There should have been French-Creole farmhouses overlooking the Mississippi River, wide gallery porches under deep overhangs, rockers waiting for hot, humid summer evenings spent in society with neighbors. The yards should have been surrounded by weathered brick and iron fences and concrete statuary. There should have been Spanish moss dripping from the branches of oak trees that have stood guard for generations, and maybe a lazy coon hound scratching a cool spot in the dirt. There should have been the raw, muddy smell of the bayou, decay hidden under the slow-crawling salt water, catfish and crawdads tangled with Cypress trees and knees, waiting for anybody with intention to bring them in and cook them up. I expected the unsettling feeling of being on a road that extended through the marshlands of Louisiana into the unprotected Gulf of Mexico, sight unimpeded for miles, the water lapping at the shoulders as it does during king tides in places at the fringe of habitable land. I was naive.
Randomly, I chose a spot on the Five Star Louisiana Road map (“A Traveler’s Best Friend”). “Bohemia! That sounds like a place I want to visit!” I declared. I punched the location into my Samsung GPS, and along with my companion and the beige four-door rental car, left our hotel in New Orleans’ French Quarter, crossed the Mississippi River on the steepest bridge I’d driven, and headed south on Hwy 39 for our first sojourn into southern Louisiana. Thus, began our odyssey.
As we drove through towns and parishes whose names were eerily familiar, Lower Ninth Ward, St. Bernard, Plaquemines, I could still hear the baritone Louisiana accent of U.S. Army Lt. General Honoré, barking rescue and recovery commands to the joint military task force. In the aftermath of catastrophic levee failures, caused by the apocalyptic thirty-foot storm surge wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Honoré was the three-star general called in to bring order to the chaos and was widely praised on TV news coverage. Now, driving through the area in 2018, where once there had been thriving communities, we saw windows yet boarded over in plywood. Grass lots, where nothing was left but the concrete foundations, were oddly mown and tidy like any Saturday afternoon in suburban America. Electricity was scarce. Many of these properties had been inherited through several generations. Deeds, along with all other legal papers, were buried under mud, and without such documents, insurance companies refused to pay for reconstruction. Through some crazy fluke, construction contractors bulldozed homes and carted away the wreckage, leaving drop-jawed homeowners no chance for a fair restitution. Though accusations have been made that city officials are encouraging wealthy corporations to buy up the parcels, and gentrify the area into a resort vacation mecca, the government seems to have decided that this area is not valuable enough to breathe life back into it. According to every major research paper published for the last few years by scientific, government, and private organizations, all of Louisiana from south of Baton Rouge will be underwater from sea-level rise within thirty years. Thirteen years after Katrina, the high-water mark staining the dirty, block exterior walls of the gas station remains, twelve feet up, a silent reminder to be ever vigilant. This area will flood again.
Separating the protected from the unprotected, the irreplaceable from the replaceable, in addition to its 192 miles of newly reinforced levees, southern Louisiana has ninety-nine miles of science-fiction-like, War of the Worlds, thick concrete flood walls up to thirty-two feet high. Passing through a gargantuan gate, we followed the road, bisecting one of these engineering triumphs. When severe storms create an expectation of ocean surge, radio transmissions warn the folks who live in the delta that the gates will soon close. After that, anyone left outside is given over to the forces of nature. The people living in the delta accept this fact of life. We were grateful for a sunny day.
Journeying farther into the delta, we left the concrete walls behind, picking our way through one stop-light towns. We slowly rounded an oak tree, crossed the hump of a railroad track, and found ourselves facing the broad side of a twenty-foot-high earthen levee. The road doglegged sharply left and began following the meandering Mississippi River, keeping the levee always to our right between us and the water. To our left the homes no longer had the distinctive French-Creole flair, but were uninteresting, prefabricated homes, and large shoe-box mobile homes, supported on piers to keep their floors dry out of future flood waters. As we drove on, these piers inched higher and higher, until the flights of the front steps were freakishly out of proportion to the homes themselves, sometimes turning with a switchback like a hiking trail ascending a mountain. It seems the insurance companies offer coverage in an amount directly related to the height of the piers on which a house rests. Many of the homeowners have built wrap-around decks, and I did see a rocker or two. Relaxing in those rockers, a caller’s only view would be the ever-present levee separating them from the powerful river. I saw no hounds.
We briefly stopped at a viewing area over the Bayou Bienvenue. Visitors’ plaques, like grave markers, displayed pictures of the former glory of the bayou, dense with ancient cypress trees, and bountiful with animals. When the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal was built to provide a shorter route between the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans’ inner harbor Industrial Canal, salt water funneled directly into the bayou from the Gulf and killed everything. What was before us was open water—no cypress, no oaks, no trees at all. There were no great blue herons, no osprey, no bald eagles. There were no crawfish. For the people who lived here there was no more hunting—no mink, no otter, no sable, no nutria. Well, at least the fishing was still exceptional!
Slowly, we pressed toward our destination. The road narrowed and veered slightly away from the river. A hedgerow of cane, shrub, and tupelo banked a creek that now flowed between us and the levee. We passed under shiny new industrial pipes, rising up like cobras, crossing overhead to enter a secretive, shiny, unmarked industrial building. The earth was bermed on this side as well. Our impeded vision disoriented us like a child spun around, playing blind man’s bluff.
My GPS said, “Turn right on Tabony Lane.” Locating the road marker, I turned onto a little lane that took us across the creek on a small asphalt bridge with concrete guard rails. Suddenly, I saw the edge of the bridge and it was not connected to the road! I stomped on the brakes! They locked and the tires screamed, but it was too late! The front wheels dropped, and the undercarriage slammed, catching the ragged asphalt, bringing us to a jolting halt! My heart jumped from my chest and my friend’s eyes bulged out of his face like basketballs! We stared at each other, afraid to move, the front end of the car tilted down, and suspended in space! Subsidence. The land is sinking in and around New Orleans. Canals built by oil and gas companies through the marshes and swamps allow rapid water movement, draining the vegetation, causing it to compact, resulting in land sink. When our pounding hearts slowed, my friend gingerly stepped from the car to assess the situation. He could see that the road had dropped about three feet, but determined that if I hit the gas, the back tires, which were still in contact with the bridge, would push the car onto the road in front of us. Securely buckled in, I stepped on the gas pedal. The car whumped off the bridge and landed on the road. Laughing and relieved, we continued our journey, leaving the torn, saw-toothed edge of the bridge in the rear-view mirror. Hopefully, there would be another road out!
Within a few hundred yards, we came to a T-intersection, and again faced the tall, forbidding earthen levee. The lady on my phone said to turn left onto Hwy 15. Driving very slowly now, I was suspicious of where Hwy 15 might lead. Was this even a highway? The narrow, single-lane road, obviously rarely traveled, had grass and weeds encroaching the pavement from the shoulders. Right away the GPS lady said, “In 300 feet, turn left onto Bethlehem Lane.” I slowed even more, but all I saw on the left was an old, overgrown, broken asphalt driveway. I wondered if GPS might be a little off, perhaps because we were so far from a town, so we searched on. Immediately Hwy 15 changed into a one-lane gravel road, and the levee to my right rose taller, pushing the road, leaving no choice but to curve left around a horseshoe that connected back to Hwy 39. We had come to the end of the finger of land. There was no unimpeded view of water. The Gulf of Mexico loomed somewhere on the other side of that levee.
I stopped and put the car in reverse, backed up to the driveway that was apparently Bethlehem Lane, and pulled in. Stunned, we got out of the car and walked through the glade of grass and weeds, and the canopy of leafy oaks. Horticulturists in the greater New Orleans area were astonished by the amount of flora that regenerated after standing in Katrina’s salt water for weeks. Even Spanish moss, a parasite, a beautiful usurper, returned. All magnolias died, but oak trees, though now gnarled and stunted, survived because their roots push deep, giving them the strength to withstand Category-five hurricane winds and saltwater inundation. We found a lamppost with wires poking out like hairs from an old man’s nose, a few concrete foundations with defeated lag bolts, bent and rusted, and one utility pole, a beleaguered soldier, wrapped in green moss. What had been a community of 200 residents before the hurricane, was a haunted, almost inaccessible spot at the end of a finger of the Mississippi Delta. Bohemia was gone! Not ravaged, not rubble, but completely wiped off the face of the earth! We wondered who had lived in Bohemia? Did they try to make it out before the gates closed? Who died here? We reverently took a few pictures, then headed back up Hwy 15 toward New Orleans.
As we drove home, we realized we were famished. Looking for a place to eat, we saw several trucks parked at a weathered, mud-colored, roadside restaurant. The sign by the stained concrete parking lot claimed, “A Cajun Creole Experience,” and “Celebrating 35 years of great food.” Charlie’s looked like a good bet. (Little did we know, Charlie’s is well known in the greater New Orleans area, and we had stumbled onto the tastiest catfish meal of our entire visit.) Like always, we sat at the bar so we could chat with the bartender. Joshua, a young artist, grew up in St. Charles Parish, New Orleans, “by the spillway.” (The Bonnet Carre Spillway is a canal opened to divert water into Lake Ponchartrain during episodes of extreme flooding). He was attending university in New Orleans when the horrendous Hurricane Katrina hit. We asked him questions about his awareness of climate change, the worsening storms and sea-level rise. He told us the spillway is evidence to him that the weather is changing, and the water is rising. Completed in 1931, it was only necessary to open the spillway three times over the next forty years, but the forty-five years after that, the spillway was opened nine times. (It additionally was opened twice in 2019.) No doubt, southern Louisiana is scarred and struggling. A young, educated man with his life ahead of him, I thought our bartender must dream of moving to a dryer city with a more promising future, maybe Atlanta, or Dallas. I asked him about his plans. Vehemently, he replied, “I’ll rebuild a hundred times before I’ll ever move away.” Sadly, he is destined to lose his determination under the waves of the Gulf of Mexico.