It was like watching a bunch of little people clean the world’s largest litter box, with older tarballs dry and easy to bag but recent arrivals messy and laborious.
Bill Finch had explained to me how freakish the presence of a seawater-killed cypress community was: "You'll never see a salt marsh next to bald cypress unless something's gone wrong. In Louisiana, it's gone wrong. The marsh is retreating so fast that it's being slammed into these cypress, and they're dying." Ever seen a healthy cypress swamp? Moss-draped trunks stand in a few feet of freshwater, the air thick with honeysuckle and the thrum of buzzing cicadas. Fish stir the waters, and alligator eyes poke out of it. In the ferns, tree frogs trill. It's the original Dagobah, and you wouldn't be surprised if Yoda came tottering out of his mud hut to hail you as you passed. To know a place so supple and dense with life and then witness its transition to nothing but dead trunks and salt water must be profoundly demoralizing.
But that's what has happened in Terrebonne Parish. Southern Louisiana, which sits on nothing but Mississippi River mud up to several miles deep, has always sunk, but the sediment from the flooding river, as well as storm surge from the gulf, have always replenished it, slowly building up the land. Since the last ice age, which ended 10,000 years ago, the Mississippi has extended the marshes as much as 50 miles into the gulf. The river's levee system choked that off, and 10,000 miles of canals—dug through the marshes by an oil industry in search of new reservoirs—delivered two crushing blows to the erosion-halting marsh grasses, disrupting natural water-flow patterns, which left the grass drowned or dried out for extended periods, and bringing lethal salt water in.
As we navigated our way out of a liquid labyrinth, it was not lost on me that my guide through this land of the dead was actually named Virgil. We came to a spot on the map called Lake Tambour, then to Lake Barre, then Lake Felicity, but it was all water. Chatt explained that the chart was an older one and that each "lake" had once been enclosed among bayous. Long gone.
I asked Kadoo if the population of the island was going down. "It ain't comin' up," he said. "We lose a few more every hurricane."
"You know you're going to have to leave someday," Chatt said gently.
"When I die," said Kadoo. I asked what he planned to do when the BP job ended. "Stick with this spill-response stuff," he said. "I got my training. Always be a spill somewhere."
FROM SPACE, SOUTHERN LOUISIANA looks like a bunch of tattered clothes hanging in the gulf, and the raggedy ends simply disintegrate in the rinse cycle of each hurricane. This lost land is a literal gap in national security: The natural buffering of storm surges once enjoyed by New Orleans has been severely reduced over the past century. It's the canals dredged by the oil industry that give big storms the keys to the city, making all the difference between Katrina being a nuisance and a catastrophe.
Many experts think that, at some point this century, almost everything on the Gulf Coast south of I-10 may very well have been sliced clean off the United States. (Driving from Biloxi to Houston? Enjoy those gorgeous ocean views!) That is, unless there's an energized national effort to restore the gulf. We must resist the country's tendency to write off the whole area. Make no mistake: This is no eulogy. While you were being told that the Gulf of Mexico had been fatally damaged, I was sailing through a paradise of pompano, shorebirds, and the most abundant dolphin populations I've ever seen. The gulf is not just worth saving; we must save it—especially from itself.