough that they have decided not to rebuild in Pilottown, and their building, one of the largest in town, will be torn down.

Despite the damage, there are a few people who remain in residence, bar pilots and construction workers. Six to eight pilots live in one of the repaired buildings on land, and on a houseboat at the dock. The houseboat is a manufactured doublewide trailer on a barge, resembling a contemporary suburban home inside.

The pilots that live here are some of the hundred or so pilots that belong to the Crescent River Pilots Association, which has jurisdiction for the river between Pilottown and New Orleans. As each foreign flagged ship over 100 tons approaches the mouth of the Mississippi river, they are met by a pilot boat from the Bar Pilots Association, which has a station down river, near the mouth. A Bar pilot boards the ship and guides the vessel over the Bar and into the river. Then, at Pilot town, a Crescent River pilot boards the ship for its journey up to mile 103, just after New Orleans. If the boat is going further upriver, then another pilot’s group takes over.

In 1996, Edna, the postmistress, retired, and the post office at Pilottown was closed. The pilots association has been able to keep their Zip Code, 70081, although it serves a mainly symbolic function now. Though it currently runs on diesel generators, new electric lines are being installed to replace those destroyed by Katrina, restoring Pilottown as the southernmost Plaquemines Parish community on the grid. Compressed, shrunken, and battered by storms, Pilottown will remain a place on the map -on the edge of the map - indefinitely.

Beyond Pilottown, is the Head of Passes, where the river splays into three main channels. To the east is Pass a Loutre, which is not maintained for navigation, but is an entry into the shallow swamps and gas wells of the Birdfoot. To the southwest is Southwest Pass, the main chipping channel, maintained to a depth of 40 feet. In between is South Pass, which once was the main shipping channel, but is now used primarily by fishing boats and supply boats heading out to the constellations of oil rigs in the Gulf.

At the end of South pass, is Port Eads, the last settlement on the river. It is named for the man who established it, and who made shipping in the Mississippi River possible, James Eads. In the 1870s, Eads brought crews of people to the end of the river to build a system of jetties over the shallow bar. Naturally, as the river slows down at the mouth, the sediment load drops, forming shallow shoals – bars – that prevent larger ships from entering the river. Eads’ plan called for a network of jetties projecting from the banks of the river, that forced the flow towards the center of the channel. This had the effect of speeding up the current, and carrying the sediment load beyond the bar, and scouring the river bottom. In just a few years after their construction, Eads system deepened the channel from 9 feet to 30 feet, and shipping on the Mississippi became a major economic force in the nation.

All the way down...

Port Eads today is a diffused wreck on the edge of the world, a river settlement that is so close to the river that it very nearly is part of the river. With the exception of the large lighthouse to the south, the settlement consists of a few houses, cabins, and docks, used by sport fishermen, including some of the more affluent members of the Parish Government, as weekend fishing retreat, and as a refuge from the open ocean. After Katrina, the marina was wrecked and abandoned. Flipped boats, half sunk barges, and strewn domestic debris dominate the scene. This is a place that is barely there.

During Katrina, two of the half dozen or so residents of Port Eads decided not to evacuate, to ride out the storm. Both of them, Wayne Scarabin, age 53, and Roy Clark, age 18, were literally blown away. Their remains have never been found. Life on the edge is tenuous.

Over a year later, a friend of theirs, Jimmy Bowana, has returned as the only resident of Port Eads. He lives amidst the wreckage, living off the land and sea, in the office of the marina where Wayne and Roy worked. Jimmy is the last man on the river.

Some out takes from our trip: